After his record breaking move from Tottenham, Gareth Bale was an immediate success at Real Madrid, completing 'La Decima' and scoring the decisive goal in the UEFA Champions League final and the Copa Del Rey final.
After an exceptional debut season, scoring 22 goals and providing 18 assists in 44 appearances (in all competitions), everyone fully expected the Welshman to push on and become one of the worlds best. What followed was an incredibly dramatic loss of form and, more worryingly, confidence. Last year the Welshman was regularly booed by the Madrid faithful, constantly criticised by the Spanish media and was regularly the victim of media campaigns to drop the Welsh forward.
Bale under-performed and so did the team, unable to win a single trophy. So with Benitez now at the helm, the question is, how does he get the best out of Gareth Bale?
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In the last two seasons, the 26 year old has predominantly found himself on the right side of a front three in an attacking 4-3-3 system or in an expansive 4-4-2.
It was an incredibly fluid system where Ronaldo, Benzema and himself were allowed freedom to roam around and swap positions, leaving the midfield to sort out the defensive responsibilities. This was both a blessing and a curse for Bale. When things were going well in his first season, he was praised for his performances going forward but last season, when things weren't going so well, he was heavily criticised for not tracking back.
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In Bale's final season at Spurs, he was given a free role just behind the centre forward, able to roam and find pockets of space in which he could be most effective. It was in this role where he caught the eye of Florentino Perez, scoring 26 goals in 44 appearances and providing 15 assists.
Rafa Benitez made a big statement by employing Bale as a number 10 in the first game of the season against Sporting Gijon, setting up the team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Although they drew the game 0-0, the Welshman created three chances for his teammates, completed 83% of his take ons and looked dangerous throughout. Real Madrid dominated and should have won comfortably. Although he wasn't back to his absolute best, Bale performed better than most on the day.
However, the problem with this system is that the team then has effectively four forward players with total creative freedom, leaving the midfield seriously overworked. It will work against smaller teams but in games against the top six La Liga sides and European adventures, teams will be able to rip them to shreds on the counter attack. Rafa Benitez will have to restrict the fluidity and make it more structured, but due to the expectations at the Bernabeu, neither the Spanish press or the Madrid fans will allow that.
There's no doubt that Bale is most effective playing in a number 10 position, just behind the central striker, but with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo in the team, will he be allowed the creative licence he so badly needs? One thing is for sure, it's a major conundrum for Rafa Benitez and its undoubtably one the most difficult and important challenges of his managerial career.
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