Sunday's 'El Clasico' saw stellar performances from four of the so-called 'big five'. Over 90,000 fans inside the Camp Nou witnessed a threatening Messi, a match-winning Suarez, a lively Neymar and a goal-scoring Ronaldo. However, the one stellar performance that was missing was that of a subdued Gareth Bale, whose struggles this season show no signs of holding up.
The frustration and anger of Real Madrid fans towards Bale after his lacklustre performance against Barcelona is there for everyone to see. During a poll this week in Spanish paper AS, almost 70% of Madrid supporters want Bale dropped from the team after the international break due to his poor form. And the stats from 'El Clasico' do more to endorse than challenge their view.
During the second half, Bale only completed 7 passes, compared to Xavi, who completed 15 in the last 10 minutes that he was on the field. Not only that, but Bale failed to complete a cross or a shot on target in the second-half after his first-half effort was chalked off for offside. If that was not enough, Bale touched the ball only 13 times, with zero of them being in the Barcelona penalty area.
It would be easy to say that Bale's performance on Sunday was a one-off, but the truth is that his poor form has carried on for far too long.
Now, Bale's conviction as to weather to shoot or cross to the main man at Real Madrid is being questioned.
"I don't know if he's trying to overcompensate but when you play with a big man like Cristiano Ronaldo, we've all been in that position where you have to feed the guy of the team," said Thierry Henry who, like many others is unsure on how positive an impact Ronaldo's presence is having on Bale. "I had to do it with Sonny Anderson (at Monaco) and he was letting me know when I wasn't giving him the ball."
"He's looking to assist Cristiano Ronaldo and he did the same thing against Deportivo the other day. He looked like he was making sure he wanted to give a goal to someone, maybe to stop people talking. We've all had to feed the man but you have to find the right balance there - to not upset him sometimes but also to play your game."
It is this sort of indecisiveness that has contributed to Bale's slump in form. A double against Levante in La Liga were his first goals in over 10 hours of football, his worst run in over four years. It has prompted anger from the fans, who expect much more from the £85.6 million world record signing.
Yet Bale refuses to be cowed. "I haven't really adapted my style of play," he claimed after Real's first-leg win against Champions League opponents Schalke last month. "In certain games, if a sight of goal has opened up I'll take it."
It is fair to say that Bale has had a season of two halves so far. Before Real's damaging 4-0 loss to rivals Atlético Madrid in early February, the 25 year-old scored 12 goals with 6 assists. Compare that with after that defeat, just 2 goals and zero assists, and you can see that the attacking threat that made him such a menace in the past couple of seasons, is now lacking.
Perhaps it is Bale's sudden lack of desire to shoot that is the problem. During his successful period before the Atlético loss, Bale averaged a shot every 22 minutes. Yet after that game, he has only managed a shot every 60 minutes, therefore emphasising the Welshman's current state of limbo.
During Bale's debut season at the Bernabeu, he averaged a shot every 24 minutes - a stat only bettered by Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. This would explain why he scored 22 goals in 43 games last season. Bale seemed to have more cohesion and fluency in his game, resulting in success in front of goal, as well his impressive composure, as seen when he slotted home the winning goal in the 2013/14 Champions League final in Lisbon.
So how can Bale rediscover his scintillating old form?
After Bale's recent brace against Levante, manager Carlo Ancelotti claimed he saw 'a more motivated Bale'. Maybe motivation has been Bale's missing link.
Stats show that he has been dribbled past almost three times as often this season compared to last. Spanish football expert Graham Hunter notices that Bale's work-rate has been suffering of late. "Where I think criticism has become justified is that his work level was not as hard as the Spurs fans will have remembered, and not as hard as last season," Hunter told Sky Sports.
"Last season, Bale was tracking back, making four men in midfield, winning more challenges and this season there has been a decline in the amount of 'blue collar' tracking and tackling he does. When the rest of the team is low on confidence and a few key players are missing, that doesn’t go unnoticed."
If it is motivation and work-rate then that can be easily rectified. Yet with Real four points off La Liga leaders Barcelona going into the international break, as well as being drawn a tough Champions League quarter-final against Atlético, 'Los Blancos' season may well depend on Gareth Bale returning to form.
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