Zinedine Zidane’s shock return to take charge of Real Madrid has cast major doubt over the future of Gareth Bale.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at the Wales international’s prospects.
Why is Zidane back?
Real reappointed Zidane as head coach until June 2022 on Monday after bringing Santiago Solari’s time at the helm to an end. Zidane stepped down at the end of last season after guiding Real to three consecutive Champions League titles and was replaced by Julen Lopetegui.
The former Spain manager’s ill-fated spell lasted until just October and Solari was brought in to replace him. But after a string of poor results, including back-to-back defeats to rivals Barcelona and a Champions League exit at the hands of Ajax, Real have turned to Zidane once more.
So what’s the issue?
It is no secret that Zidane and Bale did not exactly see eye to eye towards the end of the Frenchman’s previous spell in charge. In fact, Bale revealed after his two goals in last season’s Champions League final triumph over Liverpool that Zidane did not even speak to him about it.
Bale only started that match on the bench and was frequently left out of the starting line-up by Zidane, who reportedly wanted to sell the one-time world’s most expensive footballer. There is a distinct feeling now that Bale’s time in the Spanish capital could be up.
Where could he go?
Therein lies the problem. Bale’s sky-high wages, said to be around £650,000-a-week, price virtually every other club in the world out of the market, while his injury record and the fact he is now 29 hardly make him an appealing commodity.
Certainly Real would need to supplement some of Bale’s salary to get rid, but links with former club Tottenham are unfounded as he does not fit Mauricio Pochettino’s style of play and Chelsea’s transfer ban rules out a swap deal with top target Eden Hazard.
Manchester City, Manchester United or Inter Milan might be viable options, but they may not be willing to take such an expensive risk.
What do the fans think?
Bale has been jeered by the hard-to-please fans at the Bernabeu recently, seemingly made a scapegoat for the club’s struggles.
The former Southampton youngster has been portrayed as a character aloof from his team-mates by an increasingly vindictive Spanish media, having apparently failed to learn to speak the language, and as someone who is more interested in playing golf – as an ill-timed tweet as the news was breaking about Zidane’s return would suggest.
Does he want to leave?
In short, no. Bale has always insisted he is happy in Madrid despite persistent links with a return to the Premier League, and from a lifestyle point of view it is hard to blame him. Whether the change of management results in a change of heart remains to be seen.
So, what next?
That, it seems, depends on Bale himself. There is always a chance he could win Zidane over, of course, while he would be perfectly entitled to sit back and count his money until his contract expires in 2022.
But, given his undoubted talent, that would be a huge waste. Bale is arguably the most successful British football export in history, scoring 101 goals in 223 appearances and winning 13 major honours including four Champions League titles.
Swapping Madrid for Manchester or Milan might just reignite the spark.
In just seven days, Real Madrid watched their entire season crumble. To make matters worse, eternal rivals Barcelona were responsible for a large portion of their demolition.
The Catalan giants defeated Los Blancos 3-0 and 1-0 to eliminate them from the Copa del Rey and then La Liga’s title race. Ajax ensured their entire foundation was ripped out by collapsing their campaign with a damaging defeat in the Champions League.
With the clear end of an era, we examine the data in league matches only to try and discover the reasons for their demise.
NO RONALDO, NO PARTY
It’s been said already but requires repeating. While Cristiano Ronaldo endured a massive slump at the beginning of last season, and most of his goals in the second half of the campaign arrived from within a few yards of goals, his influence was undeniable.
Opting against signing a replacement after his departure to Juventus has backfired massively on Madrid because even when he was not at his best, the Portuguese superstar was still a tier above Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale when it came to finishing.
The decline in average goals Madrid score every game was set back in the 2014/15 season. But the rate at which the numbers drop off this season is seriously alarming, as seen from the graph. Los Blancos are unable to score even two goals a game this season.
xG (Expected goals) give us a measure of the quality of the chance as and when a player takes a shot. Naturally, the ratio of G/xG (goals over expected goals) should quantify how clinical the attackers have been in front of goal.
Clearly, even with reference to the quality of the chances, the attackers have performed poorly this season. Yet again, the decline was in the 2014/15 season but the rate at which the strikers are losing their efficiency has increased in the last two seasons.
This again points to the absence of Ronaldo who would at least bury simple chances – something Benzema, Bale and Vinicius Junior have struggled to replicate.
Real president Florentino Perez naively believed the team had the quality to fill in the gap of their record goalscorer. It’s simply not been the case as the numbers show.
DECLINE OF KROOS AND MODRIC
The striker-slander aside, we then move to check if they are serviced well by the midfield. We inspect the xA90 (Expected assists per 90 minutes) of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and find that both players are having one of their worst seasons ever. Statistically, this is their lowest point in the last four years.
XA90 gives us a good measure of the quality of the chances the player has produced. Clearly, the creativity of both the players have taken a hit this season.
Kroos recorded one of his best returns two years ago when he managed to have most of his key-passes converted and created 12 assists in 29 games. This season, the German has registered just two assists over 19 appearances.
One could say that the strikers are not doing justice to the chances he has created, but the rapid decline in his xA90 numbers points to the fact that Kroos has not been creating a lot of clear goal-scoring chances himself, this season.
His Croatian partner in midfield has not done a lot of good to his reputation either and the scrutiny of Modric’s numbers will be harsher, given he’s the current holder of the Ballon d’Or.
The quality of the chances produced by Modric is again questionable, but he has done better than Kroos in this department. It’s also worth noting that he has been seriously overworked this season. The World Cup finalist made 26 appearances last season and he’s just one short of that number now with two months of football left to play.
xG/Game (Expected goals per game) is another statistic that has perfectly captured both the decline of the midfielders and the inability of the attackers to get into the right positions.
Since xG gives a measure of the quality of chances keeping in mind the spatial orientation of the players, the decline in the numbers shows that Benzema, Bale and Vinicius are just not as instinctive as Ronaldo when it comes to getting into the right places.
DEFENCE IS A TOTAL SHAMBLES
Stating the obvious? The obvious has been understated. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane are popularly considered two of the best centre-backs in the world and that has simply not been the case for the last two seasons.
Simple starts first, Madrid have conceded goals at an alarming rate of almost 1.2 goals per game this season, their worst ever in the last five years.
It’d true that the goalkeeper deserves a chunk of the blame and it’s clear that Thibaut Courtois has had a poor debut season at Madrid.
However, the xGA per game (Expected goals against per game) – which measures the quality of the chances handed to the opponents – shows that the defenders have been the primary culprit.
A high xGA means that the quality of the chances the opponents have enjoyed is high. The fact that this is Madrid’s highest xGA in the last five years points to the fact that the defenders are allowing the opposition to get into the right areas more often than ever.
Madrid is currently a concatenation of a fragile defence, stagnant midfield and a toothless attack. They need a massive squad overhaul in order to prevent a crisis – if they are not in one already.
Data taken from understat.com, updated until Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona
Sitting alongside a shell-shocked Florentino Perez in May last year, Zidane said Madrid would have problems if he stayed. However, they’ve had problems without him too and now he has returned to fix them.
Winner of three consecutive Champions League titles, Zidane’s exit seemed perfectly timed, even more so given what came next.
Julen Lopetegui was fired after three months and Santiago Solari’s team self-combusted in six days, as defeats to Barcelona, twice, and Ajax rendered their season dead before the middle of March.
Zidane and Jose Mourinho were touted as the preferred options, but most likely in the summer, when freshness and signings might launch a new era from a firmer footing.
Instead, Zidane has been persuaded not only to return, but to do so immediately. He takes over a team with almost nothing to play for in La Liga, 12 points adrift of leaders Barcelona and 10 ahead of Alaves in fifth.
Perhaps in this middle-ground, with pressure neither from above or below, Zidane sees an opportunity to begin the reform. Or perhaps, after nine months away, he was simply unable to resist.
His reunion with the players will almost certainly do wonders for morale. Zidane was popular with almost all of them, save Gareth Bale, whose future at Real Madrid now appears in serious doubt.
Few coaches can rival the trophy haul of this current Madrid squad and perhaps, for Lopetegui and Solari, that was part of the problem.
“He’s one of the greatest people we’ve ever had at this club,” Solari said, at his first press conference in November. “All the adjectives in the world are not good enough to describe Zidane. He’s calm, a great coach, and nobody can compare to him.”
Zidane remains one of the game’s all-time great players, his blend of sublime skill wrapped up in a muscular frame driving France to victory in the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
He came back for them too, returning one year after announcing his international retirement in 2004 and leading France to the 2006 World Cup final, when he was sent off for headbutting the Italian defender Marco Materazzi.
Yet in terms of individual brilliance, his best moment came in a Real Madrid shirt, his winning goal in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen arguably the greatest ever in a European final, perhaps only bettered, ironically, by Bale’s last year.
Affectionately known as “Zizou” in France, he was named World Player of the Year in 1998, 2000 and 2003 in a career that began in France with Cannes and Bordeaux before he moved into the big time with Juventus, where he stayed five years before joining Real in 2001.
May’s third straight Champions League triumph came at the end of less than three full seasons in charge and after he was promoted from his position as coach of Real’s youth team.
“You can’t help but admire what he has done,” France manager Didier Deschamps, who won the World Cup as a player alongside Zidane in 1998, told France’s TF1 after they beat Liverpool in Kiev.
“Already as a player he was extraordinary. He’s had a second life as a coach and he is now an extraordinary coach.”
It is widely expected that one day Zidane will manage France himself, while a return to Juventus, not Madrid, was considered his most likely next move in club football.
After replacing Rafael Benitez in the Santiago Bernabeu dugout in January 2016, Zidane won nine trophies, which amounted to an average of one every 16 games that he was in charge.
It is why Madrid so wanted him back. “I am not the best coach tactically, but I have other things,” Zidane said, before last year’s final in Kiev. “I know very well how the dressing room and a player’s head works, and that for me is very important.”