“I miss Gareth Bale – I’d much rather have him with us.”
Those were the words of Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane ahead of his side’s unconvincing 3-2 win over struggling Málaga at the Bernabéu on Saturday.
Bale’s unpopularity among the Real Madrid support is well documented, but Zidane has always been vocal about the importance of the Welshman to his side. Given Real Madrid’s difficult start to the season, which has seen them fall eight points behind leaders Barcelona, even Bale’s harshest critics must concede that it would have been useful to have him around.
It is not necessarily Bale’s individual brilliance that has been missed during his two-month injury layoff, but more the balance he brings to the side. In his absence, Zidane has switched from his preferred 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2, with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo up front and Isco in the attacking midfield role.
This system doesn’t really suit anyone, not least Benzema and Ronaldo. Isco has been playing too deep lately to be able to provide any sort of effective service to the front two, and the midfield in general has been sloppy, turning the ball over with alarming regularity.
The absence of any incision in the middle of the park means Madrid have defaulted to pushing the ball wide, and the main supply line to the strikers has come from crosses into the box. This makes them much more predictable in attack, and far easier for the opposition to contain.
It has also made their strikers much less productive. Against Málaga on Saturday, Benzema and Ronaldo scored only their second league goals of the season so far – Benzema’s a header from two yards into an open goal, and Ronaldo’s a rebound from his saved penalty. It surely can’t be a coincidence that two previously prolific strikers are now struggling for goals following this change in system.
Zidane’s tendency to default to 4-4-2 when one of Bale, Benzema or Ronaldo is missing could be down to a paucity of alternative striking options, and it seems as though he would rather persevere with a system that isn’t working than deploy back-up striker Borja Mayoral in attack.
Unfortunately, Zidane hasn’t had each member of his preferred attacking trident all available at the same time at any point this season. But the good news is that Bale is now fit again, and Zidane has admitted that he can’t wait to see Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema all playing together for the first time in months.
This suggests he will now revert to the 4-3-3 that served him so well in his first 18 months in charge, a system that made his side so fluid and direct, gave them such variation in attack and made it so hard for opposition defences to cope.
Bale made his long-awaited return on Tuesday night in the 2-2 Copa del Rey draw with minnows Fuenlabrada, replacing Argentinian youngster Franchu in the second half. His impact was immediate, setting up Mayoral with his first touch of the game, an exquisite pass with the outside of his boot. He also had a hand in Madrid’s second goal, and was impressive throughout his half-hour cameo in his first Copa del Rey game since January 2015.
As ever with Bale, the worry is that another injury setback is not far away. Saturday’s game at Athletic Club may come too soon for him, and Zidane will surely be keen to ease him back into the starting line-up slowly to reduce the risk of another injury.
But his return could be a pivotal moment in Real Madrid’s season. It will enable Zidane to change back to his tried and trusted system, and this switch in set-up might just provide the spark Los Blancos need to jolt their season into life.