“Why should we take any notice of irrelevant comments from people who don’t know what they are talking about and people who failed in management?”
That was agent Jonathan Barnett’s response to former Manchester United great and quasi-manager Roy Keane saying that Real Madrid “played with 10 men” against Juventus in first leg of the Champions League semifinal. The absent man Keane was referring to was Barnett’s client, Gareth Bale.
“Gareth Bale gave them absolutely nothing,” Keane continued. “He took the easy option every time.”
Ever since Bale arrived in Madrid, in 2013 — as the world’s most or second most expensive player, depending on who you listen to — Bale has been visibly uncomfortable. He’s said all the right things every step of the way, but his comments have always been timid, slightly unsure and unassuming — adjectives that seamlessly align with both Keane’s comments and much of Bale’s play at Madrid.
On the day the Welshman was unveiled at the Bernabéu, Bale confessed to reporters, “It was a very surreal situation and I was very nervous.” He added, “I don’t know if you could tell.”
We could, but the nerves were understandable. Anyone would be nervous about joining the madridista circus, with its dedicated newspapers and TV channel and countless eyeballs watching its every move. That’s no world for the bashful. And Bale is notably shy, and has been so since the days before he got on the Cristiano Ronaldo “let’s get me some muscles” training regiment.
In his second season at Madrid, not much has changed. Sure, Bale has produced wonderful moments. He’s been electric at times. He’s showed elements of why any team in the world would be lucky to host him in its starting XI. But something is off at this club in particular.
For some time I’ve been saying that the dynamic between Bale and the man his club is built around, underwear model and savior of children Cristiano Ronaldo, is almost identical to the dynamic that existed between Thierry Henry and José Antonio Reyes at Arsenal in the early-to-mid-2000s.
Henry was undeniably the guy on an incredibly talented Arsenal team. Reyes, who joined Arsenal in 2003, unable to speak English, was a talented, technical, and at times frustrating player who always seemed terrified of the team’s superstar. Not all the superstars — not captain Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès — Henry specifically. He could barely look him in the eyes. A misplaced pass to Henry was often met with an Henry scowl. Not one of the temperamental Henry’s regular scowls. A special one, seemingly designed just to melt Reyes. When Reyes missed one of Henry’s runs? Scowl. Poor marking? Scowl. A Henry goal? Reyes often approached the celebration like he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although Reyes’s performance, to a layperson, probably looked reasonable, his body language told a different story. He looked petrified of Henry. Some might attribute that to an incident back in October 2004, when Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonés called Henry a “black shit” while trying to motivate Reyes during a national team training session:
Tell that negro de mierda [black shit] that you are much better than him. Don’t hold back, tell him. Tell him from me. You have to believe in yourself, you’re better than that negro de mierda .
A reasonable interpretation of Reyes’s obvious discomfort around Henry was that is was because of that interaction with Aragonés. The math would go something like:
Math: Guy calls me a “black shit” + You don’t slap him in the face = You’re dead to me
But Aragonés’ comment suggests something else that could influence a relationship with an alpha megastar: recognition of a complete lack of confidence, an inherent weakness in the former Sevilla player. Read Aragonés’ quote again. Sure, it’s terrible, but it isn’t even about Henry, really; it’s about Reyes and his utter lack of self-belief.
Reyes’s lack of belief, despite playing for Arsenal and the Spanish national team, was evident. The odor emanated from his pores, from his body language. He was always slumping, slouching, apologizing, seeking approval. A player like Henry has no time for such weakness.
Bale’s agent, Barnett, made this parallel between Henry-Reyes and Ronaldo-Bale, that much clearer when he spoke to Telegraph Sport yesterday. After UEFA released statistics showing Bale covered more ground than any other Madrid player, and touched the ball the fewest times, in the loss to Juventus, he elaborated on what he perceived as unfair criticism of his client:
We’ve been vindicated by these statistics and it’s what we’ve been saying all along. It proves that people don’t know what they’re talking about when they criticize Gareth, they are not looking at it properly.
Real have to work with Gareth and pass the ball to him more. Give him more of the ball and let him show everybody what he’s good at. He’s going to be the best player at Real Madrid when his team-mates work with him and help him. Hopefully Real will come to terms with this.
I’m very upset that professional pundits don’t realize these facts. Instead of criticizing, they should look at it more closely because it’s plain to see when you watch the games.
Barnett’s rebuttal may seem like a reasonable conclusion to draw from UEFA’s data, but it isn’t the only possible conclusion, and it definitely isn’t the only thing plain to see when you watch the games. Yes, Bale will have more opportunities to do things with the ball if he has the ball, just like Ángel di María would have a greater chance of winning the Ballon d’Or if he actually plays soccer regularly. But why Bale’s teammates don’t pass him the ball is an equally interesting avenue worth exploring.
To answer the “why,” just watch Madrid when Ronaldo and Bale are on the field at the same time. Watch Bale as he makes an errant pass to Ronaldo. Equally tellingly, watch Ronaldo’s reaction. Watch both of them react when Bale misses Cristiano’s runs. Watch when Ronaldo scores. Watch how Ronaldo celebrates with his other teammates — with Sergio Ramos, or Marcelo, or Karim Benzema — and then watch the interaction with Bale. Watch how Bale approaches Ronaldo. It’s very José Antonio Reyes. It’s sad, but it’s all there if you’re watching closely.
My theory is simple: Gareth Bale is uncomfortable at Madrid. He knows it, his teammates know it, and Cristiano Ronaldo definitely knows it. For whatever reason, Ronaldo isn’t feeling Bale; he’s just not into it. And when you couple that with Bale’s notorious un-alphaness and his lack of relative confidence (in comparison to the confidence a player of his stature theoretically should have), you have the explanation of why no one passes the ball to Bale: He just doesn’t belong in this Madrid team.
Things could improve, but that’s probably not going to happen until Ronaldo leaves for MLS, or Bale ends up packing his bags for the English-speaking world. That’s not to suggest that Bale can’t have a very solid career in Madrid, but this Madrid team isn’t structured to get the best out of a character like Bale. At least that’s my unprofessional opinion.