Real Madrid defeated Real Betis 1-0 on LaLiga’s Matchday 3 by the skin of their teeth, and while they will be more than happy to take away the full three points from Manuel Pellegrini’s side at the raucous Benito Villamarin, Madridistas may have been concerned by how the attack performed on Saturday night.
Out of the starters up front, Gareth Bale had, by far, the quietest day. Whereas Vinicius Junior wreaked havoc with seven dribbles completed and three fouls drawn, per WhoScored.com, and Karim Benzema rose to the occasion with a game-winning assist, Bale had just one dribble completed and one key pass in a match without a single shot on target. That last part, for him, was probably the most frustrating aspect of the night, because he is there to provide a goal-scoring threat down the right.
Bale only had one real chance to latch onto a through ball slipped into the box, and he was just unable to reach it ahead of an active Rui Silva and the Betis defense. Although Bale is not what he once was in terms of pace and activity, tired legs were not actually the primary reason for his off night at the Benito Villamarin.
More than any other player on the pitch, Bale missed having both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos available. And for two distinct reasons. Anyone on Real Madrid will miss having either of these two stalwarts in midfield – let alone both at the same time – but Bale, specifically, suffered the most due to his playing style.
Gareth Bale needs Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to be at his best for Real Madrid
Let’s start with Modric. The experienced Croatian maestro is still one of the best box-to-box midfielders there is. His dribbling ability, ball-carrying, vision, and technical quality are all top-notch. So not only did Bale miss out on his passing from that right-hand side, but he also missed out on his ability to carry the ball into the final third and bamboozle defenders. Bale can make more effective runs and receive the ball in the box when a player like Modric is in the lineup, and he can be more of a goal-scoring presence who roams inside.
A lot of Madridistas on social media noted how Bale made off-the-ball runs that were not spotted by players. Some of these runs would have been very difficult to meet with a lofted pass. Toni Kroos, however, makes these kinds of passes look routine, as nobody on this planet can touch his accuracy in these situations, nor can they match his timing and decision-making.
Kroos can pick out Bale from the other side of the field with accuracy and get the timing of the pass spot-on. He can even make it so that Bale is able to take the right touch to set up a shot, as Kroos is a chess grandmaster who thinks that far ahead for the receiver of his exquisite passes.
Therefore, Bale was in a tough position against Real Betis. Isco was on the opposite side of the field and is more of a player who dribbles and slides passes through than calmly orchestrates and lofts over the top. That didn’t suit Bale on the right. Fede Valverde is more of a transition ball-carrier and defensive presence than a player like Modric who navigates tight spaces and playmakes.
Finally, when Modric and Kroos are out, Real cannot control the pitch as well and cannot maintain possession. This means they must run more, which will cause Bale to have to defend deeper and cover more ground. Since he is a muscular player who relies on sprinting and running off the ball to create his chances (and his energy isn’t what it once was, of course), he will tire out more quickly than other players. That is another factor that likely affected Bale negatively in this match.
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All of this is to say that Real Madrid fans can evaluate Gareth Bale more effectively when Kroos and Modric are available. His instincts and more goal-centric playing style in 2021 are actually well-suited for Los Blancos when these two midfield titans are available. It can come together with Bale. The Betis match just was never going to be his night, taking into account the way the game flowed and how the midfield was unable to support the way Bale now plays.