Yes, it was only Sheffield United. Bedraggled, relegated Sheffield United, with one of the lowest points tallies in Premier League. Yes, it came when the pressure was off, when Tottenham’s fate was out of their hands, their chances of Champions League qualification reliant on others slipping up.
And yet Gareth Bale’s hat-trick on Sunday and the manner of three superbly-taken goals underlined what a missed opportunity this season has been, for him and Tottenham alike. It represented another indictment of Jose Mourinho, whose mishandling and marginalisation of Bale seems to have achieved still less.
Bale could soon become the first player to score more league goals for Ryan Mason, the rookie caretaker whose reign has only spanned two top-flight games, than Mourinho. He tops a table: by averaging a league goal every 81 minutes, no one in the division with as many or more has scored them so quickly. And yet he has only played 727 of Tottenham’s 3,060 minutes. That bit-part role in part reflects the fact he turned up injured and has three further short absences. But only in part.
It also underlines the managerial choices of Mourinho. If Bale’s second coming had a false start when he came on with them 3-0 up against West Ham and they drew on his debut of sorts, if he no longer boasts the physical power he had when Maicon was left requiring a taxi, the quality of his finishes against Southampton and Sheffield United illustrates he retains the ability to prove a match-winner.
Spurs could have benefited sooner. Bale’s braces against Burnley and Crystal Palace came during a brief and belated run in the side, but Mourinho had dropped him before he was dismissed. It is often said that his side were over-reliant on Harry Kane and Son Heung-min this season, and so they were: Tottenham have underachieved despite the statistical and footballing excellence of two talismen. But that reliance was a consequence of choice. There was an imbalance when the front three consisted of Kane, Son and Steven Bergwijn, whose season has brought 33 games and no goals. The agent provocateur Erik Lamela has four in 34. Lucas Moura, with nine in 48, has been a more potent workhorse, but without really altering Spurs’ status as a two-man team.
And if those figures include substitute appearances and while it can be simplistic to judge players purely on their goal return, especially as Bergwijn and Lucas can offer more defensively than Bale, Mourinho’s demise can be traced to games when they had a one-goal lead, retreated and conceded; with more attacking personnel, a more positive outlook and a greater advantage, they may not have been so susceptible to late equalisers. Bale takes more shots than Mourinho’s safety-first choices. He creates more chances. It is logical it can result in more goals. And as he scores from around one third of his shots – something that only Jesse Lingard and Ilkay Gundogan among the division’s top 25 scorers do – he remains a very fine finisher.
On Sunday, Mason did something that felt revelatory when, seven months ago, it would have appeared an obvious move. He selected Spurs’ four major attacking talents: Kane, Son, Bale and Dele Alli all started. It was something they only did together once under Mourinho.
And it demonstrated the merits of playing all four. Not because they all flourished; they did not, with Kane uncharacteristically wasteful in front of goal and Alli, understandably after being exiled, not yet resembling the player who dazzled in his first two seasons under Mauricio Pochettino. But because with enough potent players, it did not matter if Kane had an off-day. Son and, in particular, Bale could compensate.
Mourinho could cite a poor Bale display in the wretched loss to Brighton, or his inability to cope with Kieran Tierney in a North London derby defeat. There are games when he has underperformed and fixtures that have not suited him. But there has also been a lack of faith in him and a shortage of minutes granted to him to get him up to speed, in turn giving too few reasons to pick him; it amounted to a damaging cycle. And when his loan ends and he returns to Real Madrid, Tottenham will have paid a sizeable amount of a huge salary for glimpses of brilliance that should leave them wondering why he was not unleashed more often and they were not in the top four. And the answer may lie with the manager they have sacked and a brand of pragmatism that felt increasingly unpragmatic.
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