Gareth Bale produced a worryingly invisible display as Wales ground out a 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland on Sunday night to stay top of their UEFA Nations League group.
Wales are in a close-fought battle with Finland to top Group B4 with Markku Kanerva’s side just a point behind Ryan Giggs’ men, who scraped a narrow victory over Ireland thanks to a close-range header from AFC Bournemouth star David Brooks in the 66th-minute.
Bale was credited with assisting the game-winning goal after Brooks turned home the Tottenham winger’s looping header in a match starved of big chances, with interim Wales coach Robert Page seeing his XI direct just four of their 10 efforts on target.
Page returned Bale to the Wales starting line-up after the Real Madrid loanee missed the October internationals through a knee injury, but struggled to see any real quality from the 31-year-old as his 3-4-3 system forced the attacker to drop far too deep.
Bale was more productive after the break as a change in tactics allowed for the Tottenham icon to bother the Irish defence more often, yet he still ended the game with barely any of his 39 touches coming near to, or inside, the visitors’ penalty area, per SofaScore.
Jose Mourinho claimed after Bale had a similarly slack display in Tottenham’s 1-0 Europa League defeat to Royal Antwerp last month that the forward was improving, having registered zero shots on target and played just 24 accurate passes before being replaced by Harry Kane.
“He is working very, very hard,” Mourinho said, via quotes by The Guardian. “He is improving.”
“Seven years is a long, long, long gap,” the Spurs manager added, admitting fans should not expect the same Bale from his first stint in north London. “So which player in the world is the same as he was seven years ago? Sometimes they’re not better or worse, they’re just different players.
“For example, you look to [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi and compare them with seven years ago. They play in different areas, different positions. They transform their qualities to try and explore their qualities in other responsibilities in the tactical system of their teams. I think it happens with the majority of the players, so for sure, he is a different player.”
Bale remaining on the field for the full 90 minutes at home to the Republic of Ireland helped the Tottenham gem to reach 39 touches, yet he could still only find teammates with 22 of his 29 attempted passes. Furthermore, he did not attempt a single cross, he registered just one shot on target and he attempted – though completed – only one dribble.
Mourinho will have been buoyed to see Bale play the match to its entirety after earning his first start of the Premier League campaign in a 78-minute display at West Brom, but he would have hoped to see the winger fare far better with his assist painting over some worrying cracks.