Gareth Bale back at Tottenham: Why he holds the key for Jose Mourinho

The big question ahead of Gareth Bale's Tottenham return is whether or not he can still cut it. Find out why history suggests Spurs are set for a big season if he can. Watch Tottenham vs West Ham live on Sky Sports from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

Tottenham's Gareth Bale makes his return
Image: Tottenham's Gareth Bale is set for his return but what can fans expect?

You saw the headlines when he signed. Perhaps you also caught the footage of him firing balls home in training. All that remains now is to see Gareth Bale step back out onto the pitch in a Premier League game for Tottenham Hotspur. The wait is almost over.

"He is working hard, very committed, very professional, very happy," said Jose Mourinho recently as Bale's preparations continued. "I believe that the two weeks of the international break can be important weeks to his last phase of recovery and fitness problem."

The countdown to the game against West Ham on Sunday is on. The buzz is there among supporters and even the players will be feeling lifted by the presence of Britain's most successful active footballer. This Spurs squad have seen stars leave the club and others linked with moves away. Now they are joined by a four-time Champions League winner.

It is an important symbol, a statement signing with intangible benefits. But, for all the noise, all the talk of everyone being blown away by what they are seeing from Bale at Hotspur Way, these are details that will pale into insignificance when he really returns.

Gareth Bale's Best PL Goals 4:36
A selection of Gareth Bale's best Premier League goals for Tottenham

This second stint will be defined by what he can still do on the pitch.

Bale is 31, past his prime by most standards, and there is little evidence in his output to suggest that he is likely to be an outlier. He returns off the back of his least productive seasons in a decade, having scored only three goals in 20 appearances for Real Madrid.

His only goal in club football over the past 12 months came in a Copa del Rey tie against third-tier side Unionistas in front of a small crowd in the university town of Salamanca. It is more than two years since he found the net in back-to-back games for Madrid.

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Spurs loanee Gareth Bale in the stands for their match against Newcastle 0:41
Bale's agent, Jonathan Barnett, tells Sky that his client is smiling again

Can he turn it on again? The fear is that Bale is competing not just against opponents but the memory that supporters have of him from first time around. To be specific, that 21-goal Premier League season that would prove to be his last at White Hart Lane, when he crashed in nine goals from outside the penalty box, a display of hitting power nobody has bettered since.

Perhaps that is a battle that he cannot win, but even if those heights cannot be scaled once more, that is a matter for Bale's legacy rather than a concern for Mourinho.

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The practical issue for the Tottenham manager is not whether this Bale can outperform the Bale who last pulled on a Spurs shirt some seven years ago, but whether he represents a better option than those currently operating on the right side of his forward line.

Is Bale better than, say, Lucas Moura?

That is a more straightforward question. It is also one that has what many would argue is an equally straightforward answer. Lucas has delivered only five goals during 2520 minutes of Premier League football since the start of last season. It is a poor return from the Brazilian and even as Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son have shone, the other man in attack has looked a weak link by comparison.

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The importance of a top attacking trio

Finding an upgrade is important. It elevates Spurs. It solves a deficiency that left others with a clear advantage. Liverpool have Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. Manchester City have Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez and many more. Even Mourinho's old club Manchester United looked stronger in attack following the emergence of Mason Greenwood.

Dele Alli was Tottenham's third highest scorer last season with eight Premier League goals - still fewer than the third highest scorer at each of the teams that finished in the top four. But with Alli falling out of favour it has put greater onus on others. Bale can help to fill that void.

preview image 2:16
Jose Mourinho says Tottenham will do their best to ensure Gareth Bale has a 'happy season' on his return to the club

He does not need to score 21 goals to do so. To make this team better he only need to score more than the man he replaces. Could he nudge this team in the right direction? Could he score the goals that Mahrez and Greenwood have been scoring from that right channel?

While Bale's recent return is poor, if Spurs are satisfied that mitigating factors contributed to his low output during his final year in Madrid, there is plenty of cause for optimism.

Although there were some fluctuations in his form, Bale never dipped below 0.40 goals per 90 minutes in each of his first six seasons in La Liga. His best campaign saw him score 19 goals in the competition at a rate of almost one for every 90 minutes he was on the pitch.

Overall, over the past 10 seasons of top-flight football, a period in which Bale played more than 20,000 minutes for Tottenham and Real Madrid, his 118 goals have come at a rate of 0.50 goals per 90 minutes. Helpfully, that is a goal every other complete game.

If Mourinho can get Bale on the pitch and keep him there for the bulk of their remaining 34 games of this Premier League season then, while a repeat of that 21-goal season feels beyond him, a return of something in the region of 12 goals might be more achievable. That is a significant figure with some historical clues as to what it could mean for Tottenham.

Assuming that Kane and Son can also stay away from injury, given that the pair have already scored three and six goals respectively this season, that could give Spurs three players able to reach the 12-goal mark in the Premier League.

Only 14 sides in Premier League history have boasted a trio of players all scoring that many goals in the same season. Every single one of them finished among the top two.

The one time that Tottenham possessed that kind of firepower was in the 2016/17 season when Kane, Son and Alli all hit the mark. Coincidentally, that season was the only time in the past 57 years that the club has finished among English football's top two.

But, of course, that is no coincidence at all.

It is the transformative effect of having three regular scorers on the pitch at the same time. It is the transformative effect that a fully-fit Bale could have on this Spurs side.

The wait is almost over.

Pitch to Post Preview podcast: Bale's second debut assessed

Peter Smith is joined by Sky Sports' Alan Smith on the Pitch to Post Preview podcast to look ahead to Man City v Arsenal and analyse what the Gunners can achieve this season. Plus we have the latest from Spurs, where Gareth Bale could face West Ham this Sunday, and the lowdown on Crystal Palace v Brighton and Leeds v Wolves, while Ron Walker makes his bold Pitch!

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