Analytics: We should’ve seen Bale drop-off coming

Craig Forrest and James Sharman recap the day’s action in the UEFA Champions League.

Since becoming the most expensive footballer of all time, Gareth Bale’s relationship with Real Madrid supporters has been tenuous at best and last week’s 2-1 loss to Juventus may have been the low point thus far.

Bale had the least amount of touches of any Madrid player during the Champions League semifinal first leg, and when he did get the ball more often than not he gave it away to the opposition. Over the course of the season he’s not only drawn the ire of Real Madrid fans, but also teammate Cristiano Ronaldo who has often been visibly upset with his decision making on the pitch.

Patience seems to be running low with Bale and rumours have started to surface about a big money move away from the Bernabeu this summer.

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It’s hard to believe it was less than a year ago when Bale was Real Madrid’s Champions League hero scoring the winning goal in the final, but even throughout last season he was often maligned for failing to live up to his 100 million euro price tag. Given that the critiques have been even more scathing this season it’s worth taking a look at Bale’s numbers to help answer the question, did Real Madrid actually get the player they thought they were buying from Tottenham?

Bale was named the PFA Player of the Year in 2010-11, which ramped up speculation about a move away from White Hart Lane. He ended up staying two more seasons—which were his two best in a Tottenham jersey—culminating with a second PFA Player of the Year award in 2012-13.

During his final year with Tottenham he averaged 0.65 goals per 90 minutes, an absolutely astonishing number for a midfielder. This number wasn’t just the result of a lucky season, as it came on the back of an average of five shots per 90 minutes. This put him up there with the best goal scorers in the Premier League.

Real Madrid wasn’t just interested in Bale as a goal scorer though—they also wanted a set-up man. In Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, Real Madrid already had two players more than capable of scoring goals. With Bale they needed a player who could provide them with good service as well.

In his final two seasons with Tottenham, Bale averaged more than 2.3 key passes per 90 minutes, showing he was capable of playing the role of provider.

So what happened when Bale moved to Real Madrid? Essentially Real Madrid got similar—and in some cases better—production numbers out of Bale than Tottenham did. In 2013-14 he averaged 0.65 goals per 90 minutes, identical to his 2012-13 goal-scoring rate. His assist numbers went up from 0.12 assists per 90 minutes in 2012-13 to 0.52 assists per 90 minutes in 2013-14.

Most looked back on Bale’s first season in Spain as a success precisely because these goal and assist numbers were enough to please manager Carlo Ancelotti and lead Real Madrid to La Decima. Looking below the surface however there were some early warning signs.

Despite the positive goal scoring and assist numbers, Bale’s shot and key pass numbers were both down. In his first season at Real Madrid he only averaged 3.3 shots per 90 minutes, down from 5 shots per 90 minutes the previous year. His key pass numbers dropped from 2.34 key passes per 90 minutes to 1.78 key passes per 90 minutes. Despite scoring at around the same rate and providing more assists than he had at Tottenham, on average Bale was creating 2.2 chances fewer per 90 minutes.

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The increased assist numbers make sense given that he went from playing alongside Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor to playing with Benzema and Ronaldo, but maintaining that goal scoring pace despite taking so many fewer shots should have had alarm bells ringing.

This season the numbers have caught up with him. Bale’s goals per 90 minutes have dropped to 0.47, and his assists per 90 minutes have dropped to 0.33.

This isn’t a great trend for the 25-year-old who should just be coming into the prime of his career, especially on a team with as much explosive firepower as Real Madrid.

Looking at his shots and key passes per 90 minutes it is clear that since leaving Tottenham in the summer of 2013 he’s created far fewer chances both for himself and his teammates.

His decreased chance creation numbers suggest this is a trend we should have seen coming a while back, and that Real Madrid should have expected despite a seemingly successful first season.

Coming into this week’s Champions League semifinal second leg there will be a lot of attention on Bale, especially after his dreadful performance in the first leg. But this isn’t a new phenomenon, as Bale has yet to fully replicate the performance levels he had with Tottenham.

Opta data courtesy of

Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter