Tottenham Hotspur 4 Burnley
In the first 15 minutes here, Gareth Bale produced a goal, an assist and a touchline sprint reminiscent of the days when he was the most electrifying runner in European football. It was a statement of intent, a continuation of his upturn in form and, above all, a reminder that he can still be the same devastating force he once was.
And that was just for starters. There was plenty more to come from Bale, who was evidently in the mood to prove a point on only his second Premier League start since early November. This is the sort of performance he was signed for, full of technical quality and physical power, and the sort of impact he was expected to make regularly.
In truth, it had been coming. Bale has been growing sharper in recent weeks, amassing his strength even as Tottenham Hotspur have toiled.
One could only pity Burnley for having the misfortune of facing such a driven and dynamic version of the Welshman, although Sean Dyche’s side hardly helped themselves with shambolic defending.
When he returned from Real Madrid in the summer, they called it “Bale back”. In recent months, though, it has been more like a “Bale out”. His relationship with manager Jose Mourinho has appeared strained at times and his performances have been far below the desired standard. The lack of sharpness has been obvious, as has the absence of his usual flair.
But there has never been any doubt that a proper player remains beneath the topknot, even if he will not recapture the raw speed of old. He is not the same Bale who left for Spain eight years ago, yet he is still a Bale capable of bulldozing the opposition and leading Mourinho’s attack. His two goals here, and a gorgeous assist for Harry Kane, set the tone for Tottenham as they ended their poor run in thrilling style.
“There is not a single manager in the world who does not play Bale if he is in good condition,” said Mourinho, whose side moved up to eighth place in the table. “It is not about his goals, it is about his physical performance. He is not flat. He has speed in his actions.”
With Bale joining Kane, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min in a forward-thinking front four, Tottenham did not look like a side who had lost five of their previous six league games. Burnley were poor, yes, but they were made to look so by the speed of their opponents’ movement and the imagination of their attackers.
Mourinho’s critics might point to this showing as proof of what can happen when he lets his forward players run free. Rip off the straitjacket and let them charge at the opposition, and this is the result.
Whether it works against better teams is another matter, of course, and one suspects that it will take more than one win over Burnley to convince Mourinho to recalibrate his approach.
To be clear, this was as gruelling for Burnley as it was pleasing for Tottenham. Dyche’s side are just five points clear of the relegation zone and they never looked likely to find the net here.
Nor did they appear capable of getting close to Lucas, Kane or Bale. “We defend well normally,” Dyche said. “Not so much today.”
Stung by their poor form, Tottenham needed just 68 seconds to put the first dent in this flimsy Burnley defence, with Bale prodding home after Son’s cross was allowed to trickle across the penalty box.
“I felt comfortable,” Bale said. “My form is coming back. I have been happy all season. In the dressing room I feel comfortable and I am having fun, and I am sure it is showing on the pitch.”
The opener was just the start of a dreadful few minutes for Burnley’s centre-backs, Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, who were repeatedly exposed as their midfield melted away. The panic could be seen in their eyes long before Kane converted Tottenham’s second, racing on to Bale’s through ball.
It was one of those wonderfully measured passes, clipped with the perfect amount of fade and backspin, that cried out for Kane to surge towards goal. Not that he requires any additional encouragement to be direct. Kane being Kane, he cut on to his right foot and blasted the ball into the corner, via a deflection off Tarkowski.
Worse was to come for the visitors. In trying to clear Sergio Reguilon’s cross, Tarkowski succeeded only in flicking the ball towards Lucas. Twelve yards from goal, the Brazilian had time to take a touch before lashing his finish past Nick Pope.
It continued after the break, with Reguilon and Son combining down the left before the ball was played out to Bale on the right. Cutting inside, his finish was brutal in its execution.
Including Europa League matches, it took him to four goals and three assists in his last four games. These are numbers that prove what the eye can see: Bale is on his way back.
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