This was exactly the kind of afternoon Tottenham had hoped for when Gareth Bale jetted back in five months ago. Two goals and an assist offered compelling evidence that he has a clear use beyond Europa League cameos and heightened the impression that, at long last, he is ready to be both the game changer and team player José Mourinho wants.
Perhaps even more encouraging than the individual flourishes was his harmony with the rest of Spurs’ front four, all of whom were outstanding. Everyone was on the same page and that was evident through the sumptuous 60-yard ball Bale played to Harry Kane for the strike that effectively put this game beyond Burnley. Lucas Moura deservedly scored two and that is to say nothing of the ingenuity with which Son Heung-min created at least one of Bale’s goals. Given their woeful prior run of domestic form Spurs’ performance was an apposite reminder that, when harnessed properly, they have attacking power capable of blowing opponents away.
This was only Bale’s third top-flight start of the season. The doubts and disagreements over elements of his fitness have been well documented but here he built upon his improvement of recent games and looked ready to meet the occasion. “It would be very nice for me now to say that I handled the situation amazingly well but I’m not that kind of guy,” Mourinho said, managing to keep a straight face, but all that uncertainty may yet prove worthwhile if Bale continues in this vein.
There has to be the caveat that Burnley, whose gameplan was reduced to smithereens when Bale tapped in after 68 seconds, were woeful. If Tottenham could have used a Thursday night assignment against Wolfsberger as an excuse for any sluggishness it was a mystery that, with eight days’ run-up, Sean Dyche’s players seemed to be wading through treacle. They are within five points of the relegation zone and their only blessing was that Spurs could have scored several more.
The opener owed much to the work of Son, even there will be debate about the forward’s intentions. When he cut inside to cross from beyond the left corner of the Burnley area there were few who predicted a low, scuffed-looking ball that evaded James Tarkowski’s lunge and surprised the cluster of players primed for a delivery to the far post. Bale had read it though and, with Nick Pope and his defence flat-footed, stole in to trickle a simple finish over the line.
Had Son meant to find Bale that way? It would have been an exceptional feat of vision, although that is hardly beyond him. Burnley had never conceded a Premier League goal this quickly and showed no ability to recover. “If you give a soft goal away so early, part of your gameplan goes immediately and that calms them down,” Dyche said.
Any hastily formulated plan B became rubble too as Spurs kept coming in waves. Kane and Moura could have scored, while Bale rolled back the years when he tore past Charlie Taylor. On the quarter-hour Bale received possession from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg deep inside his own half, looked up and found Kane with a raking pass. It was left for Kane to work the shooting angle and beat Pope at his near post via a deflection off Tarkowski; such a potent combination between provider and scorer was
exactly what might have been trailed last September.
Moura made it three, finishing emphatically after an inadvertent flick-on from the luckless Tarkowski, and it became a question of how many Spurs might score in the second half. They settled for one after Son found Bale in acres of space on the right with an outside-of-the-boot pass whose purpose nobody could doubt. Bale’s left foot did the job stylishly, just as it had against Wolfsberger, sending the ball sweetly into the net via Pope’s far upright.
“There is not one single manager in the world who does not play Gareth Bale if he is in very good condition,” Mourinho said. “It wasn’t about the goals he scored, it was about his physical performance. Now he’s not flat, he has speed in his actions.” Spurs’ prospects of transforming their season will gather considerable pace if that becomes a regular state of affairs.