His performance against Man City could be another false dawn for Erik Lamela at Tottenham, but this feels different. He is the Argentinean anti-stereotype…
As Spurs closed out a rather comfortable 4-1 victory over Manchester City last weekend, it was difficult to judge just which was the most surprising aspect. This was a Tottenham side who had conceded 28 goals in their previous eight games against the same opponents, who topped the Premier League table after winning five of their opening six games. This was a Spurs outfit boasting centre-half Eric Dier and former League One starlet Dele Alli in central midfield, with lone striker Harry Kane on a goal drought of eight consecutive games. This was a Tottenham team who had fallen behind to the visitors after 25 minutes.
Yet the most bewildering scene was that of Erik Lamela, having scored and assisted in the same Premier League game for the first time, walking off to raucous applause from a delighted home support after inspiring a comeback victory. Endless scripts had been written, but the Argentinean played the lead character in none of them.
On Monday came news of Franco Baldini’s separation with Tottenham. The much-maligned technical director oversaw that memorable Spurs summer of 2013, with Lamela the headline act. A club-record signing in among the purchases of Roberto Soldado (£26m), Paulinho (£17m), Christian Eriksen (£11m), Etienne Capoue (£8.6m), Vlad Chiriches (£7.5m) and Nacer Chadli (£7m), Lamela was the man earmarked to replace the outgoing Gareth Bale. Instead, the Argentinean had threatened to become the expensive face of a yet more expensive summer of failure. Rather than join Eriksen and Chadli in the success list, Lamela was destined to follow the well-trodden path of Soldado, Paulinho, Capoue and Chiriches in exiting via the back door.
It very nearly was the case this summer. It’s strange to think that had Saido Berahino been kitted in the Spurs white and black last weekend, Lamela would have been in France. Terms for Lamela to move to Marseille had been agreed with the player and both clubs, but West Brom owner Jeremy Peace’s refusal to sell Berahino on deadline day left Spurs with no choice. With no replacement, Lamela would stay for his Europa League sojourns and Premier League struggles.
Of course, that Lamela has struggled is the oft-held perception of his short time in England. Just another pretty South American from a European league who couldn’t hack the pace and physicality of the Premier League; an over-priced ‘luxury’ player taking the place of a good old-fashioned workhorse who would actually put a shift in.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) September 27, 2015
Instead, the Argentinean is very much the antithesis to the stereotype. His well-taken goal and assist took the plaudits, but only three players made more tackles (four) and no-one gained possession more times (nine) during his man-of-the-match performance. His Spurs career may be characterised by that Rabona goal in the Europa League and that Gareth Bale-esque strike against Burnley, but they stand as the anomalies. Lamela is the complete opposite of a luxury player, and it was a typically hard-working performance that could act as the catalyst for the 23-year-old to show his true worth.
Then again, that would be to ignore Lamela’s impact even before this season. This is a man who recorded more Premier League assists than Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Samir Nasri, Philippe Coutinho, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Christian Eriksen last season, a man with a better minutes-to-assist ratio last season than Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez. Statistics can be misleading, but so was the common consensus surrounding the former Roma star.
What is often forgotten with Lamela is that he is still just 23 and has been expected to shoulder such a burdensome transfer fee for the last two years. While new team-mate Son Heung-min has acclimatised to the trials of a new country, new league and new experiences with consummate and swift ease, that is rarely the case. However, as Mauricio Pochettino alluded to earlier this month, the excuses would soon run out if the performances remained at a premium:
“I think this is a key season for him. After two seasons at Tottenham, now is the moment for him. Not to put pressure, but it’s true. It’s a key moment for him to develop and to move on his game. It’s important. It’s true, now is the third season here, but we believe in him and we want to give the opportunity to show his value. We believe we can develop his game and I think we need to be patient with him.”
In the three games since his manager’s rallying cry, Lamela has scored twice and assisted once. It’s reflective of a man with a remarkable mental strength – another argument to belie the stereotype. No-one would have been surprised if Lamela had collapsed under the weight of expectation, or if he took the easy option and retreated to Italy or France after yet another lacklustre performance at White Hart Lane was met with understandable derision from his home fans. Countryman Angel di Maria was widely lambasted for his lack of fight in quitting Manchester United after one difficult season; that same accusation simply cannot be leveled at Lamela. His recall to the Argentina national side in place of the injured Lionel Messi has brought an admirable revival full-cycle.
Such testicular fortitude has been duly noted by team-mate Harry Kane:
“He [Lamela] is a top lad, he’s a very hard worker on the training field. He’s never let it [the criticism] affect him, he’s carried on practising, working hard on his own after training and stuff. He deserves what he gets. Football’s a funny game and you’ve just got to work hard and keep trying to improve and you’ll get your rewards. Hopefully he can keep building confidence and keep getting better and better.”
The battle now begins to prevent this being yet another false dawn. Somehow though, this feels like a very different Erik Lamela playing a starring role in a very different Spurs side.
And if none of that convinces you, consider this: Lamela is the fifth best Premier League player on current form. That noise was me slamming this case firmly shut.