In (Cautious) Praise of Spurs’ Érik Lamela


It feels too early to say it, as if to do so now would be to jinx it. But here goes: Érik Lamela looks like a proper footballer.

While he played at or just below what would be called “replacement level” in baseball – just good enough to keep his name on the roster if not on the regular starting XI – for much of his Spurs career so far, in the last week something seems to have been tweaked in the young Argentine’s game.

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It began with Spurs’ visit to Sunderland last Sunday. Lamela was subbed on in the 66th minute in an attempt to break down what was turning out to be a surprisingly stubborn Black Cat defense. Just as the game threatened to end as another disappointing draw, Lamela began a series of passes that concluded with a ball slid through Sunderland’s backline and onto the feet of a on-rushing Mason, who deftly finished to score in the 81st minute. Spurs went on to win their first match of the season.

Mason rightfully got the bulk of the praise for that goal, but Lamela’s presence at the center of the build up to the goal cannot be understated. It was the kind of confident, easy perfection Spurs fans had been hoping to see from him since he was brought into the club in 2013.

As was this:

That’s Lamela scoring a rabona against Greek side Asteras in the Europa League last October. It seemed then that such a spectacular bit of magic was all Lamela needed to spark the great form expected of him from the start.

It took Lamela until the December 20th Premier League match against Burnley to score again, and then another four months until he scored his next goal against Southampton. A spark that rabona was not.

Spurs fans would then be forgiven for greeting Lamela’s assist against Sunderland with suspicion at best, cynicism at worst.

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Four days after that assist Lamela started against Spurs’ Europa League group stage rivals Qarabag FK. Over 90 minutes on the pitch he put on inarguably his best performance in a Spurs kit since the night of the rabona, hitting the post before eventually scoring a well-deserved goal in the 85th minute.

That performance was easy to dismiss however. Even if Spurs made it hard on themselves, Qarabag were still minnows, right? A real test was needed to see if this Lamela were the real thing or just another false hope.

His good form against Qarabag combined with a dearth of options due to injuries to ensure that Lamela started Sunday against Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew’s team was a much bigger ask for Spurs as a whole but also for Lamela in particular. Just a week prior league leaders – and then seemingly unstoppable force –  Manchester City had struggled to break down Palace’s defense, only scoring the winning goal off a deflected shot in stoppage time.

Spurs had a marginally easier time of it. They dominated proceedings but still found Palace’s well-organized defense tricky to break down until Heung-Min Son’s counterattacking goal in the 67th minute. It was the only goal Spurs needed and the match ended 1-0.

Lamela’s most tangible contribution to the match came from winning the ball back on the edge of Spurs’ penalty area and passing it forward to Christian Eriksen, who then set up Son for the goal. It was as quick a transition as anyone would have expected, least of all Palace’s defense, and made all the more impressive that it was due in no small part to Lamela’s defensive efforts.

The tackle that began it all was one of three Lamela successfully executed on the day per WhoScored along with two interceptions. Those numbers are a reflection of the fact that Lamela was often involved in more central and more deep positions than his nominal right wing role would suggest. He, in effect, played a game closer to Eriksen’s or Dembélé’s than, say, fellow winger Nacer Chadli. He was invested in pressing high up the pitch, dispossessing Palace’s defenders to reignite Spurs’ attack in advantageous areas.

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That part of Lamela’s game is often is worst. He has been guilty of more than a few misplaced tackles that resulted in fouls being called over his time with Spurs. In his defense, he’d never been asked to contribute in any such way in Argentina or Italy. The idea of defending and intensely pressing high up the pitch would have been fairly foreign to him upon his arrival in England. That he’s evidently growing into it is only part of the reason to be encouraged by Sunday’s performance.

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Due in part to that hustle and Spurs’ general domination of Palace’s half, Lamela’s offensive stats also increased. Over two seasons with the club, Lamela has recorded barely more than a single shot per game. Gareth Bale – whom Lamela was bought in part to replace – managed 4.4 over his last two seasons with the club. No one was expecting such astronomical numbers from Lamela of course – just perhaps for him to split the difference.

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  • On Sunday he made progress on doing just that. He recorded four shots over the course of his 87 minutes on the pitch – two of which were on target – while also contributing four key passes. Even if his only concrete contribution to the result of the game was the hockey assist for Son’s goal, those are underlying numbers that will serve him well if he can continue to produce them.

    There are still some issues, of course. Lamela still has a habit of nullifying attacks by taking the easy, lateral pass when a more direct through ball or dribble might serve Spurs better for instance. Nevertheless, his all-round performance against Palace is precisely the kind the team and fans alike expected from Lamela when he arrived. In many ways it was more impressive than the more productive efforts against Sunderland and Qarabag, if only because it suggested an overall level of quality that could be sustained match to match much easier than, say, a rabona.

    It’s still too early to call this recent quality from Lamela a resurgence. While he looks like he belongs in the team for the first time in a while, it’s still too early to say whether or not he should be included in a fully healthy lineup. With Eriksen set to return this week and Dembélé not too far behind, Lamela will have competition for a spot in the attacking midfield line. This weekend’s match against Manchester City might be the final and best litmus test of a possibly reformed Lamela. If he passes it will come as long overdue relief for the most expensive player on Spurs’ history.

    Next: How Long Before Alex Pritchard Starts for Spurs?