Sprinting in triangles, chasing lost causes, lunging in recklessly… I miss the energy of Erik Lamela. Though desperately lacking in something, he was starting to become a bit of a cult hero at White Hart Lane for his effort, ever-improving capability and class. Some rightfully sneered at his £30m transfer figure, but Pochettino was beginning to mould him into one of Spurs’ most threatening attackers.
Then came an understated, mysterious injury. His last appearance for the club came against Liverpool in a 2-1 League Cup defeat in October, and it was only recently that we found out the Argentine had been requiring hip surgery for some time. What happened, nobody seems to actually know. There were malicious rumours, ideas that Lamela wanted out and would cleverly use his injury to engineer a move back home, but until he is truly fit again, you shouldn’t really listen to anybody.
Will he play for Tottenham again? That’s a question for somebody at the club, but you don’t just forget a player who was so essential to a title challenge last season. With every passing game, Lamela was looking more central to Pochettino’s ‘press’. He was never the most talented player at the club; not even in attack. He left the glamourous aspect of the game to the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. He started out as mildly self-regarding, opting rather to roll the back under his foot than to play a simple pass and relearned the basics. Nobody wants it, but he embodied every reason that there is a ‘Most Improved’ award at every sports club.
His injury and absence from the squad is a genuine shame, not just because he is missed on the pitch but because his character, too. As a personality, he always seemed unassuming but hardworking, shy but confident in his ability. Day to day training and integrating himself into a European squad seemed a necessary hurdle in the early stages of his career and you fear that missing out on the best part of this successful season sets him back to square one. That is exactly what he didn’t need. Not when he was finally starting to realise his price tag.
Package that up, combine it with some media meddling and Heung Min Son’s goals in his absence and you have Lamela’s dilemma. Is there a way back? Of course, Tottenham are missing squad depth, but the flamboyant winger always seemed a player more accustomed to first team football. Realistically, and pardon the cliché, he will be like a new signing next season, but there are so many mitigating factors.
The media have meddled, and so have sets of fans. Once anybody got hold of his personal life, there were ideas that he was unsettled in London, away for family reasons, unwilling to have surgery, exaggerating injury so he could return home, arguing with Pochettino and in need of a return to Italy. It’s true; the extent of his absence is strange, made even more so by the fact that the club only decided to act with surgery as late as April. Lacking transparency is his and the club’s fault. This is the information age; fans need to know everything. Whether anything that has been said is true or not, the damage has been done and some fans will have those thoughts in the back of their minds.
Tottenham have tinkered with formation, scored more goals, surpassed their record points tally, finished above Arsenal and done so many positive things without him. Equally, forgetting his contributions would be mindless. He had a knack for putting in meaningful performances in important matches and while Spurs have improved upon last year, they have lost three games away to Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Lamela was often the man to unpick a defence. Looking back, he nutmegged Otamendi to assist Eriksen at the Etihad, beat the offside trap to slip in Kane at Stamford Bridge, swung in a free-kicks for Alderweireld vs Man City and Utd and beat Gabriel to an aerial ball to set up Alderweireld vs Arsenal. Spurs picked up points in all of those games.
With 78 goals between Kane, Eriksen, Alli and Son this year, it’s regrettably rather easy to forget Lamela. You don’t want to, but you just do. It’s more ‘Lamela has played his last game for Tottenham’ than anticipating his return, but it should be the latter. Once you stick Lamela into this squad, there are more viable options for each game. The FA Cup semi-final was less than ideal, starting Heung-Min Son who, by the way, doesn’t have an ounce of defensive nuance in his body, at left wing back. I think Pochettino would have had more confidence in playing Lamela in an attacking role and relying on his willingness to track Victor Moses. Son hasn’t earned that defensive trust just yet. It’s the small things, but it’s those very things that may win Chelsea the title. At times in need, they have brought on Fabregas and Willian, while Pochettino can choose between Sissoko and N’Koudou. The difference is so clear.
His return is most welcome. He left a hole in Spurs’ forward line which has, for now, been replaced. That, and his development at the club has no doubt been hindered. Hopefully, Lamela’s hips don’t lie and this has been an injury worthy of taking the time out. But for now, he’s back to square one, but hopefully his experience at the club mean there is still time for Erik Lamela to make his name in Lilywhite.