Everyone agreed that Tottenham had acquired some fine players in the summer of 2013, but the notorious line that Spurs sold Elvis to buy the Beatles soon became a source of embarrassment. Not least because that cast young Erik Lamela as John Lennon, the most celebrated of the lot.
Instead, calf and back problems coupled with difficulties adapting to life in England meant his impact was minimal. To paraphrase Lennon’s withering assessment of Ringo Starr’s drumming, how could Lamela be one of the best in Europe when he wasn’t even the best at White Hart Lane?
The Argentine made just nine appearances in the Premier League last season totalling 327 minutes of action. Damningly, he made more starts in the club’s Europa League campaign. Thursdays were Lamela’s busiest night of the week and the source of his solitary goal to date in a Tottenham shirt.
Eight shots and 145 completed passes. It wasn’t much to show for a £30million investment. Lamela was dispossessed more times than he successfully completed a dribble and managed to play a full 90 minutes just once in the Premier League last season. Naturally, it was in the 6-0 defeat to Manchester City.
And yet, the feeling persisted that Lamela was different. While former boss Tim Sherwood seemed more comfortable than most in openly criticising his own players, there was usually a different tone to his comments when it came to Lamela.
It would’ve been easy for Sherwood to make Lamela the poster boy for the problems he’d inherited. Instead he spoke of being impressed with his performances in training. “I think it is unfair because obviously he has not been fit so it has been hard to judge,” said Sherwood. “The price isn't his fault. He comes with a huge price tag but it is not Erik that sets that price.
“It is difficult to adapt to a different country, a different league and a different language as well but when you are suffering these niggles too it is disappointing for the lad. We signed him for the long-term and we are sure that in the end he will come good for Tottenham and be a crowd favourite here.”
It’s worth remembering that is precisely what happened to Lamela at Roma. After arriving amid the hype that came with a significant transfer fee, he succumbed to an ankle injury that prevented him playing until October. He finished his first season with four goals from 29 games and lingering memories of on-field spats with Stephan Lichtsteiner and off-field problems with Pablo Osvaldo.
It was his second season in Italy that saw Lamela emerge from his chrysalis. He was the fifth highest scorer in Serie A in his final year at Roma and by far the most exciting, creating more chances and having more successful dribbles than anyone else among the top 10. Roma coach Aurelio Andreazzoli called him “unstoppable” and he suddenly looked a player capable of anything.
Fitness way the key. Lamela not only survived the infamous tests of veteran coach Zdenek Zeman but he thrived – outperforming the rest of the Roma squad when it came to the 1000 metre interval training that comprised a series of such runs one after the other. “He could run for three hours,” said Zeman, who also praised his “talent, pace and technique”.
Return to fitness
To his credit, Sherwood recognised it would be folly to turn to Lamela when, in his words, “under-cooked” and succeeded in protecting the player. New boss Mauricio Pochettino seems equally aware that only when Lamela is confident in his fitness levels will Spurs fans see the best of him.
After a pre-season in which his manager has already called his compatriot “an unbelievable player” that’s what we may now get. “He was very disappointed about last season but the past is the past,” said Pochettino. “We need him to look forward, believe in his skill and condition and work very, very hard. With confidence and time he will show his value.”
Firstly, there came a game-changing performance in the Europa League against AEL Limassol when he emerged from the bench to set up both goals in a come-from-behind win. Next he transferred that form to the Premier League with another fine performance against Queens Park Rangers last weekend – his most effective yet in a Spurs shirt.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Lamela looked fully fit. Not only did he complete the 90 minutes in a 4-0 win but the Premier League tracking data shows he made 59 separate high-intensity sprints, more than any team-mate. Indeed, you have to go back to a January win over Swansea to find a Spurs player to top that (Kyle Walker, 62).
Gone is the uncertain figure waiting for the chance to get in the game. Now Lamela is encouraged to find space and the touch map from the QPR game highlights the freedom he is enjoying. “It’s important (Christian) Eriksen and Lamela feel free because they are creative players,” said Pochettino. “You can put players like that in their shells. But they need the movement to be able to attack.”
In setting up two goals last weekend, Lamela has already overhauled his assists tally of his debut and is halfway towards the key passes count. The number of successful dribbles are now outweighing the number of times he is being dispossessed. It seems the corner has been turned.
Much like at Roma, instant karma just isn’t the way it works when it comes to Lamela. It seems it’s the second season when we really see the best of him. With a huge game on Sunday against Liverpool, the home of those Beatles, it’s time for the next test for the fabulous Erik Lamela.
Watch Erik Lamela in action for Tottenham against Liverpool on Super Sunday (Sky Sports 1 HD, 1.30pm kick off)