How Erik Lamela will help fill the void left by Gareth Bale
Tottenham’s strategy for replacing Gareth Bale has been sensible and logical – rather than reinvesting the majority of the cash in a single direct replacement, they’ve instead attempted to improve their squad as a whole, strengthening in various positions.
The closest thing to a like-for-like replacement, however, is Argentine Erik Lamela. Set to complete his move from Roma in the next couple of days, he shares many characteristics with Bale – his tall, upright dribbling style that takes him past opponents with ease, his tendency to come inside into the centre of the pitch rather than hug the touchline, and his impressive goalscoring record over the last year.
We should be cautious about Lamela’s chances of replicating his 15 goals in Serie A last season – for the majority of the campaign he was playing under Zdenak Zeman, surely the most attacking coach in modern football, and therefore he inevitably grabbed a few goals. When Zdenak was dismissed with a couple of months remaining, Roma had scored the most goals in Serie A, but had conceded the second-most too.
Nevertheless, Lamela’s 15 goals certainly weren’t a fluke – and in a similar way to Bale and the Welshman’s own idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Argentine has an impressive ability to score a wide range of goals. His ‘stock goal’ is fairly simple – beating a man before shooting from distance – but he’s also surprisingly capable of getting into the box and scoring headers, for example. He headed three goals in 2013/14, demonstrating his willingness to develop his all-round game and become efficient rather than simply flashy.
Zeman always encouraged his wide players to arrive at the far post and become an additional goalscoring threat, and when Andre Villas-Boas fields Nacer Chadli and Lamela on either side, Spurs will have a proper forward trio all capable of finding the net. The likes of Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend are trickier players who start wider and deeper, and should be seen as an entirely different tactical option.
That goalscoring prowess was obvious during Roma’s 3-2 victory over Udinese early last season – the first time Lamela managed to score two goals in a game for Roma. Although his dribbling occurred in a position you’d expect for a winger – in relatively deep positions, and often close to the touchline – only one of his shots was hit from outside the box. Instead, he focused upon getting into the six-yard box, and becoming a poacher.
It’s also worth outlining Lamela’s creative qualities. Back in Argentina he was initially viewed as a classic number ten – often compared to Javier Pastore for his tall, slender frame and ability to combine direct dribbling with clever through-balls. He retains that inventive edge, and in his final appearance for Roma – a 2-1 victory over Napoli on the last day of 2012/13 – he recorded both assists.
The positions of his passes in the final third demonstrates his tendency to check inside from the right before sliding through-balls between defenders – you can imagine Roberto Soldado profiting from some of these passes.
However, occasionally Lamela has played a completely separate role, almost akin to Michael Ballack in his Leverkusen days – distributing the ball with sensible, calm passes in the centre of the pitch, barely providing great creativity from between the lines, but then storming into the box to provide the finish.
He was the star player in Roma’s 4-2 victory over Milan just before Christmas, but there’s something rather incongruous about his performance – he barely completed any passes in the final third, yet popped up in the box to provide two close-range finishes.
Still, with Villas-Boas possessing a variety of midfield options, it’s doubtful he’ll want to use Lamela in a deeper position. In possession, the Argentine will start on the right flank before cutting inside, while when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, he’ll race into the box to provide another goalscoring option.
He’s not quite Bale, but he contributes dribbles, goals and assists – he and other new signings should be able to replace Bale’s characteristics between them.