Erik Lamela returns to Tottenham, but will his future be at Spurs?
On Monday, Erik Lamela arrived back at Hotspur Way for pre-season. Referring to the Argentine forward’s nine-month hiatus from the game as an injury absence would be a simplification, such have been the myriad factors which have kept him out of Tottenham’s first-team. Lamela has been battling a hip problem since last October, but has also encountered a range of issues in his private life (including a serious injury to his brother in a road accident) during that rehabilitation.
He’s presumed to still be a few months from full fitness, but Spurs will be glad of Lamela’s return. Although his decadent variety of skills can stymie his effect with the ball, Lamela’s tenacity and work-rate were fundamental to Mauricio Pochettino’s success in his first two seasons.
The shame of his injury is that it came at a time when appreciation for what Lamela could do was starting to outweigh the frustrations over what he couldn’t. He remained divisive and his playing style may never enjoy universal acclaim, but Lamela did something and he did it extremely well.
Tottenham may have excelled in his absence last season, but they certainly wouldn’t have been any worse off for having him available. In fact, how many extra points might his relentless defensive aggression have been worth? Always a Pochettino favourite in marquee games, perhaps he would have been able to alter the mood of the limp showings at Old Trafford and Anfield? As the chant implies, he's proven to be a highly useful player away from home.
At his most lively, Lamela is a menace within the construction phases and the failures against Manchester United and Liverpool were each characterised by Tottenham's inability to stop moves at source. Might he also have helped to protect that precious lead at Stamford Bridge, when Spurs fumbled the momentum and ultimately also three very important points?
From a purely human perspective, this is a good news story. Lamela’s return to north London feels like an emergence from the darkness. Hip injuries are obviously no fun, but the personal difficulties he has reportedly endured will have been far harder to conquer. The handshakes and smiles on the training ground will be sincere and well-meaning and, after so long in sporting isolation, will be a welcome tonic for a player who's cut a somewhat disenfranchised figure.
A starter or nothing?
However that will offer only emotional reassurnace, because Lamela’s footballing future is less clear-cut. Though tempting to portray his return as just an enhancement of Tottenham’s resources, it comes with a complication. While Pochettino certainly has players capable of influencing games from the substitutes’ bench, Lamela isn’t really one of them. In fact, of all the players currently at the club, he’s the one who craves continuity the most.
The 25-year-old plays with a certain rhythm which is spoiled by interruption and his past in the Premier League would suggest that his value greatly diminishes when not consistently selected; his passing develops a laborious tension and his brain seems to grind its gears.
But where does he actually fit in the side now? Pochettino seems increasingly to be leaning towards a back-three system, with two central midfielders, a tandem of wing-backs, and a positionally dexterous attacking-midfield three behind Harry Kane. It’s a system which calls for inverted forwards rather than outright wingers, so is certainly suited to Lamela’s style of play, but the chemistry within that front-four was its strength last season.
On the one hand, Lamela has never threatened to become free-scoring, but then neither would he have conceded such an absurd penalty in the FA Cup semi-final
For instance, though Son Heung-min remains a streaky and unpredictable performer - and a sizeable problem without the ball - his style of play evidently creates gains in other areas of the field. It’s difficult: Son’s selection is a deference to one side of the game, Lamela’s to another. On the one hand, Lamela has never threatened to become free-scoring, but then neither would he have conceded such an absurd penalty in the FA Cup semi-final.
It's the kind of situation which implies time-sharing in the future - and judging by what has come before, that would seem to suit Son far more than Lamela.
Given the complicated nature of Lamela’s injury, assumptions ahead of his return before it actually happens are valueless. He has, after all, attempted three separate comebacks in less than a year and two of them have had to be aborted. Nevertheless, nothing is quite as it was when he was last seen and his route back into the side is difficult to plot.
Those who retain great affection for him will hope otherwise, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that he might, again, be about to become a man out of time.