Michael Cox: How Erik Lamela perfectly demonstrated his big improvements at Stoke
Tottenham’s 4-0 thrashing of Stoke on Monday evening was one of the Premier League’s outstanding team performances this season, a display packed with sensational contributions from a variety of attackers.
Harry Kane and Dele Alli managed two goals apiece, while Mousa Dembele drove forward from a deep-lying midfield position, Christian Eriksen drifted inside dangerously, and both full-backs flew forward relentlessly. Man of the match could have been awarded to half a dozen players.
One player who was crucial in Tottenham’s performance, and yet received relatively little credit, was Erik Lamela. Primarily impressive this season because of his work rate, physicality and pressing ability, last night showcased Lamela’s natural game, the style which made him such a promising youngster: his attacking quality, and ability to play a pass.
Poch the game changer
Lamela’s journey over the past four seasons has been somewhat peculiar. In his final season at Roma he was sensational, contributing 20 goals and assists combined in 30 Serie A starts, albeit in a ludicrously attack-minded Zdenek Zeman side, which allowed him freedom to remain in the attacking third.
It made sense for Tottenham to replace Gareth Bale, who had evolved into an efficient goalscoring winger, with a succession of players – but Lamela was the most direct replacement.
The Argentine struggled badly with the pace and physicality of English football, although he was handed just three Premier League starts in 2013/14, essentially consigned to the ‘flop’ category without being given a chance to adjust.
But in the following season, after the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, Lamela changed his game entirely. We expected goals and assists, but instead he had transformed into a hard-working, effective team player who was perfect for Pochettino’s pressing game.
He often led Spurs’ pressure by charging forward to shut down opposition full-backs, but was also effective at pressing ‘in’ when the ball was on the opposite flank, narrowing his position to mark an opposition holding midfielder as Spurs boxed teams in towards the touchlines, shutting off their passing options.
One moment in the 1-1 draw at Arsenal last season underlined his impact – his pressing of Mathieu Flamini led to a quick turnover high up the pitch, and directly resulted in Nacer Chadli firing in the opener.
Struggling for balance
Lamela epitomised the hard-working spirit Pochettino demanded. If this technical, creative, £26m signing who previously lacked physicality could get stuck in, why couldn’t others?
The problem, though, was that Lamela’s emphasis on running, pressing, tackling and regaining possession was somewhat hampering his actual attacking ability. For the second half of last season, he seemed like a slightly more technical Dirk Kuyt – a dangerous attacker converted into a diligent defensive wide player, but not contributing enough in the final third for a player in his position.
It wasn’t entirely dissimilar at the start of this campaign. Before Christmas, Lamela recorded two goals and three assists – not an awful return, but hardly impressive for a player in such an exciting attacking unit. Perhaps only his display in the 4-1 thrashing of Manchester City was genuinely exciting in an attacking sense.
In the past two matches, however, Lamela has been sublime. In the 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United he was a constant threat, assisting Toby Alderweireld’s headed goal with a fine free-kick before converting Danny Rose’s cross for the third goal.
Against Stoke, too, Lamela was impressive in an all-round sense. He was capable of regaining possession and dribbling past opponents to convert defence into attack:
Onwards and upwards
But there was something more penetrative about Lamela’s play: a succession of fine passes to cut through the opposition defence and feed Kane, or onrushing midfield players.
There was an early pass into Kane that the striker couldn’t quite gather properly to give himself a clear goalscoring opportunity, and a forward pass into Alli which was met with a backheel to put Christian Eriksen through to smash against the bar.
Lamela’s contribution was best summarised by his assist for Spurs’ third goal. Through on goal down the left, many players would have elected to shoot – but Lamela rolled the ball to Kane for an open goal. That was game over.
That type of selfless attitude is why the Argentine is proving so useful for Spurs, and his attacking contribution is constantly improving. Next season, if Lamela can match the attacking numbers he recorded in his final campaign at Roma, he’ll be one of the most effective wide midfielders in the league.
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