It’s hard to believe that this is Erik Lamela’s fourth season at Spurs.
Although when the Argentine was signed as a 21-year old in the summer of 2013 he wasn’t expected to be the finished product, his progress has nevertheless been very gradual, and it’s only recently that he’s begun to look worthy of his status as the club’s record signing.
His headed equaliser goal against Everton at the weekend didn’t just salvage a crucial point, but also suggested that he is ready to move to the next level.
It was the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino that instigated his progression from an unconfident flop struggling with injuries and mistrusted by both Andre Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood, to the player he is today.
Pochettino showed enough faith in his compatriot to install him into the first team, and to repay his faith Lamela brought into his manager’s philosophy of high-intensity pressing. Although his attacking play didn’t improve much during the 2014/15 campaign, when he scored just the two league goals, there was a marked improvement in his defensive play. He averaged a total of 2.4 tackles per game - twice his average from his debut season.
His performances as a hard-working grafter willing to put a foot in - often too willing, as his habit of clumsy fouls attests to - runs contrary to his image and reputation as a silky flair player, but there were signs last season that he was rediscovering his guile.
Without sacrificing his defensive contribution (he again averaged 2.4 tackles per game), Lamela added a large dose of creativity to his armoury, averaging 2.2 key passes per game (up from 1.8 the season before), and registering a career-high 9 assists in the league. He looked totally in his depth in a team pushing for the title, relied upon as a playmaker to make defence-splitting passes to break teams down, while his link-up play with Kane, Eriksen and Dele Alli was often mesmerising.
But compared with the stellar 2012/13 season at Roma that he was signed on the back of, there are still two elements of Lamela’s game still lacking - goalscoring and dribbling.
Encouragingly, in this season’s opener against Everton, he impressed on both fronts. Whereas in previous seasons his dribbling has looked skilful but lacking in pace to really drive through defences, he looks increasingly willing to take players on, and attempted three dribbles last weekend - the same as his average during the 2012/13 season at Roma, and way up on his average of 1.2 last season.
His goal, meanwhile, was as impressive as it was unexpected, flying into the box to glance a header into the bottom corner in a manner we don’t usually associate with the slender Argentinian. The finish felt like a sign of much-needed improvement in front of goal, where even last season he seemed lacking in confidence, fluffing his lines on the rare occasion he did go for a shot.
Along with another headed effort and a saved shot, that goal was one of 3 attempts he had against Everton - a number much closer to his average of 2.6 shots per game at Roma in 2012/13 than last season’s figure of 1.7 per game. During that season he amassed 15 goals in 33 games, and a similar return this year would be very welcome indeed.
Having improved his defensive play so much in 2014/15 and his playmaking in 2015/16, Lamela’s fourth season at the club might just be the one that he becomes a potent threat running with the ball and in front of goal. If he can manage that, that record-breaking fee of around £30m will start to look like a bargain.
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