Erik Lamela is soon to be a Tottenham Hotspur player and will have every chance to win a regular place in the starting XI with Gareth Bale almost certainly on is way to Real Madrid. He played as an attacking left-footed right winger for Roma as part of either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation in a team that likes to keep the ball and press high up the pitch. Basically, he's already done a lot of what Spurs might ask of him if they were going to throw him into the role they had planned for Bale this season.
However, there's a lot more to the young Argentine.
If all of your knowledge about Lamela comes from Roma highlights, Roma games or watching him play for Argentina, you haven't quite seen the full picture. Lamela was a much different player at River Plate than he was for the Giallorossi, and in a way that's likely to please Spurs fans.
When Lamela first started playing regularly for River, it was as a left-sided midfielder as part of midfield formations that were narrow and diamond-like in nature. Whether or not you want to call their formation a 4-3-1-2 or 4-<4>2 is simply semantics. From the seventh week of the 2010 Apertura, Lamela played the left shuttling midfield position. He got his first shot as the attacking midfielder, behind the strikers in the 11th week of the season, away to Godoy Cruz. In the 14th week of the season, he played in an attacking central midfield role, which he held down for the rest of the Apertura.
River switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation permanently for the Clausura, with Lamela partnered by Manuel Lanzini on the 2-level behind a center forward. Lamela played every game that he was available for, only once being used in a different position than that attacking midfield role. That came when he was bizarrely deployed as a left winger in a 4-4-1-1 formation in the infamous relegation playoff loss away to Belgrano. River drew the second leg of that playoff at home, leading to their relegation and need to sell him to Roma.
In case the thought "why did River get relegated if Lamela is so great" popped into your head, River finished 6th in the Apertura and 9th in the Clausura during the two half-seasons that Lamela was a regular. Relegation in Argentina is based on a cumulative coefficient and his performances did a lot to drag River out of the automatic relegation places and into the relegation playoff. The team that beat them to go up, Belgrano, has comfortably stayed in the top flight since that playoff. They finished 6th out of 20 in the relegation coefficient at the end of last season.
Obviously highlights never tell the entire story of a player's ability and style of play, but here are a couple of highlight videos from Lamela's River days. Note his positioning and where he's making plays from, as well as the type of dribbling moves and passes he's executing.
Lamela looks like a true No. 10 and a true out-and-out left winger in a number of those highlights. Now, compare that to a highlight video looking at his 2012-13 season with Roma.
His quality is apparent in all of these videos, but he looks like an entirely different player in the Roma video. He's obviously quite a bit bigger and stronger, he spends more of his time on the right and he's a bit more direct than he is tricky.
Don't think of Lamela's time and role at Roma as something that encapsulates who he is as a player. Think of that as him adding a wrinkle to his game. At River, he learned how to take a beating from grown men and operate as a central playmaker. At Roma, he learned how to play against much more tactically disciplined sides and in an entirely new position, the goal-scoring right winger who cuts in on his left foot.
Lamela isn't "better" than Bale at this point in his career and he may never be. He isn't going to match Bale's level of production from last season and score 20 goals for us this year. But he is a much more versatile player than Bale, he's gotten better each year of his career, and he's much further along in his development at 21 than Bale was at the same age.
There is no such thing as a "Bale replacement" for Tottenham Hotspur. The only players who could reasonably produce the same kind of output and occupy the same role for Spurs are already global superstars on massive wages and all of them currently play for massive clubs. Spurs are a big club whose reputation and financial clout is growing, but it's not reasonable to expect them to attract the likes of Neymar.
Lamela is the best Bale replacement that Spurs could have hoped for specifically because he isn't just a poor man's Bale. He has the potential to provide more for a team than Bale does if he reaches his full potential and he can play multiple roles for Spurs in multiple formations, right now, without a serious learning curve. He can be a poor man's Bale just as easily as he can be a better version of Gylfi Sigurdsson or Nacer Chadli. He's good enough to build a team around, but he's versatile enough that he can slot anywhere into a team that's been built around someone or something else.
Now everyone stand up and give Franco Baldini a round of applause.