When Tottenham capped off its summer of pretending to be an oil club in 2013 with the £30m acquisition of Erik Lamela from Roma, the subtext couldn't have reverberated louder and more clearly: Gareth Bale has left the building, and this doe-eyed young waif is his replacement.
This was a far from unreasonable stance to take at the time- Lamela had just enjoyed a 15-goal season for the Giallorossi, the best of his career and one that left him joint-fifth top scorer in Serie A for the year. As Ted Knutson has demonstrated, this purple patch was underpinned by some seriously strong forward numbers, with the Argentinian averaging 0.54 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes played and converting 18% of the total shots he took. Though Lamela put up some impressive playmaking numbers too, producing throughballs and assists galore throughout his golden season, it was clear that if deployed an attacker he could bring much to a Tottenham side that was about to lose it's primary outlet for goalscoring.
Flash forward to the present day, to a Tottenham side which is growing into an effective pressing unit but suffers from a lack of coherence at the back and, more damningly, very little cutting edge up top. In this context, the burning question at the back of my mind is this- why haven't Spurs allowed Erik Lamela to be the forward he used to be?
After a disastrous first season in the lilywhite shirt, Lamela has managed to improve his game under new manager Mauricio Pochettino in many clear respects. He's now a much more effective presser in the opposition third, winning an average of 1.5 tackles per game- making him an ideal prop for Pochettino's dogmatically adhered-to approach of quickly retrieving possession high up the pitch. That playmaking side of his game from his Roma days is back, too, as is reflected in his three superb assists for the season so far.
But as far as Lamela is growing in confidence as a nuisance between the opposition lines of midfield and defence, there remains a sense that he's being restricted from having much influence beyond that point- specifically, in the opposition area, and shooting positions directly around it. This has been fed, arguably, by confusion around what exactly Pochettino wants his three players that operate behind the striker to do. Currently, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Lamela all float across the attacking midfield trident, fuliflling fluid roles.
When this strategy has worked, such as against QPR, it's produced some scintillating attacking play. However, one could also validly argue that it has often needlessly muddied the responsibilities of all three of the aforementioned. Eriksen in particular, who has demonstrated the capacity to pull strings in prior Spurs games, has failed to impress himself on games far too often so far this season, in much the same way that Lamela is spending too much time in zones where he can create entry passes and not enough time in zones where he could be getting on the end of them.
Even in that same aforementioned game against QPR, in which Spurs were allowed to forget about playing responsibly and cut loose a little, Lamela still seemed to be tactically shackled to a more withdrawn role which suppressed his attacking potential, as the below heatmap (courtesy of SpursOfficial) illustrates.
The remedy, for me, is clear. Though it would seem to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water to suggest that the fluid interplay between the attacking midfield three should be stopped altogether, Eriksen and Lamela have to strike up a playing relationship where the former can more frequently return to his Ajax and early-Spurs role of provider and the latter is able to recapture some of the electric inside-forward play that he demonstrated in Italy. Pochettino must show an understanding of the potency of Lamela as a finisher of chances and allow him to become more of a focal point for the side's attacks, encouraging him to cut in to the box when in possession more and drift menacingly into areas where Eriksen can pick him out when out, rather than remaining involved only in early buildup play.
In a side where both Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor don't have a shred of confidence or incisiveness between them to tussle over, and Harry Kane is somehow still not trusted as a forward option yet, releasing Lamela as an attacking force seems to be the only way of making up for the dearth of goals Spurs have suffered from of late.