At this point, most Spurs fans know what to expect from Erik Lamela. He'll run like mad. He'll put in a remarkable shift defensively. He'll get into dangerous positions. At least once a game he'll make the wrong decision when in said position. And occasionally he'll score a worldy. Though that's not necessarily what you want when you spend £27m on a player, the young Argentine has still matured into a valuable squad member for Spurs and a key ingredient in Mauricio Pochettino's rugged defensive unit.
However, given the predictability of Lamela's game and how much of what he does (golazos aside) tends to blend into the background of a match, it is easy to miss the Argentine's centrality in Pochettino's squad. The best illustration of this is what happened in last weekend's derby draw at the Emirates.
Lamela in the Attacking Phase
When you compare Pochettino's Tottenham to his Southampton, some analogs are obvious—Christian Eriksen and Adam Lallana's role in open play is almost identical, Mousa Dembele and Dele Alli tactically function like Steven Davis and Morgan Schneiderlin, Eric Dier is now established in a role similar to that of Victor Wanyama, and Harry Kane is used in much the same way that Rickie Lambert was, although to far more devastating effect. Based on his early days, Heung-Min Son is likely to become the Jay Rodriguez wide forward, although Nacer Chadli can also fill that role.
The one player for whom there really is no Southampton analog is Lamela. Theoretically Lamela is a natural Rodriguez-type: a wide forward who likes to run the channels and score goals. That isn't actually how Lamela seems to be developing, however. Though he doesn't make the same sort of vertical runs through the channel that Rodriguez does, he has excelled at finding pockets of space to receive a pass and then running at the defense with the ball. This movement is often what creates gaps in the opposition defense that allows for Harry Kane or Nacer Chadli to get into goal-scoring positions.
That isn't quite what happened on the goal last weekend, however. But what did happen may be even more encouraging. After a fairly back-and-forth opening quarter hour, the match had settled down a bit. Spurs were enjoying possession, but not making many chances. Significantly, the weakest player in the Arsenal defense, right back Mathieu Debuchy, was largely being left untested since Tottenham's left sided attacker, Christian Eriksen, was drifting in as he typically does. Meanwhile on the opposite flank Lamela was being marked by Nacho Monreal who has quietly matured into arguably being the best left back in England's top flight.
This is when Pochettino decided to make an interesting switch, swapping Lamela to the left wing so that he was now up against Debuchy. Two minutes later this happened:
At first glance when you see the goal the two things that stand out are the brilliance of Rose's ball to Kane and Kane's wonderfully clever decision to let the ball run before taking his shot. (This is something Kane does quite often. He has an excellent sense for how far to let the ball run before taking a touch.) But there is another key piece to the goal that becomes more apparent if we break it down a bit more.
The key problem for the Arsenal defense here is that the defensive line fell apart on the goal. The obvious failing is Laurent Koscielny failing to step up in order to play Kane offside. But that isn't just on the French defender. Notice Lamela's movement just before Rose plays the ball:
Some fans on Twitter watching the match said that Pochettino switched Eriksen and Lamela, and while there were times where it looked like that, it is probably more accurate to say he shifted Lamela to the left wing, kept Eriksen in a basically free role, dropped Mousa Dembele into midfield, and pushed Dele Alli forward to play on the right wing. In any case, Lamela's threat on the wing and ability to present for the ball forces Debuchy to step up to track him and pressure him should he receive the ball. This then creates space in behind the right back where Eriksen could theoretically pop up. Thus Per Mertesacker steps forward to try and close down the space for Eriksen.
But just behind Mertesacker we see Kane getting ready to make his run. Koscielny hesitates before stepping up—and that makes sense. Mertesacker doesn't seem to be stepping forward to spring an offside trap; he's stepping up to keep tabs on Eriksen. Koscielny is thus left on an island where he can either step up and hope that Monreal playing behind him doesn't play Kane onside or he can pause and see if he needs to track Kane's run. Caught in between, he ends up doing neither of these things and Kane is free to score the goal. But the initial step that triggers the goal is Lamela's movement toward the ball from a wide area. That is what initially breaks the Arsenal defensive line and sets up the space for Kane to score his goal.
Lamela in the Defensive Phase
What truly makes Lamela stand out relative to anyone else who has played for Pochettino is his defensive workrate. At Southampton the defensive workrate in the front four came from Adam Lallana and Steven Davis or James Ward-Prowse. Rodriguez put in a shift, but he always had one eye on the defender's position to see if he could make a run forward. But when Lamela, Dembele, and Eriksen are all on the pitch together (with Alli and Eric Dier in midfield) it creates a remarkably fluid, all-action pressing side that when in-form is truly stunning to see.
Against Arsenal this set up was particularly effective at shutting down Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez before they could even begin to make any sort of attacking move. As a result, Arsenal managed five shots in the first 75 minutes (prior to Lamela's substitution) with three of the five coming on set pieces. I have marked the five shots on Michael Caley's ExpG shot chart below. Those with a white line through them are set piece chances from when Lamela was in the game, those with an orange line are chances from open play from when Lamela was in the game. The remaining five chances, including the goal, came after Lamela's exit:
To put it another way, in the first 75 minutes of the game with Lamela on the field, Arsenal managed two shots from open play and three from set pieces. In only 15 minutes without Lamela, Arsenal equaled those numbers and created their best open-play chance of the match which is how they got their goal. That tells us not only that Arsenal was creating more from open play, but that they were producing more pressure overall which led to the free kick chance and two additional chances off corner kicks that came in the final quarter hour.
To be sure, we shouldn't be surprised when a team's defensive performance drops off after removing a player who managed to make eight ball recoveries and win eight out of ten tackles. But it's not just Lamela's activity that was missed, it was his defensive intelligence. Lamela's pressuring of the ball was nearly always focused on squeezing Ozil or Sanchez and limiting their time on the ball. And, as you would expect, this work frequently began in Tottenham's attacking third as the Spurs press often stifled the Gunners' attack before it could even begin. Consider this brief clip from Ozil receiving the ball in his own half. He literally has less than a second on the ball before both Lamela and Danny Rose are on him:
Lamela did the same thing when Ozil got the ball in Arsenal's attacking third. Consider this short clip from the second half:
Once again, you can see it is about one second from when Ozil receives the ball to when he is under pressure from two Spurs players. This time it came from Dier and Lamela. Result: a poor pass that is easily read and intercepted by Jan Vertonghen.
Now look at the buildup to the goal. This came two minutes after Lamela's withdrawal. And it was actually the second time in under a minute that one of Arsenal's top two attackers had been given ample time on the ball in this part of the field as Alexis had made a run through the same area 45 seconds before. This time, Ozil gets the ball and note the amount of time and space he is given:
In this clip, Ozil gets four seconds on the ball and when he plays the pass no one is within four yards of him. The closest player is Lamela's replacement, Heung-Min Son. The problem here is with how Son and Rose handle the decoy run down the flank from Monreal. Rose had him marked so Son should have dropped off Monreal and moved toward Ozil. But Son, no doubt still learning the intricacies of Pochettino's system, doesn't make the switch. The result is that Ozil has far too long on the ball and, as you expect from a player of his quality, picks out an inch perfect pass that Kieran Gibbs of all people tapped in at the far post.
The point here isn't necessarily to attack Son. He's a new player and even the flashes we've seen of him so far suggest he should be a top, top signing and that he fits Pochettino's system quite well. That said, in this case the breakdown is noticeable. In many cases a single breakdown like this probably won't be as costly. You can give most Premier League attackers four seconds on the ball in that part of the pitch without conceding a quality scoring chance. But Mesut Ozil isn't most Premier League attackers and in this particular instance he punished the Spurs defense.
Deli Alli probably deserved to be man of the match in this one. And if you don't want to pick Alli then Dembele, Kyle Walker, and Danny Rose would all be perfectly reasonable choices. But don't neglect Lamela. His energy, intelligence (silly midfield challenges on Francis Coquelin not withstanding), and technical ability make him a uniquely valuable player to this team and explain in no uncertain terms why Pochettino was determined to keep Lamela back in September when he was being linked with a move away to Marseille. None of us expected it in September, but it's quite possible that as we draw near to the 1/3 mark of this Premier League season that Erik Lamela is an essential member of Tottenham's best XI.