“Tottenham Hotspur have landed their Gareth Bale replacement…”
That was part of the lede in Cartilage Free Captain’s article that announced the completion of Erik Lamela’s then-club record transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in 2013. Part of the “Bale Seven” as was regularly coined, Lamela came in on the same day Spurs brought in Christian Eriksen from Ajax. It was an incredible day, closing out a summer in which our beloved club from north London made use of the Gareth Bale money as best they could. I can still remember some of the comments from the various articles, talking about how we had signed THE striker, in the form of Roberto Soldado. We signed competent midfielders. We shored up our back line. Everyone in England had something to say about Spurs’ business.
Fast forward one year, and Spurs found themselves out of Champions League contention. Andre Villa-Boas had been fired. Spurs closed that season with Tim Sherwood at the helm. He was unceremoniously sacked at the end of the season, just like AVB.
One year later, and we had a decent handle on the new seven players:
Christian Eriksen? Magician.
Roberto Soldado? Couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.
Etienne Capoue? Inconsistent….and apparently a jerk.
Paulinho? Didn’t work out. Somehow ended up at Barcelona.
Vlad Chiriches? Insane. Crazy. Loves hot dogs. (Sorry.)
Nacer Chadli? Useful, but also inconsistent.
Then there’s Erik Lamela.
Of all the signings that summer, Lamela was the one everyone was freaking out about the most, along with Eriksen. Lamela had just finished his second season at AS Roma, scoring 15 goals in 33 matches, adding in six assist in 2,800 minutes of play. He was being hailed as the next great Roma player after coming to the Italian club from River Plate.
Instead, Tottenham Hotspur came calling. Franco Baldini, then technical director of Tottenham Hotspur, was finishing up his one-man barnstorming tour of Europe. He was armed with what we all joked to be an American Express Centurion card in Joe Lewis’ name and basically spent whatever was necessary to build a new, young squad. His final stop on that tour was Italy to arrange the transfer of Lamela.
On August 30, 2013, Lamela made the move to Tottenham for a final fee of £27m, according to Transfermarkt. Buzz in north London was at an all time high, but his first season was rough: he made just 17 appearances in lilywhite, spending most of the season injured. He had just one goal and four assists that season across all competitions. Because of his youth and having two managers in one season, most of the Spurs faithful gave him a pass.
The next season, Lamela showed some flashes of brilliance. His rabona goal against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League elicited a celebration among those at White Hart Lane that day. It was an incredible display of skill. Even a couple of the visiting players that day had to take a moment and appreciate what they had just witnessed.
“He’s turning the corner this season!” was the only thought I had at the time.
That was a bit premature. The flashes were there, but inconsistency was hindering him.
Lamela made 46 appearances in his second season, scoring 5 goals and adding ten assists in 2,900 minutes of play. It wasn’t Roma numbers, but there was hope. The problem was that he was disappearing in matches he needed to help take over. He seemed to be hesitant to try and take on defenders. His confidence never seemed to truly hit a peak.
Lamela was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His mother and father, Miriam and Jose, all grew up there with his two brothers, Brian and Alex. It was his father who had not just suggested, but strongly encouraged Erik to take up football. At the ripe age of just five years old, Erik began playing football, any chance he could.
His youth career started at River Plate just two years later. The club saw potential in his ability even at that age and soon had offers from European clubs, looking for the next big thing. Remember Lionel Messi moving to Barcelona? Lamela had a similar offer on the table. The Catalonian giants offered the family a reported £100,000 pounds a year and guaranteed a home and employment for both of his parents. They were close to accepting it, with Erik taking a picture with the familiar “FCB” crest on a kit.
Ultimately, the family turned the deal down, much to the surprise of everyone. Nobody except the Lamela family knows why the offer was turned down, but it meant that Lamela wasn’t leaving Argentina any time soon and stayed with River Plate.
The move seemed to pay off as Lamela was in a comfortable situation with support from his parents and a club that seemed to genuinely care about him. He repaid the club’s youth group by putting up insane numbers, including a season where he scored 120 goals.
Lamela’s first experience with failure came when he was 19. River Plate had never been relegated in their entire existence, yet even their young magician couldn’t save the club as they ultimate failed to stay up. He played in 36 matches overall for the senior side, scoring just four goals. Ultimately, he decided enough was enough, and forced his way to Europe in a transfer to AS Roma. The kid who had scored goals for fun in their youth academy, one of which they thought was going to get them a king’s ransom in a transfer fee, ended up moving for just £15 million.
Tottenham supporters seemed to hit the breaking point with Lamela at the start of the 2015-16 season. In a 26 minute appearance against Stoke City where Spurs coughed up two late goals to end up with a 2-2 draw, Lamela’s performance was terrible. The writer’s room that day was ready to give him up to the highest bidder...or anyone who would take him. Our own Dustin Menno wrote this in the observations at the end of the match recap:
“Erik Lamela without question had his worst performance in a Tottenham shirt. He was abject in midfield after coming in from Harry Kane. I like the guy, but he did not do himself any favors with his performance in this match.”
That is the cleaned up version of what the entire Slack channel had to say. We were angry with the Argentine. There were commenters who were on board.
“I’m reaching the point where I’m giving up with Lamela. This is his 3rd season in English football. He gave away 2 free kicks before he even got a touch on the ball. He needs to sort it out, and fast. If he doesn’t he can wave goodbye.”
“I think he’s good enough to be a capable backup. But we really haven’t seen anything at all to suggest he is good enough to start for us. If we had a better winger than him, this would be fine, although still painful that we spent £30m on him, but we don’t – instead we have…. Townsend.”
“We didn’t pay £30m for a backup. I say we should recoup as much as we can for him. His stock is still kinda high in Italy due to his history there.”
“I feel bad saying this but he just needs to go, take the loss and move on. I think we have tried just about everything with him and 3 different managers cannot squeeze any of the quality out of him. Even a manager that is from his native country and speaks the language can’t get it out of him.”
“Seriously though, I keep waiting for Erik to really show why he is deserving of a regular starting place in a top 6 Premier League side. Bar a couple of flashes of brilliance last season, he has been abject, weak and off the pace. We should make sure Baldini can find a buyer in Serie A before he is fired. Quite frankly, I’d take £15m, as the fact that he is simply not cut out for our style of play, let alone the pace and physicality of this league means that his value is only going to decrease further as his 3rd year comes to an end.”
These are just a few of the comments. The thread had more, but you get the idea. The sentiment was clear: it was time to cut our losses. Lamela was broken, and he was on the chopping block.
Deadline day came, and word was that Lamela had a deal to Ligue 1 side Marseille, mainly worked out by his agent. It was a loan deal with option to buy at the end. It looked like our world-record transfer was about to leave with the sound of a wet fart.
Mauricio Pochettino stopped the deal dead in its tracks.
Pochettino stood up for his countryman, defending his ability and saying that he was going to be a vital cog. We hadn’t seen what he could do in practice in a match, but he was confident that Lamela would realize his potential.
Again, we were angry. We had a way of ridding ourselves of a player most of us thought was done, and our manager killed the deal.
Then he started to turn that corner.
Fast forward a few matches to a crucial match at White Hart Lane against Manchester City. City were flying so far in the league. They were undefeated and everyone had already crowned them champions. They had Sergio Aguero, who was in incredible form at the time. They had Yaya Toure. Kevin De Bruyne. Raheem Sterling. England was fawning over them.
Spurs kicked their asses. Erik Lamela had a big part of that.
Lamela looked incredible in the press. He tortured Aleksandar Kolarov most of the day, regularly finding good passes and causing chaos down the right flank.
With the score 3-1 and Spurs looking for the dagger, Lamela received a lovely cross from Clinton N’Jie. He had it at his feet, dribbled around both Willie Caballero and Martin Demichelis, making them look foolish in the process to calmly chip the ball into the net. He wheeled away in celebration while White Hart Lane lost their minds.
He’s turning the corner....
From that point on, Lamela found himself almost undroppable. He scored a goal in a 5-1 thrashing at Bournemouth. He assisted Harry Kane at Aston Villa in a 3-1 win. His numbers weren’t gaudy, but there was one thing consistent with his performance: his pressing was incredible. He was causing chaos in the back line. Yes, he was picking up foul after foul, but he was doing it with a purpose. Lamela wanted to make sure that whoever was lined up against him on that flank knew that not only was he there, but he was there to make sure his pass wasn’t going to be completed, one way or another.
Fast forward to February, 2016. Spurs are away at Manchester City this time, chasing eventual champion Leicester City. At that point of the season, nobody was quite sure who was going to be pushing the Foxes. That match at the Etihad was going to determine just that.
Lamela was a sub that day, needing a bit of a rest after going 72 minutes the prior match against Watford. We use the term “super sub” on this site quite a bit, and that’s what Lamela was on that day.
He came on and had an instant impact.
City had just tied the match up at one goal apiece on a lovely goal from Kelechi Iheanacho. The match was very much up in the air — the Etihad had not been kind to Spurs in recent years since they won 1-0 in 2010 to qualify for the Champions league. It was their house of horrors.
Lamela helped end that.
With fresh legs under him, Lamela managed to break up passing lanes and, eventually, make a charge at the City back line with Eriksen running just ahead of him. A cool through ball later, Eriksen was in on net, chipping the ball into the net.
2-1 Spurs. Chaos in the corner from the away fans.
Lamela’s 2015-16 season continued to be impressive. He scored in a 3-0 win against Manchester United in April and picked up four assists in the final six matches. Even if Spurs faltered in those last two matches, Spurs had finally qualified for the Champions League. I’d be hard pressed to imagine it without Erik Lamela in the squad.
The following season, excitement was at a fever pitch. This club had challenged for the title but inexperience and youth were to blame for falling short. After wiping away the disappointment, Spurs kicked off the next season with a 1-1 draw at Everton. Lamela, going a full 90 minutes, provided the lone goal. He also enjoyed a moment where he practically stole the soul right out of former Spurs winger Andros Townsend with a late nutmeg against Crystal Palace.
I'll never not enjoy this gif. pic.twitter.com/aNbegkTtfd— Sean Cahill (@seancahill24) November 5, 2018
He looked good for the next two months, starting six of the next nine matches in the Premier League and starting the first three Champions League matches.
And then he disappeared.
Lamela’s strength with this team lies in his ability to press consistently, usually scaring the hell out of opposing players. He doesn’t have elite pace, but his pressing can best be described as “organized chaos.” He may look like a chicken running around with its head cut off, but he is in full control of what he’s doing and his pressure has both purpose and direction. Fouls be damned, Lamela is going to force that ball out.
When Spurs are on the attack, he shows a little bit of everything. He can make an incisive pass. He can cross the ball. He can put in a good header (as we’ve recently seen) in a timely manner. He can also attack a defender one on one with a good dribble.
Most importantly, the 26-year-old is happy to be starting or as a super sub. Whatever role that he’s needed for, he has shown nothing but enthusiasm for it. It’s a testament to a player who thought he would never play the game again.
When Lamela was first injured in late October of 2016, Spurs faithful didn’t have much of an explanation from the club. Tottenham’s line simply stated that he was just dealing with a minor muscle problem. But it never seemed to go away. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.
There was all sorts of confusion. Reports stated that he asked to go to Rome and receive treatment with his former club. Assistant coach Jesus Perez said the team were more than fine with it, believing it was a fair request and he wanted to be comfortable. He had friends there and is fluent in Italian, so it made sense.
Rumors swirled about a degenerative hip condition, or some other serious problem. There was a real concern that after all this time Erik Lamela would not play another match. Not at Tottenham. Not at Roma. Not anywhere. Eventually, the club opted for surgery on one hip, which then turned into surgery on both hips.
Going into the summer of 2017, the question turned from whether it was possible to rehabilitate Lamela to whether Spurs should cut their losses and get a replacement in case Lamela could not return. Pochettino did add another wide attacker, signing French speedster George-Kevin N’Koudou, but insisted that he was not a replacement for Lamela. The transfer window came and went with no true replacement signed, and with Lamela still part of the club.
Hope returned in November of 2017. Spurs had been posting regular updates to Lamela as he began the slow process of returning to training, including pictures on social media of Lamela working on his own with Spurs coaches. Eventually he rejoined his teammates in full training. His teammates mobbed him. They were all smiles to see the Argentine again.
After two surgeries and 400 days without football, Lamela made his first appearance for Tottenham’s first team in a November 28, 2017 fixture at Leicester City. He was a 77th minute substitute for Christian Eriksen. Almost immediately, he played a lovely through-ball into the box for Harry Kane, who scored easily. It was a vintage Erik Lamela pass. Spurs lost the match 2-1, but it hardly mattered. Erik Lamela was back.
Three matches later, he was starting against Brighton, his first start for the club since October 22, 2016. It must have been a huge relief that he was able to play the game he loved again and to reward the club that had purchased him in 2013. His patience, and the club’s, ultimately seems to be paying off. The flashes of brilliance we had seen in short supply were becoming a regular basis. He was providing dangerous passing, incredible pressing and finally contributing to the scoresheet. In a squad that is loaded with talent in the attacking band, Lamela’s inclusion is welcome and necessary.
Tottenham rewarded the Argentine with an improved contract this past summer, signing him to a new four year deal worth a reported £105,000/week (£5.46m annually). Just 18 months prior, all of this seemed impossible.
In a 2017 article by Stuart James of The Guardian, Lamela admitted that it was “probably the worst time of [his] life. I really wanted to play but it took too long, my injury.” He later talked about the fears of never playing the sport ever again.
“Of course, in really bad times you always think the worst. But my family was always with me and the supporters wanted me on the pitch, they bring me energy to work every day and to never give up. I’m here today because I really wanted it, and when you really want something you can do it. The manager and all the staff honestly were amazing. They were always with me, behind me. All of us wanted the same thing - me playing. Sometimes you have to respect the times and today I feel better.”
Closing out that quote with a simple acknowledgement of feeling better seems like the understatement of his career, but one cannot imagine what he was going through for those 400 days.
Fast forward to the present, where Lamela is enjoying regular playing time. The injury is well behind him and he’s contributing in a big way, scoring six goals and chipping in three assists in thirteen appearances thus far. He’s embracing family life as well, having a son named Tobias in 2017 with his long time girlfriend, Sofia Herrero. In short, after going through a roller coaster of ups and downs that included an injury that could have ended his career, the man wearing #11 in the lilywhite has shown he has the ability to succeed for our beloved Tottenham Hotspur.
Just like Tottenham, the future is bright for him, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.