What do you think of when you think of Erik Lamela?
Is it the rabona against Arsenal? Perhaps it’s when he embarrassed his old friend Andros Townsend with the smoothest nutmeg you’ve ever seen? Is it when he didn’t realize Cesc Fabregas’ hand was in the way of his foot? It could be when he went in with two feet on a Burnley player and then stole the physio’s water while the Burnley player was being treated? Is it the time he called Jack Wilshere a pussy and tried to goad the entire Arsenal roster into a fight? Maybe it’s the OTHER rabona in the Europa league?
For a guy who never really put together a dominant 90 minute performance in league play, Erik Lamela probably created more memorable moments for Tottenham Hotspur fans than any player in recent memory not named Harry Kane.
By any statistical metric, Lamela has not lived up to expectations. Purchased as a replacement for Gareth Bale, he came to Spurs as a highly touted attacker from Roma, having just scored 15 goals in a single season. During his 8 years in North London, he has only scored 37 goals in all competitions. He has struggled with injuries and hardly been the first team fixture that many were expecting when he joined us from Italy.
But cult heroes aren’t there to rack up goals or assists. Sure there are plenty of statistical arguments that can tell you why a healthy Erik Lamela is or isn’t a useful member of a football team. None of those arguments will tell you why so many Spurs fans love him so much.
What made Lamela so special was how much he cared. He wasn’t the most talented player on the pitch, but he cared enough to ride a tackle as far as he could take it. Or to wind up the opposition beyond reason. Or to chase down a loose ball. And he was just talented enough that his effort would consistently produce truly special moments.
Lamela walked into an absolute disaster of a season for Spurs and was forced to live up to the enormous expectations of replacing the best Spurs’ player in a generation. Then his coach was fired. Then the next coach openly mocked his inability to settle into a new culture and a new league. It would have been very easy for him to have joined the long list of disappointing big money transfers at Spurs.
If we are all being honest, he is probably enormously fortunate that not only was his next coach, Mauricio Pochettino, a fellow Argentine, but also someone who was building a team designed to maximize exactly what Lamela excelled at: fast, pressing football with an edge.
Lamela went from a punchline to someone who was constantly standing out. I would honestly struggle to name a league game that Lamela dominated from start to finish, but he was always doing something. Sometimes it was scoring great goals, other times it was running the press, sometimes it was putting in a two-footed tackle on a goalkeeper, but it was always winding up anyone or everyone on the other side of the pitch.
Few players in lilywhite have ever been as good at the dark arts of football as Lamela and none of them have been as good at it against teams like Arsenal and Chelsea. Somehow he never received a red card at Spurs until the second North London derby of his final season, which, as I am sure any Arsenal fan will tell you, is a minor miracle. I don’t know why we have all come to enjoy this so much. Maybe it’s seeing someone buck Spurs’ reputation as a soft touch? Maybe there’s just something inherently rewarding about watching someone bring Jack Wilshere down to size? Maybe it’s because it showed how hard he was always working for the team? But we all loved him for it.
Every Spurs fan can think of a moment that Erik Lamela stood out, but if I had to pick one, it would be from the 2015 season.
Pochettino’s team was really starting to click in his second year and were really announcing themselves in September with an extremely thorough beating of Manuel Pelligrini’s Manchester City. Late in the game Spurs were cruising to a 3-1 victory when Clinton N’Jie got past Aleksander Kolorov and put in a cross for Lamela in the center of the pitch. It’s a good pass, exactly the kind of pass that every goalscorer hopes for. Harry Kane would have buried it in his worst season. But with Lamela it is never that simple. Lamela doesn’t control it cleanly and takes an extra touch, giving the defender shadowing him time to interrupt any chance of a shot and giving Willy Caballero an opportunity to come out for it and cut off the angles. But Lamela still has enough of a touch that he retains possession and dribbles away from the keeper and the defender. Leaving Caballero on his knees and the defender with his back to the ball, Lamela gets free on the left and scores a fourth for Spurs before wheeling away and celebrating exactly like we would.
It’s not a pretty goal. Someone like Kane or Son would have made it look routine, but Lamela made it look like the hardest thing in the world. He makes the whole thing look much more complicated and much more difficult than it needs to be. But every time the whole thing looked like falling apart Lamela somehow keeps it alive. He didn’t give up. He kept on going. It’s everything I loved about Erik Lamela. Or it would have been if he celebrated by jumping in a cab and elbowing Jack Wilshere in the face.
Other players have contributed more to Spurs’ success in recent years, but no one worked harder. At a time when we are being painfully reminded that footballers don’t care about our team like we do, Erik Lamela showed us that sometimes they do. And man, was it fun to watch.