When he came to White Hart Lane, Erik Lamela was expected to be the club’s Gareth Bale replacement. Playing on the right side of a 4-2-3-1, as Bale had, he was expected to provide goals, width, and a bit of creativity for Andre Villas-Boas’s side.
That, of course, did not happen. Lamela struggled with injuries throughout AVB’s time at Spurs and was then locked in Tim Sherwood’s basement dungeon when the inept English boss took over. That said, few fair-minded supporters judged him based on his first season because the season was so unpredictably bizarre. The combination of injury issues, struggles with the language, and turmoil at the club would be enough to overwhelm any new signing and particularly a 21-year-old still relatively new to European football who had never played in a league even remotely approaching the pace of the Premier League.
But Lamela’s second year has been, if anything, even stranger than his first. He’s been fit for most of the season yet has struggled to lock down a permanent place in Mauricio Pochettino’s first XI. Indeed, of Spurs cadre of attacking options up top only Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane have established themselves in the side in the same way that Spurs defenders and midfielders have. Given his record fee and the acclaim that welcomed him to the club, it’s hard to excuse Lamela’s mostly disappointing season, a couple spectacular goals not withstanding.
Understanding Lamela’s Success at Roma
Unfortunately for Spurs supporters, careful observers of European football might have seen this coming as Lamela’s fantastic stint at Roma may be explainable based on two facts that cannot be replicated in England:
- Serie A is significantly slower than the Premier League, which means that a trick player like Lamela gets more time on the ball and that the mental limitations that might exist in his game won’t be noticed because of all the extra time he’ll get on the ball.
- He played for Zdenen Zeman, perhaps the most aggressive, attack-minded coach in world football.
The first point has afflicted a number of players who attempt to move from Italy to another league. Andrey Shevchenko may be the most famous Serie A flop after his high price move to Chelsea, but you could also mention Alessio Cerci and his high-price failure at Atletico Madrid as still another example of this kind of failure.
It’s not that these players are bad, but that they have a style and skill-set that suits Serie A. Different leagues have different profiles that suit different players. Gareth Bale has been good in Spain, but his direct, relatively plain style is an odd fit in the more finesse-based Spanish league. It’s not that Bale is bad. It’s that he’s a weird fit in Spain. The same point goes for Lamela. He’s not bad. But he might be a bad fit in England. If he can adjust to the pace of the game and the mental side of his game comes along then his obvious technical abilities should see him become a top player. But if he can’t do those things, then he may be better off returning to Italy.
That said, the bigger issue may well be Lamela’s dependence on the quirky system of Zdenek Zeman. Over half of Lamela’s goals at Roma (10 out of 19) came during the five months that he played for Zeman. Put another way, he scored half his goals over about one quarter of the matches he played for the Giallorossi. What made Lamela so deadly under Zeman? Simple: Roma attacked with numbers better than any other club in Italy. Zeman’s system could be described as a more extreme form of what Roger Schmidt does with a bit of Guardiola thrown in as well.
Zeman wants all 10 outfield players to attack. So you receive the ball, you play it forward, and then you follow it down field so that you can be a passing option as the team attacks. It’s suicidal as a system, which is why Zeman has never caught on at a bigger club than Roma. His sides often score 2-3 goals per game and give up just as many–which is why Andrea Pirlo has said of Zeman’s style that “we’re talking about the very limits of reality.” The net result is an even more extreme form of the chaos that Schmidt creates at Leverkusen when his team gets forward into 2-2-6 type attacking formations with two central defenders, two midfielders, four attacking players pushed forward, and both wingbacks flanking the four attackers. With Schmidt, the back two and the midfield two are stable and tend to hold their positions. With Zeman… they don’t.
Take these two screen captures as being representative of the sort of madness you see from the Czech manager. Both come from the buildup play to a Lamela goal:
In this case, Lamela is on the ball and is going to dribble into the space indicated by the arrow and take one of his trademark long-distance shots that will sneak just inside the far post. But look at the setup here. There are four players who could realistically challenge him, but the three deepest defenders are taken out of the play by the movement of Lamela’s teammates. Number 33 in white could challenge the ball, but realistically he’s not going to dispossess a dribbler as sophisticated as Lamela on his own. So what we have is Lamela in space on the ball in the attacking third–in other words we have Lamela at his best.
You get the same situation here:
The other thing to note here is the shape of Roma’s attacking players here. Francesco Totti, ostensibly a center forward, has dropped deepest with four attackers streaming past him. And here again the numbers game works in Lamela’s favor: the defenders that could go toward him are all occupied with other Roma attackers. This creates space for Lamela to move into from which he’ll curl a shot past the keeper and into the goal.
Erik Lamela at Tottenham
At Spurs Lamela has almost never had this kind of space. He was getting it earlier in the season when Tottenham’s high press wasn’t working as effectively, particularly against QPR and in the season’s first derby with Arsenal which is when Tottenham basically did a Simeone. But since the press has begun to work better (largely thanks to Lamela’s own fanatical work rate for which the Argentine does not receive nearly enough credit) the space in the attacking third has been more limited.
This in turn means that Lamela gets less time on the ball. Rather than being able to run into space with it and attack the defense, Lamela has often been asked to take one or two touches and then move the ball–something he isn’t particularly good at doing yet due to the aforementioned struggles with the pace of the English game and the mental side of the game.
Additionally, Tottenham seldom get as many players forward as Roma did under Zeman. Look at this image from the recent derby win against Arsenal:
In this image Spurs have only four players in or around the 18-yard-box and Arsenal have more than that in defense.
And the above is not unusual for Mauricio Pochettino. Though Pochettino likes a high-pressing system, he seldom pushes his players as far forward as Zeman or even Roger Schmidt. If you review Pochettino’s record at Southampton you see the same theme. This image from a goal scored against Norwich last year is typical:
Note that in the entire attacking half of the field has only sixth Southampton players in it. Pochettino, points about his reputation aside, is actually a more conservative, structured manager than Schmidt or Zeman. He wants to press the ball in the midfield area and attacking third because it’s the best way to create scoring chances and frustrate the opposition in his view. But besides his front four attackers the rest of the squad is much more disciplined in its movement and positioning. One of the two midfielders may get forward more, but even that looks more like Frank Lampard making a late run into the box rather than the player pushing forward and turning the shape into more of a 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-3-2. The fullbacks are expected to get forward and provide some width, but they are also still expected to do considerably more defensive work than you’d see them do under Zeman.
Consequently, the things that made Lamela so good at Roma, the number of players that surged forward and the amount of time and space he had on the ball, both disappear under Pochettino at Tottenham. That being said, Lamela has proven his value with his excellent work rate and energy up front and the constant potential for him to score a golazo with a bit of exceptional skill. But the feeling with Lamela right now is that he doesn’t necessarily take anything off the table for team, but he doesn’t offer enough going forward. He works well in the system and he provides decent delivery on corner kicks. But when asked to contribute to the attack more Lamela has struggled. One suspects he’ll either need to adjust to the pace of England and learn to use the ball more effectively or he’ll likely be returning to Italy sooner rather than later.