In the beginning, there was only effort.
That disproves the great fallacy about Erik Lamela. While his first eighteen months at Tottenham was characterised by underperformance, his inefficiencies with the ball and wavering confidence were always underwritten by a strong work-ethic. He always tackled, he always ran, he always guaranteed a defensive contribution. Invariably, though, that would be the sum total of his performance and what he did without the ball would often be used to calm the complaints over what he failed to do with it.
Now, there seems to be a motion to explain Lamela’s improvement in generic terms and to cast him as the fancy foreigner who has improved by embracing a more English way of doing things. It’s false; the familiar line of attributing his evolution to the abandonment of a work-shy reliance on tricks and flicks ignores the history of a blue-collared player who just happens to be technically gifted. While Lamela’s talent has always been semi-visible and even though his game is garnished with periodic flamboyance, at his core he’s a warrior of a footballer who has never been afraid to get his knees dirty.
So, if he’s not working harder and he hasn’t suddenly acquired a new defensive responsibility, how has he managed to go from white elephant to essential first-team component.
Up to March of 2015, Lamela’s greatest weakness was not what he himself failed to do, but what he stopped the rest of the side from achieving. He was a tactical full-stop. While his tenacious style gave a justification for his inclusion, his inability to recycle possession reliably meant that he took away as much as he gave. Through that first year-and-a-half, the typical Lamela sequence involved him receiving the ball in a promising situation, but then surrendering it through hesitation or uncertainty. His release of possession would be slow and rather than decisively passing the ball, he would tentatively push it around the pitch, as if uncertain that what he was doing was right.
As talented as he was, that made him a road-block. He was an obstacle between the Tottenham side and their manager’s ideology. Mauricio Pochettino’s football is predicated on speed, both in relation to retrieving the ball from an opponent and using it to exploit vacated space. Lamela was a hindrance to that; while capable of producing fine individual moments, his selection often seemed contrary to the collective aim and many of Spurs’ moves died at his feet.
Passing statistics don’t reflect his improvement in that area and there is no statistical metric which proves that Lamela has become offensively more viable. Instead, it’s one of those developments which can only be judged by watching games and by appreciating the rhythm which he helps to sustain. Probably more than any other top-half side in the Premier League, Tottenham are about unity and the value of the team over the indulgence of any individual - and it’s within that context that Lamela should now be judged. While he hasn’t necessary become more proficient at laying the ball off to deeper midfielders or better at literally passing the football, the speed and conviction with which he arrives and acts on his instincts has not only greatly improved, but has also been highly refined. He now darts into space having previously just stumbled towards it. He is a one or two-touch player rather than one who requires three or four before making a decision. And, perhaps most importantly, he has a far greater awareness of not just what surrounds him, but also what is likely to develop in five or ten seconds’ time.
It’s a difficult improvement to quantify, but it’s characterised by speed, fluidity and in how quickly he now performs his on-field actions. Lamela was once a footballing coma and previously the entire game would slow down when the ball was in his possession. He appeared to see the game as less of a team sport and more as a series of individual battles and that, ultimately, created the galling ponderousness. It wasn’t something derived from selfishness necessarily, but more likely a flawed mental approach - or possibly an overeagerness to prove his ability.
Whatever the cause, it created that difference between who he was as a player and who he should be.
But that gap no longer exists - or, at the least, it’s now far narrower than it once was. Whether it’s a change attributable to Lamela, Pochettino or - most likely - both, the player is now a composite of his existing virtues (skill, vision, energy) and a set of refined habits which actually suit the landscape in which Tottenham operate. He doesn’t relentlessly engage defenders in those slow-motion battles anymore and now appears to understand the folly of forced self-expression. He is a cog in a wheel - a well-designed, ornate cog, but a cog nevertheless. He plays the role required of him and he has become the player his manager has needed him to be. That might sound less than glorious, but it’s actually the perfect virtue to have in this current squad.
He’s Erik Lamela 2.0: quicker and smarter. Stylistically he is still the same athlete, but he has been developed and moulded in a way that finally makes him consistently valuable in every facet of his team’s play.