Erik Lamela has disappeared before. Last season was pretty much as bad as first seasons get for club record signings: brought on for £30m at the end of Tottenham’s post-Bale spree, he managed just three league starts before succumbing to injury. But he was back in the starting line-up for their 1-0 win at West Ham on Saturday and if he does not play against the Cypriot side AEL , it is almost certainly not because he has been dropped but because he is now considered too valuable to be wasted in the Europa League qualifying round. It’s early days yet but, after an impressive pre-season, this may be a second comeback for a player who is still only 22.
When he was 12, Lamela was taken to La Masia. Barcelona wanted to sign him and there w of a contract worth €100,000 a week. The Argentinian papers excitedly talked of him as the “new Messi” – although Messi at that stage was still to make his first-team debut for Barça – but Lamela stayed in Buenos Aires. “I didn’t really understand what was going on,” he said, but it seems his parents decided it was better for him to grow up closer to home.
Then his form disintegrated. if he might be another of those child stars who have all the skill to succeed but lack some key ingredient – the courage, the drive, a tactical understanding – to make it in the senior game. The truth was rather more prosaic. “At the time I was short, then I suddenly grew up and I had difficulties coping with my new body,” he explained. After a year or two, his balance had returned and with it his form. At 17 he made his debut for River Plate. Within a year he was a regular starter, operating as a No10 behind two strikers.
A little later, as River switched to a 4-3-2-1 he moved out to the flank and learned how to play in a new role. “I also discovered how to start from the wing when you have a panorama and have to make decisions,” he said in an interview when he was 19. “If you’re the typical No10, you spend most of your time with your back to goal and you don’t know what’s going on behind you.”
He was a huge success, cutting on to his left foot dangerously, playing with great flair and verve. “I always play the same, no matter if my team is winning or losing,” he said. “And if [opponents] try to intimidate me, I respond, because I’m young but I’ve got my character. You play football with the ball, not with your mouth.”
That character, though, was sorely tested in 2011. Lamela probably would have stayed at River for another season or two but when they were relegated – a stunning, barely comprehensible blow, played out to a backdrop of pitch invasions and terrace violence – he was sold off to the highest bidder, Roma.
Although he scored three times – two penalties – he was less than convincing at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia that summer. He had been struggling with an ankle problem and that caused him to miss the start of the Serie A campaign. It seemed he was in danger of disappearing again. His first season in Italy was not a disaster by any means – nothing like his first in England – and it finished relatively well, but there were doubts. They were extinguished in a superb second season that brought 15 goals in 30 league starts.
And then he disappeared again. Exactly what happened after his move to England remains a matter of debate, but it seems he was hampered in early training sessions by a calf injury that took some time to diagnose. He was dealing with a new environment, a new city and a new culture – and Rome is far more similar to Buenos Aires than London is to either. He found a dressing room packed with players who were also trying to adapt, while many of the more established players were growing disaffected with the manager.
The dismissal of André Villas-Boas just brought further upheaval. Tim Sherwood gave Lamela a start in his first league game in charge, at Southampton, but it is not to demean Sherwood’s capacities as a coach to say that Lamela probably had not worked with anybody quite like him before. And, anyway, within a few weeks he had developed the back and thigh problems that ended his season.
Little wonder that, when asked how Lamela’s English was coming along in April, Sherwood replied with some exasperation “Que?”. While it would be wrong to make too much of an off-the-cuff gag from a man prone to speaking first and thinking later, David Hytner was surely right when he suggested what that it implied a lot about Lamela’s status: he was the outsider nobody could understand and thus the butt of a particularly English form of banter.
Perhaps because of his injury problems, the impression was created that Lamela was somehow a dilettante, somebody not overly keen on training. At Roma, though, he was the fastest player in the squad, running 2,000m in 6min 21sec. At a little over six foot in height, he is rather more robust than might be imagined and after a promising pre-season, there were encouraging signs at West Ham, notably a first-half run in which he beat two challenges before being fouled.
Just because Spurs’ new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, is Argentinian, of course, does not mean he will necessarily have a rapport with Lamela, but the presence of so many Spanish speakers among his backroom staff must be an advantage and, besides, the atmosphere can hardly be as strained as it was last season.
Lamela may not work out at Tottenham, but the signs are far more positive this season than they were last. Certainly he should not be written off on the basis of one poor campaign.