The headline from Tottenham’s weekend is that they won. Given their past few weeks and the consecutive defeats to Watford, Liverpool and Inter Milan, nothing mattered other than the result at Brighton. Not its style and not its nervy ending. It was one of those matches from which nobody learned anything and from which too many conclusions shouldn’t be drawn.
Erik Lamela’s role was an exception though; that was interesting. The Argentine has cut a defiant figure within this slump. Truthfully, he’s an expressive and emotional footballer who has just the one setting, but there was substance to his performance at the Amex on Saturday night and his fine goal proved to be the match-winner.
Looking back on the sequence from which it came, it was startling similar to the passage of play which saw Harry Kane score against Fulham at Wembley. In each instance, Lamela received a pass within a broken field, carried the ball vertically and while causing further fractures in the defence and, both times, he released his pass at a moment and in manner which allowed further opportunities to develop. The first Kane would score from, the second he himself would carve into the net.
Lamela is in good form. He looks fit, he looks physically broader, and he’s playing as well as he has done since the 2015/16 season. That all instructs a reasonable conclusion: this is a player who looks fresh, is having a positive impact, and who therefore really should be starting. It sounds particularly rational given the many miles Son Heung Min has already travelled this year and, most obviously, the recent flurry of goals could also prove a handy way of lessening the burden on a wilting Harry Kane.
But football doesn’t seem to work like that anymore. There is such a thing as a nominal first-team, but all players are really options now and are included depending on their situational suitability rather than pre-ordained squad hierarchy. That’s especially true at Tottenham, where the management of a small group goes a long way to defining a season and where, even against his better judgement, Mauricio Pochettino is often forced to apply his assets sparingly.
The question, therefore, is not whether Lamela should be playing, but what is his most important role?
Brighton and Fulham have helped to partially answer that question. On past evidence, Lamela can perform a vital function during games in which Spurs are expected to be an under pressure. In those matches, what he does without the ball is much more relevant and his habit of being a perpetual nuisance is extremely valuable. It’s not a coincidence that one of his best performances for Pochettino came at Stamford Bridge last season, when his style of pressing – all elbows, niggles and petulance – helped to keep a vulnerable Chelsea off-balance. He is a spanner in the works of any team’s build-up phases; a relentless, yappy little pain.
This recent burst of form shows his other great use though. The Brighton which Tottenham faced before and after Kane’s penalty were obviously very different. One sat deep, was content to cede possession and happy to read and react. The other, crucially, was far less organised. As is typical, once the impetus fell on Chris Hughton’s players to find a goal, so their structure began to loosen and fragment.
And it’s onto those gaps that Lamela seems to perfectly fit. Despite their squad limitations, Spurs are actually quite well-stocked for impact substitutes: Son is a very direct player who carries a goal-threat and Lucas is equally destructive in an albeit slightly different way. But perhaps nobody is better suited to this role than Lamela – he also carries the ball vertically, but, crucially, seems to see the field better than either of the other two. He’s not as likely to score, he may not even be as liable to beat defenders, but for a broad threat encompassing all the virtues needed to exploit an over-committing opponent, he’s probably Pochettino’s best option. Son is the better finisher, Moura is quicker and more dynamic, but – in this specific situation – it is Lamela’s range of attributes which are the most useful.
It has subsequently been lost to the result, but that was also apparent in the defeat in Milan. Lamela started that game but, it was telling that almost all of his best moments came after Christian Eriksen had scored. At his worst and with a rigid defence in front of him, the Argentine can be ponderous with the ball and prone to losing it cheaply. With an advantage, however, it’s startling to see just how many useful attacking positions he finds himself in and how often he threatens to deliver or create a knockout blow. His seeing and execution of through-balls is arguably the finest at the club and, with most defenders drawn to Kane, Alli or Eriksen, he retains an uncanny habit of drfiting into the box undetected and finding a pocket of space. Fine as his finish was on Saturday evening, he was completely unmarked when the ball came to him. As he had been against Liverpool. It’s very descriptive; it’s indicative of good movement.
It’s something to ponder, certainly. What his use is under normal conditions is a different question. He certainly has a case to be starting games, but it isn’t an overwhelming one because, of course, Lucas and Son are very fine players deserving of equal opportunity. The most likely scenario, then, is continuing rotation between the three. But in these moments, when Tottenham are starting to count their points in games, Lamela has made a compelling case to be their closer.