Sometimes, injury can help a player’s reputation. During protracted absences, an individual’s worth is often romanticised – or used as an explanation for poor form – but even in the short-term the holes which develop can serve to clarify a previously unrecognised importance.
Take Tottenham and Erik Lamela: a player who divides a fanbase and is often portrayed as the weakest member of Mauricio Pochettino’s attacking midfield. The Argentinian hasn’t been seen since a brief cameo in the league cup, when he came on as a substitute at the end of the 2-1 loss to Liverpool. A hip injury subsequently sent him to the treatment table and, without him, Spurs have lost three games, draw two and won just one.
Truthfully, there’s been more behind that sequence than a simple absence of Lamela-like qualities: the hugely influential Toby Alderweireld has also been missing, Harry Kane has been struggling for fitness, and the squad as a whole seems embroiled within a curious malaise. Alderweireld aside, Tottenham are not constructed around the performance of a single player and it would be reductive to claim otherwise. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to overlook their recent deficiencies in areas in which Lamela would have contributed.
He eludes easy description, at least when on the ball. Lamela is neither definitively one type of player or another, being as he is a strange brew of skill, elastic limbs, and frustrating indulgence. But perhaps what November has shown is that, rather than creating a maddening road-block, the way he plays is actually paramount to keeping an opposing defence off-balance. As someone not prone to repeating the same habits and making the same decisions time-on-time, he’s extremely difficult for rival managers to game-plan against; the attacking half of Pochettino’s team is designed to be fluid and Lamela, with his ethereal presence and tendency to drift, has that quality in spades. He’s a read-and-react player – someone who isn’t always productive, but who presents a tactical challenge in every fixture. Irrespective of whether he’s actually doing the creating, or even having a particularly productive game, having him on the pitch provides Tottenham with an intangible potency which is as real as it is hard to describe. It’s randomness, it’s occasional excellence, and it’s valuable.
The second point is a more obvious one: he works harder than any other outfield player at the club. It’s easier to chart that influence because, invariably, its absence manifests in pressure or, worse, goals. At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Heung Min Son’s limp attempt to keep pace with Victor Moses was a contributing factor in Chelsea’s winner and, in the same position, Lamela would likely have reacted with more urgency. In the more general sense, though, he’s fundamental to his side’s ability to keep opposition in their own half. “High-pressing” may be 2016 voguing trend, but it’s a cornerstone principle of Pochettino’s football: when a team is trying to exit their own third or pass their way through midfield, the objective is always to steal the ball or, at least, stymie their progress.
Lamela is the semi-literal spanner in the works. Disregarding his qualities with the ball – and the opposing perceptions of what those are – his influence on games can typically be judged by how rhythmic the other team’s play is. Whether he’s successfully retrieving the ball or making clumsy tackles, he’s a nuisance. Imagine trying to write a sentence while someone liberally drops commas, full-stops and exclamation marks into the text – it’s the same principle: disruption. He’s the whippet dog, the hyper-active child…whatever the analogy, he’s a pain to play through.
For a long time, that was dismissed as woolly apologism and as a diversion from his haphazard attacking output, but the last month has shown what an integral function it really is. Without Lamela in the side, the Spurs press typically comprises Kane, Christian Eriksen, Heung Min Son and sometimes Dele Alli. One is a willing runner, the other three are either not athletically gifted enough or not sufficiently interested to keep the seal tight at the top of the pitch. The result is easy transition and the creation of momentum: the games against Leicester, Monaco, Leverkusen and Chelsea all featured periods during which Tottenham lost footing in the game and were forced to retreat into their own half for periods. The opposition had time on the ball and, eventually, that escalated to a corrosive rhythm.
It’s a contrary argument to make perhaps, because Lamela is neither his side’s most influential attacking player nor their most necessary defensive component, but his blended influence is extremely difficult to replicate. Tottenham are a flexible team, but also a particularly communal one: everything they do, they do in numbers and battalion groups. Lamela is highly loyal to that ethos and nobody has been as susceptible to Pochettino’s evangelism as he has; little surprise then that the irregular hole he left has been so hard to fill.