Following a player’s life through his Instagram activity gives only a limited perspective. After all, what can anyone really gain from a steady flow of faux-graciousness and holiday pictures which, if we’re honest, is probably controlled by whomever drew the shortest straw at the agency.
With Erik Lamela, though, that’s really all there’s been. He’s been the outsider looking in, taking sad pictures of Tottenham games on his footballer-sized television and making tenuous promises about his return. There have been no inspirational quotes, no clumsy bible references, and none of the other wounded athlete staples.
Long-term injures do generally occur in information vacuums. When a player ruptures a ligament or breaks a bone, clubs are in the habit of handing out only the bare essentials. The operation was a success; gym work is ongoing; the player has returned to training. And ordinarily that’s fine, because the public respect the seriousness of those types of injuries and have a rough appreciation for how long they take to heel.
But in Lamela’s case, the vagueness surrounding his rehabilitation and the unspecified nature of his hip problem has bred a particularly toxic pattern of disinformation. Since he was last seen playing for Tottenham (against Liverpool in the league cup thirteen months ago), the Argentinian has existed within a swirl of conjecture. His family life has been written about, his private life speculated on across social media, and his determination to recover from injury has been openly questioned.
With Erik Lamela, though, that's really all there's been. He's been the outsider looking in, taking sad pictures of Tottenham games on his footballer-sized television and making tenuous promises about his return.
A different type of personality would probably have retaliated. Through a quick State Of My Union video on Facebook perhaps, or a lighthearted appearance on his club’s in-house television channel. But there’s been very little. We know that Lamela will soon become a father, that he’s between hairstyles and that (courtesy of Spurs) he has been taking part in first-team training for more than a month, but little else. The mystery has also been inadvertently stirred by Mauricio Pochettino, who has said in recent press-conferences that while now physically healed, Lamela is being kept from the pitch by psychological reticence.
In other words, he’s yet to reclaim complete confidence in his own body. A hip bone is a complex piece of kit and, informed by an aborted comeback at the beginning of the year, this one is yet to regain its owner’s trust.
At his most effective, Lamela is a fearless player in every sense. His first eighteen months at Tottenham were characterised by injury and the crowd’s distrust and, to this day, some of those supporters are still audibly distrustful. And yet none of that has ever obviously left a mark. At the time of his injury, he had become a fitter, more intense footballer, but his habits with the ball remain relatively unchanged. He was still taking risks, still teasing defenders and still carrying the ball in that curious, spider-like way. That conviction has survived.
There will always be those who disregard Lamela and if their objections haven’t melted away after more than 100 appearances, they aren’t likely to do so soon. But those who have gravitated towards him and have continually defended him will tell you that his appeal lies in his intangibles – in an indomitable and seductive spirit. Perhaps that does lead to an over-emphasis of his defensive worth. Maybe also to the over-estimation of his general importance. Whatever the truth, that residual fondness for a divisive player would seem to come as much from who he is as what he is.
Lamela is different. Lamela is imperfect. Lamela sometimes makes decisions which are very hard to justify. Somehow, though, that odd blend works. The flawed, frustrated artist with the popstar’s face and a cage fighter’s belligerence: it’s just too strange not to like.
Which, of course, makes this next chapter so intriguing: Who and what is Erik Lamela now? There has been some truth to the conjecture surrounding him and, as well as injury, he has had to overcome some significant personal difficulties. Similarly – as revealed by Pochettino – the hip problem has been severe enough in its general effect to create a mini-psychosis. Beyond the standard truisms about regaining fitness and reacclimatising to the pace of Premier League football, there are no guarantees that he will return as the same player. Will the defensive spikiness which antagonised crowds up and down the country be quite as provocative. And, informed by his own sense of fragility, will his pursuit of the ball by quite as relentless.
What happens after the ellipsis?
After a player has been injured for so long, cliche dictates the his return must be like his club “making a new signing”. That’s particularly apt here, of course, because Lamela will be another body for Pochettino and potentially again an invaluable member of that Tottenham high-press. But that’s just hope rather than expectation; Lamela is essentially a complete unknown now. The circumstances surrounding his absence have been so many and so myriad, that – like a new arrival – he could be anything at all.