PEOPLE

Blending craft and graft to spur his game

Tottenham's Erik Lamela holding off the challenge of Watford's Ben Watson during a Premier League meeting between their two sides in February. The Argentinian has come a long way, from failing to impress in his debut season, to being part of an attac
Tottenham's Erik Lamela holding off the challenge of Watford's Ben Watson during a Premier League meeting between their two sides in February. The Argentinian has come a long way, from failing to impress in his debut season, to being part of an attacking quartet spearheading Spurs' title challenge this season. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • The look on Mauricio Pochettino's face as Erik Lamela perfectly executed a "rabona" was one of stony indifference. The Tottenham Hotspur head coach sat in the dugout unmoved; fanciful flicks and tricks were all very well but Pochettino wanted work rate.

Fast-forward 18 months from that win over Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League and Pochettino would no doubt greet the same strike with a very different reaction at White Hart Lane today, when his team can close the gap on leaders Leicester City at the top of the table with victory over mid-table side Stoke City.

A more typical image is of his Argentinian compatriot scrapping for the loose ball and starting the break that led to the opening goal against Manchester United two weeks ago.

Lamela, 24, has rolled up his sleeves and is up there with the players who cover the most ground in the league and midfielders who regain the ball most and fastest. And there is an end product, often in important games.

He created the winner for Christian Eriksen against Manchester City in February and had a hand in all three goals against United on April 10, when he jointly topped the highest number of tackles of players in the league.

It contrasts with his first season at the club. He is no longer brushed off the ball and has adapted to the pace of the game.

In Italy, where he played for Roma before his £30 million (S$58.54 million) transfer in August 2013, he had between two and three seconds to think on the ball, compared with maybe half that time in England.

One overriding reason for the improvement is being able to speak English and communicate with team-mates. He had been in England for a year when Pochettino took charge and could understand but not speak the language.

He would hang around other Spanish speakers such as Federico Fazio, Roberto Soldado and Sandro but with none of them left at the club, he has come out of his shell.

Lamela arrived at 21 and was not an extrovert like Sandro, the midfielder who would do karate kicks to encourage players in the dressing room. Or even like Son Heung Min, the forward, who arranged for Korean food to be delivered on his first day and is a prankster.

Lamela is quiet. He does not drink or go to nightclubs. He prefers to return home to his girlfriend and his bulldog, Simba.

He does not just offer South American flair - he is a team player. He runs an average of about 11.5km per match as part of an attacking quartet. He has scored four goals and made eight more in the league but wants to match his tally in his last season at Roma, where he struck 15 times and created five.

Franco Baldini, the former technical director, signed Lamela after the sale of Gareth Bale and there was a mistaken belief that he was a replacement. He became a political pawn in the internal battle between the Italian and then head coach Andre Villas-Boas, who wanted other players.

He arrived looking scared and was dogged by a back injury in his first season and returned to Italy for treatment, adding to the perception that he had not settled.

Lamela felt hard done by with the press. The picture was clouded. Marseille wanted him on loan at the start of this season and a possible move seemed to be tangled up with Tottenham's attempts to sign Saido Berahino. Lamela did not want to go and Pochettino intervened.

"After two seasons at Tottenham, now is a key moment for him," Pochettino said at the time.

Pochettino took more than a season to find his best side and Lamela knows he is on the teamsheet and feels the confidence of his manager. This season, the fans have been rewarded for their patience.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Blending craft and graft to spur his game'. Print Edition | Subscribe