Erik Lamela rewards Tottenham's patience, shows his worth vs. West Ham
In December 2017, Mauricio Pochettino offered an indication of how highly he rates Erik Lamela.
At points in the 12 months before that, Tottenham fans might have wondered whether they would ever see the Argentine attacker again. His spell out with an initially innocuous-seeming hip injury stretched on and on, public updates on his condition were vague, and (ultimately false) rumours spread that there might be other explanations for his absence.
Eventually in November he returned, and a month later the deadline approached to choose Tottenham's Champions League squad for the second half of the season. "We need to consider to provide one place to Erik," said Pochettino. With no real evidence other than his own faith, the Tottenham manager was prepared to send other players on loan in order to make space for Lamela.
Sometimes it's difficult to see why. Even after his return to the side a year ago, Lamela didn't really ever cement his place in the Tottenham first XI. He only started consecutive games twice last season, and his inclusion from the beginning against West Ham on Saturday was the first Premier League start he'd made this term. Pochettino has spoken plenty of times about the need to be careful with Lamela, yet inevitably you might question whether he is worth the trouble.
But in the time he has been on the pitch this season, Lamela has shown he is. The goal that would turn out to be the winner against the Hammers was the eighth he'd been directly involved in (either scoring or assisting) this season, despite spending a relatively meagre 406 minutes on the pitch. Efficient, if nothing else.
"We believe in him, we trust in him," said Pochettino after the game, when asked what he put the improvement in Lamela's performances down to. "He's more mature. It's his [sixth] year here, he's more relaxed, more calm. Now he needs to be more consistent."
Beyond the goal, he was probably Tottenham's most inventive and sparky player in a truly odd team performance. Initially Tottenham were barely able to exert any sort of style or control, and then when Lamela did give them the lead they sat deep and defended like they'd gone 1-0 up in the Nou Camp. The colours may be similar, but West Ham are nobody's idea of Barcelona.
Lamela was particularly important given the absence of Christian Eriksen. The Dane's injury, picked up on international duty, turned out not to be the long-term problem some of the more doomy predictions suggested, but it was enough to restrict him to brief cameo at the London Stadium. Tottenham often look an entirely different team without Eriksen, his invention enough to elevate poor team performances and win "undeserved" points.
That's essentially what Lamela did against West Ham. The two are different players, the Argentine quicker and more physical, Eriksen more subtle and with a better range of passing, but they can essentially fill the same role. Namely, the man Spurs turn to when everything else isn't going to plan.
And it's a role he might play more in the long-term. Of the players Spurs will feel are vulnerable to a giant club swooping in and making an offer they can't refuse, Eriksen is probably the most attractive. Someone like Harry Kane might prove too much of a totem for Spurs to sell, Dele Alli perhaps not quite world class, but Eriksen may be the sweet spot between those two. Expensive, but worth it for a side like, say, Barcelona.
Ultimately nurturing a player like Lamela, 26, will probably be the best way for Tottenham to replace a player like Eriksen, should he leave. It might be part of the reason Tottenham gave Lamela a new four-year contract in the summer. If Eriksen does leave, their straitened financial circumstances will mean they won't be able to sign a replacement of similar quality. But if they already have such a player in their ranks, someone already versed in Pochettino's ways, then that would be an ideal solution.
For the moment Tottenham have them both, and that works nicely for them too. Lamela is similar enough to take on some of Eriksen's duties, but different enough to play alongside him.
Last year, Lamela's former Spurs teammate Ryan Mason was asked what makes the Argentine such a good player. "I've never come across anyone in football that loves the game as much as him," was one of Mason's explanations.
It shows. And if he can display that joie de vivre, or exuberance, as he did against West Ham, he may well provide the solution to a number of problems.