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Remember Gareth Bale? Of course you do, but for the last 20 minutes at White Hart Lane last Sunday afternoon Tottenham fans would have struggled to name their former Welsh winger as they witnessed their team tear Manchester United to shreds.
Filling the role of attacking talisman on the right-side was Erik Lamela, scoring the final goal, making another and taking home the man of the match champagne in a display to suggest he can be the natural heir to Bale.
As the £30 million record-acquisition in the summer of Bale’s sale to Real Madrid, he was signed to be the successor but a disappointing first season at White Hart Lane, he would feature in just 9 league games and start only three, preceded an underwhelming, albeit improved, second and it appeared like patience was wearing thin.
Lamela started 25 games of Pochettino’s first campaign with Spurs and created 7 goals but never entirely convinced that he could be a long-term member of the new era. Fellow Bale-money signings Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue and Vlad Chiriches were all shipped out and Son Heung-min was signed from Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million as Lamela verged on a deadline-day move to Marseille that was only aborted when Spurs failed to clinch a deal for West Brom’s Saido Berahino.
The Argentine would stay, but his future seemed limited and the pressure on Lamela was bubbling before Pochettino brought it to boil in September by claiming it was his “make or break season”.
A few days before that pep talk Lamela had emerged from the bench to set-up Ryan Mason’s late winner against Sunderland but it had served to sum up his contribution until then; peripheral and limited to sporadic glimpses. Afterwards Pochettino has been repaid with 10 goals, double what Lamela had managed in the past two seasons combined, and a further 5 assists.
One of them came in crucial victory at Manchester City when his late bursting run threaded Christian Eriksen in to score and another in the form of Toby Alderweireld’s equaliser in the north London derby with Arsenal.
Here Lamela was, suggesting that the scrawny figure who seemed set to be added to the list of exotic names who found the pace and physicality of the Premier League too much was transforming into a central and pivotal figure, capable of the brilliant but in the biggest-matches and with increasing regularity. His display against Manchester United confirmed that the transformation was now complete.
“Typical Spurs” has undergone a shift in meaning under Pochettino, from the soft-cored team you would always rely on to let you down to the one that now has the look of genuine title challengers, competing with all-comers through breathless pressing and the exuberance of youthful freedom. On Sunday Lamela was at the forefront of that new style, making the most tackles in the game with 9 and winning the most duels with 12.
From the first whistle Lamela was at it, running across the pitch to press United’s defence before he committed a foul in the first minute and by the time his legs were finally afforded a rest in the 87th minute as he was replaced by Nacer Chadli, he had covered more ground than anybody else on the pitch with 11.29 km.
His persistence won the ball to start the move that finished with Dele Alli converting Eriksen’s cross, he delivered the free-kick which Alderweireld headed in and thrashed home Danny Rose’s ball to cap off an all-action display.
Excelling under demanding circumstances
Pochettino has demanded the relentless swarming of the opposition and the hardened running but it is mostly surprising that Lamela has been converted. Those traits didn’t come naturally to Lamela when he first arrived in England and the player admitted “at the beginning, it was really hard for me”.
“He is so demanding during the week and we train so hard” he said, “I’m still surprised by the intensity he demands during the training sessions.”
Lamela has responded brilliantly to those training sessions, registering the most sprints (64) with Kyle Walker the only player to record a higher average speed than the Argentine vs Manchester United. In a squad reliant on super-high fitness levels, Lamela has managed to put himself among the very fittest.
With an average of 2.4 tackles per game, no attacking player has a better record in the league this season as Lamela has followed Pochettino’s philosophy to the letter.
“I think I’m having the best season of my career” the winger said back in February, praise that isn’t easily dismissed when it is classed above his final campaign at Roma when he plundered 15 goals.
Future looks bright once more
Leicester’s 0-2 win at Sunderland before Lamela’s show brushed United aside meant that the Premier League title inched further away from Tottenham’s grasp, but the 24 year old has refused to give up hope.
“We have the finish the season in the best manner possible. There are five games left and our aim is five victories” he said, but even if they don’t manage it this term, Pochettino’s young charges will have ample time to achieve their dream in the future.
That future will include Alli, Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Alderweireld and Eriksen but Lamela can now add himself to that group when a year ago it didn’t seem possible. Yet another testament to the powers of Pochettino.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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