Tottenham’s record signing Erik Lamela hasn’t taken the Premier League by storm yet. What is standing in the way of the Argentine showing his full potential?
Price tags can weigh heavy on new signings. There’s an air of excitement, a certain level of expectation when a club seals a big money transfer. Especially when the player is not yet a household name in the club’s domestic league. Overly positive optimism, overly cynical pessimism, unrealistic expectations and the false hope for an instant impact have all been projected on the £30 million signing. Despite the hefty price tag we can’t expect Lamela to be the polished final product. He is only 21 years of age and is still fairly new to European football.
Every year a couple of foreign signings struggle to live up to the high expectations, mostly caused by their price tag. Last season players like Olivier Giroud, Shinji Kagawa, Javi Garcia and Fabio Borini didn’t really look to be up to scratch. This season there will be others. Obviously some will make it, some don’t. But if history has taught us anything it is that some players just need a little bit more time. Luka Modric struggled with the transition to the Premier League when he joined Spurs. Vincent Kompany wasn’t an instant world beater when he moved to Manchester City, and it took Robin van Persie eight seasons to finally abandon the death star that is the Emirates and win some silverware with Manchester United.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. In recent times players like Yaya Touré, Yohan Cabaye, Michu, Luis Suarez, Oscar, Christian Benteke, Jan Vertonghen and, begrudgingly, Mesut Özil have taken to the Premier League like a duck to water. It’s hard to deny these players are of a certain standard but it’s hard to point out specific reasons why they have adapted so easily and effortlessly, whilst other players of similar quality and reputation have struggled.
A perfect start to life in the Premier League also isn’t a guarantee for long-term success. A great example is former Arsenal player Andrey Arshavin. He enjoyed a very good start to his career at Arsenal, including a man of the match performance at Anfield in which he scored four times to earn his club a 4-4 draw. Although he was a regular fixture for Arsenal for a couple of seasons, he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him during his blistering start to his Arsenal career. David Silva also set the Premier League alight in his first season at City but his influence on City’s success has since faded. Whether it’s due to injury, a chronic dip in form or simply because the player has been found out once the novelty factor has worn off, a prosperous start is definitely not a guarantee for a successful Premier League career.
Despite his excellent season at Roma, we shouldn’t forget that Lamela is only 21 years old. Coming to the Premier League can be a daunting challenge for any player, even more so for a 21-year-old who doesn’t speak the language and has only played in Europe for two seasons since leaving his native Argentina. There’s no denying Lamela is highly rated and therefore lofty expectations are somewhat justified, but at such a tender age players are still learning the game. Technically Lamela is way ahead of his age peers but mentally and experience-wise his age does tell.
Some will point to Christian Eriksen as an example of an age peer that isn’t experiencing similar kind of adaptation problems. First of all, Eriksen is from Denmark, one of the best educated countries in Europe when it comes to the English language. Therefore, the language barrier is considerably minor for him. Secondly, he has vast experience in both Champions League and Europa League, something Lamela lacks. The Serie A is a stronger league than the Eredivisie but Eriksen has more experience in playing against teams with a different football philosophy, including British opposition. Third, player development at Ajax simply is on another level. The players are being groomed for the big stage from a young age, both on and off the pitch. Eriksen has learned the fundamentals of being a professional footballer at arguably one of the best, if not the best, football academy in the world. It’s no wonder that so many products of the Ajax academy have gone on to become some of the best players in world football. Jan Vertonghen’s seamless transition to the Premier League is a perfect example of how “the Ajax way” prepares players perfectly for a career in one of Europe’s strongest competitions.
Many players, especially strikers and creative players, thrive on confidence. If they are not feeling confident and start to doubt their own abilities they will not perform to their full potential. They will not take on that full-back, they will not hit that cross first time, they will not attempt that risky through-ball. No matter how bad their form, a manager should always remain confident in his players, for he knows better than anyone what they are capable of. He might not pick them to start, but they need to keep pushing the player, making them feel they are valued and could contribute to the team’s success. In this day and age a manager simply cannot rely on eleven players and discard the rest of his selection by treating them as second-grade employees. Due to the hectic fixture calendar, the extensive amount of travelling, the physical demands of modern football – further worsened by the interference of international qualifiers and friendlies – rotation has become very important both to field the strongest possible team and also to avoid potential fatigue-related injuries.
An additional factor in the confidence levels of players these days seems to be public perception. Fernando Torres is a a textbook example. He’s a player who has struggled for form for quite some time. His goal return in the Premier League was not that impressive last season (8 goals in 36 appearances), yet he was very important to his team in the European competitions. He averaged 0.5 goals per game in the Champions League and 0.67 goals per game in the Europa League. Despite the fact he was vital in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Benfica in the Europa League final, he is still regarded as a flop and gets jeered at almost every Premier League game. The perception in England does not match his record in Europe, but neither does his Premier League form match his form in Europe. No matter how much players like to deny it, perception and the reaction of the crowd can influence a player’s confidence and consequentially his form.
We have been here before with other players. One of the greatest Spurs players in recent history took quite a while to grow into his full potential. And the same thing seems to be happening again to Gareth Bale in Madrid. No one doubts Bale’s exceptional qualities as a player, but is the person Gareth Bale ready for the sea change in terms of living environment, squad dynamics, competition and especially the lack of patience of the ruthlessly expectant Real Madrid faithful? He can say the price tag doesn’t faze him, however, many are judging him based primarily on that price tag.
It’s too early to pass judgement on Lamela. He hasn’t even been part of the Spurs starting eleven once in the Premier League. He has only racked up four substitute appearances so far, totalling 72 minutes of Premier League football. He needs more playing time in the Premier League to really get used to the intensity and the competitiveness of the league. Getting a run out in the League Cup against an Aston Villa B-team or playing some third-grade European outfit in Moldova doesn’t really help in that respect.
Although his performances have been far from remarkable, there have been glimpses that showed Lamela has what it takes to become a key player for Spurs, his assist for Paulinho’s goal at Cardiff being the prime example. The way he won the header, the instinct to make the run towards the byline, demand the ball back from Lewis Holtby, look up to pick out Paulinho and finally put in the cross with the outside of his left boot at exactly the right time. These are the kind of natural instincts and technical abilities we all love to see in a Spurs player.
Players need to grow, not only technically and tactically but also mentally. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player with a seemingly endless confidence in his own abilities and an incredible mentality, wasn’t the self-assured power house he is today during his early days at Ajax. Cristiano Ronaldo, although always seen as a bit cocky, didn’t just get his powerful mental resilience overnight. It’s one thing to be talented and highly skilled, it’s another thing to have the confidence and mentality to be able to exert these abilities each and every game no matter what the conditions or situation.
Besides his obvious abilities, Lamela needs to show he has the drive and desire to stake his claim for Tottenham’s starting eleven. Whether it is Eric Cantona’s extreme self-belief in the ’90s, Gareth Bale’s meteoric rise to become Spurs’ talismanic superstar last season, or his fellow countryman Gabriel Batistuta’s relentless hunger to score goals back in his Serie A days. There are plenty of examples for Erik to take inspiration from to get his Tottenham career on the right track.
It’s important for Lamela to know he enjoys the faith of the supporters. This is a journey for both Erik and for us. It might be off to a slow start, but if we have learned anything from players like Modric and Bale, a slow start does not mean the journey can’t have a sensational finale. So let’s give him time and back him to reach his full potential. Only then will we be able to discover the real Erik Lamela.