“I was born to play football” says a young Érik Lamela in a 2004 interview. Even from the tender age of 12, his characteristic glare is in full effect, showing a determined intensity that he still carries with him today.
The youngster performs some tricks and flicks for the camera as word is getting out around the streets of Buenos Aires and beyond that this kid is something special.
Nicknamed ‘Coco’ by his family, Lamela was born in Carapachay, in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires. He joined River Plate as a youth and was quickly approached by FC Barcelona after he scored an almost mythical 120 goals in a single season. The Spanish giants offered a similar package to what was offered to Lionel Messi just a few years previously: a house in the Catalan city, jobs for his parents, education for Érik and his brothers and €100,000 to boot. The world was quite literally at his feet.
But Érik’s mother, Miriam, thought that her family’s financial reliance upon such young shoulders would be too much to ask of her son. He instead stayed at River Plate and began to rise through the ranks of the youth teams, eventually making his first-team debut in 2009. He cemented a regular starting role and became vital in the 2010/11 season, playing 34 times and scoring 4 goals.
It wasn’t long before Europe came calling again, this time in the form of AS Roma. The offer was accepted and it was here that Lamela really started capturing attention on a big stage. He played with a flair and freedom on the right wing that endeared him to I Giallorossi fans immediately. He enjoyed two fantastic seasons in the Italian capital and was touted to be the eventual replacement to club legend Francesco Totti – high praise in that part of the world.
But it was not to end in a fairy-tale in the Italian capital. Lamela’s star shone too bright to stave off approaches from bigger clubs and with strict finances in mind, Roma understandably succumbed to pressure. His last game would be a Coppa Italia final loss to bitter rivals Lazio. It was time to move on and the Premier League was the logical next step in an already explosive career.
In the summer of 2013, there was an upheaval at Tottenham. Gareth Bale left for Real Madrid and, in his wake, seven new players were recruited. Among them were a highly rated Christian Eriksen and veteran goalscorer Roberto Soldado. But it was 21-year-old Érik Lamela’s arrival that garnered the most excitement in North London. Seen as the natural successor to Bale, Lamela’s transfer fee of €30 million was a club record at the time and, immediately the pressure was on to hit the ground running.
However, the Premier League turned out to be a difficult adjustment. His first year in England was blighted by a back injury, causing him to miss nearly half the season. Upon his return, he failed to impress, looking overwhelmed by the hard-pressing tactics that were transforming the league at the time.
It was a reality check for the once golden boy of Rome. Despite huge signings, Spurs had an underwhelming season and Lamela was failing to fill the boots of the Welsh Galactico. The manager that brought him to London, Andre Villas Boas, did not last long and a lot of questions were being raised about how well the Bale money was spent.
Luckily for Lamela, in stepped compatriot Mauricio Pochettino to the dugout and with the arrival of the former Southampton boss came opportunity to carve out a new path and to take on a new role. Eventually, under Pochettino’s wing, he began to evolve into a more aggressive and intensely driven winger. The flair was still there, shown by his wonderful rabona goal against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League, but there was a steeliness that began to shine through.
During the 15/16 season, there was a feeling that Lamela had finally arrived. He had arguably his best performance in a Spurs shirt against Manchester United that season. It was Tottenham’s penultimate year at White Hart Lane and the team was just about to reach the height of their powers under Pochettino.
Goalless until the 69th minute, suddenly Lamela won the ball back amongst a mob of United players. The ball reached Christian Eriksen who neatly placed it in Dele’s path to slot home. Four minutes later, Lamela casually swept in a beautiful ball from a free kick onto the head of Toby Alderweireld and in the back of the net. Then, just a minute later came the immortal words from Martin Tyler in the commentary box, “Spurs in full cry here…Lamelaaaaa! One, Two, Three!“. White Hart Lane was in a frenzy and the man from Argentina was finally making his presence felt. Things were finally paying off.
Fate, however, had different plans. In late 2016, things would get worse than ever imagined. Érik, sidelined with a hip problem at the start of the season, received a phone call from Argentina. His younger brother, Axel, had been involved in a major accident and was left paralysed. A shaken Lamela immediately left London to be with his family while they came to terms with the devastating incident. Upon his arrival back to London, his beloved dog Simba had died. A few weeks later, Lamela was informed that he would require surgery on his hip. He would not play football for 400 days. He reflected that “It was the worst time of my life“.
A few months like this could derail any player’s career, and understandably so. But there’s something about Érik Lamela that doesn’t let things get in his way. Instead, he just changes direction. This drive shows itself whenever he enters the pitch. He constantly runs into tackles, aggressively chasing down balls. He plays every minute like his life depends on it.
Sometimes he goes overboard – Like when he stepped on Cesc Fabregas’ hand during the heated “Battle of the Bridge” match which saw Tottenham fail to beat Chelsea in a 2-2 stalemate, ultimately losing out on the title to Leicester. He always leaves a foot in, nibbles at the ankles, raises his elbows. He’s now that type of player.
Lamela’s on-field antics have developed a certain reputation. He’s berated by opposition fans and players. He’s picked on by opposition managers and pundits. Simply put, he’s not a likeable player. But for a club that are historically seen as soft and lacking in aggression, the more Lamela developed this stature of derision elsewhere, the more he endeared himself to the Spurs faithful.
Chris Miller, host of the popular Spurs podcast The Extra Inch picked up on Lamela’s transformation throughout the years:
He arrived as this exciting, creative, flamboyant player with a reputation for skill and technical ability. He’ll leave with a reputation for being a bastard who winds the opposition up, kicks people, and gets a lot of cards.
Lamela also brings something more intangible. Directness, eagerness, emotion. He may never light up the pitch – rabonas aside- but he always gives his all.
The truth is that he really does have some technical quality, but that without his intense pressing and work-rate, he would more than likely have left Spurs years ago. But those are very useful qualities to have in the squad and, as a result, he has been a very useful asset over the years.
In his later seasons at Spurs, Lamela settled into a substitute role. The starting eleven always seemed just a step too far for a player with such injury woes. But it’s this role in which he can shine. It’s the matches where all looks lost, where the spark is gone and the players on the pitch look drained. Enter Lamela and, suddenly, he’s running at defenders, rolling the ball under his foot and looking to make killer passes up the field.
A lot of the time his individual impact isn’t enough to drag a team back into a match, but it’s not the results that matter in these situations – it’s Lamela’s reminder to his teammates that they’re supposed to leave everything out there. Despite his lack of gametime, you always know when he’s on the pitch. For Lamela, it’s the only place he wants to be.
Despite not reaching the heights of the expectation put on him in his youth, he’s represented his country, played for some of Europe’s top teams and transformed himself into a seasoned and relied upon player – a Premier League staple for the best part of a decade.
In the summer of 2021, Lamela’s time at Tottenham ended abruptly. In a surprise swap deal with Sevilla’s young star Bryan Gil going the other way, the Argentine touched down in the heat of Andalusia for a new journey in La Liga. Hitting the ground running with three goals inside his first two matches in Spain, the next part of his evolution is just beginning.
Érik Lamela was born to play football and, no matter what gets in his way, he’s showing no sign of stopping.