Pochettino revels in options Lamela presents Spurs as Argentine returns
LONDON -- Mauricio Pochettino turned down the chance to liken Erik Lamela to "a new signing" on the eve of the winger's return to action, but the Tottenham manager does not want a new player. He wants the old Lamela.
The Argentine has not played for 13 months but is back in the Spurs squad for Tuesday's match at Leicester City, and Pochettino has not forgotten what he can bring to the team.
"He's not a new player, eh? He's been here for four and a half years," Pochettino said. "We miss his energy, his energy is massive. You can feel when he is on the pitch he is always available to run, to press. And when he has the ball, he has the capacity to beat opponents. We miss him because he is a completely different option to what we have up front."
Lamela last played in a League Cup defeat to Liverpool in October 2016, in a team including five players who are no longer at Tottenham. Since that night, chronic hip problems left him seeking solace at his former club Roma, where he returned for treatment in January, but only double hip surgery in the spring set him on the road to recovery. It has not been easy for the 25-year-old, who, in the midst of his injury, was forced to return to Buenos Aires in December after his brother was injured in an accident.
"He was very down," Pochettino said. "He's still so young but it was a massive problem for him. But you know how he is and he loves to play football and staying away for a long time was difficult for him.
"You see his history and in four and a half years [at Tottenham] he was injured for almost two years. If you remember the first season before we arrived he had a back injury."
After overcoming his early injury problems, Lamela was one of the first players to understand Pochettino's demands for high-intensity pressing.
"He was the player that was keen to do what we expected from the team because he has a massive energy and is a very energetic person," Pochettino explained. "When you see him in the dressing room or restaurant he is always moving. He is hyperactive, that's how he is on the pitch. He loves to run, loves to feel the ball in his feet. He always wants the ball: 'give me the ball'."
Signed as a silky winger for £30 million in summer 2013, Lamela became key to Tottenham's 2015-16 title challenge as a tempo-setting forward, who sprinted, harried and fouled as much as anyone in the Premier League. After his hip injuries, Spurs soon found a way to play without him, switching from 4-2-3-1 to three-at-the-back, with room for just two attacking midfielders in the XI.
Now, though, he is returning to the squad when they need him most. If Lamela's brand of frenzied pressing was rendered redundant during the final season at White Hart Lane, when Spurs simply suffocated their opponents from the first whistle, it is exactly what they are missing at Wembley -- something Pochettino admitted ahead of another frustrating home draw with West Brom on Saturday.
"If we're playing against teams like [Crystal] Palace, Swansea or Burnley that are playing a lot deeper, you don't need pace you need quality, good individual quality one-on-one. [Players] that can break one-on-one. Like Lamela," he said.
Lamela is expected to be a substitute at the King Power Stadium but Stoke City and Brighton visit Wembley soon, and Spurs need a player who can raise the tempo, beat an opponent or change a match with a moment of brilliance (like a Rabona goal) against the lesser teams at the national stadium.
Pochettino, however, is not expecting miracles from Lamela immediately. He has been training with the first team since Oct. 11 but his only minutes came in an hour run-out for the under-23s last weekend. He might have played for them again over the weekend, or even featured for the senior team against the Baggies, but he became a father for the first time on Saturday.
"Some players have the capacity to play from the beginning after an injury and have the same performance before they were injured. Others need more time because their body is different. The offensive players sometimes need more time because they need to feel the ball again," Pochettino warned.
There have been rumours that Lamela, who has a contract until 2020, would never play again for Spurs. Ricky Villa, a Tottenham and Argentina legend who is close to Pochettino, caused a stir when he articulated them on Argentine radio in September but neither Pochettino nor Lamela were ever in any doubt that he would return.
"I was not worried. And I never said he was worried," Pochettino said. "I always said that he needed time to recover his feeling. Because if tomorrow he plays, what do we expect from him? To take the ball, to beat his opponents and put the ball in the top corner?
"But when it is a another player who plays in another position, you expect some tackles or to play a good ball or a good pass. It is enough. It is completely different the position on the pitch and what we expect from them. I never said he was worried, only he was waiting to feel again that emotion for him to step up and say: 'Now I believe I can cope with the pressure to play and I am sure I am going to give my best.'"
That long wait to feel ready to play has led to suggestions that Lamela is somehow soft and simply happy to collect his paycheque without playing. But Pochettino knows Lamela, and those suggestions bemuse him. "He is strong. To get two hip operations, you need to be strong. In general the players don't care about money -- they just care about playing football," he said.
"To have another option to play, to have the capacity to play in a different way," he added. "For the team, it is very healthy."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.