Somehow, you feel Érik Lamela doth protest a little too much. Since the Premier League restarted last month, no player has committed fouls at a higher rate than the Argentinian. It’s an indication not just of Lamela’s snappy, combative style, but the renewed vigour and aggression Tottenham have shown of late under José Mourinho. Inform Lamela of this statistic, however, and he immediately puts on the same wounded, cherubic expression you suspect he tries on referees after scything down an opponent with a brutal reducer.
“It’s the way I play football,” he shrugs. “Too many times it’s not even a foul, but they [the referees] are giving fouls. I get angry sometimes. But it’s not something I’m trying to do. It’s just the way I train, and how I play.”
That much is evident to anyone who has followed Lamela’s Tottenham career over the past seven years. There have been highs and lows, moments of sublime skill and extreme frustration, as well as some rotten luck with injuries. But through it all Lamela has never threatened to offer anything but full-throated commitment. He is 28 and only Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane have been part of the first-team squad longer. He has lived through the club’s remarkable rise and dramatic fall. And like most at Spurs, he is keen to turn the page.
It is eight months since Mauricio Pochettino was sacked with Tottenham 14th in the Premier League, and replaced by Mourinho. Since then, a club lauded for their stability have been defined more by turbulence, both on the pitch and off. Results have improved, flatlined, slumped, improved again. The world stopped for a few months. Now a sluggish restart has been kicked into gear by convincing wins over Arsenal and Newcastle. Going into Sunday’s game against Leicester, Spurs sit an unlikely seventh in the table: not great, but a good deal better than they might have expected.
For all the residual suspicion of – and occasionally outright hostility to – Mourinho in some quarters, Lamela is clear where the credit lies. “When he [Mourinho] took the team, it wasn’t in a good position,” he says. “Afterwards, the team improved. I cannot say much about the manager, but I can say he’s doing the right job and pushing the team in the right way [direction].”
Part of the upturn has been the return of the aggression embodied by players like Lamela. Since Mourinho was appointed, no Premier League team has earned more yellow cards than Tottenham: a testament to their determination to deter counterattacks and stop other teams playing their natural game. The sight of Lloris and Son Heung-min arguing furiously as they went off at half-time during the recent game against Everton may have alarmed many but it delighted Mourinho, who declared afterwards that he has no time for “nice boys” and craves players who are willing to tell each other a few home truths. Does Lamela fit the bill? A wry smile. “I don’t know. It’s a difficult question.”
Lamela is less coy in discussing Tottenham’s new defensive solidity, which a few aberrations aside – the 3-1 defeat at Sheffield United a fortnight ago, say – has been the driving force behind Spurs’ resurgence. Since the restart, they are fourth in the form table, with only Wolves and the two Manchester clubs boasting a meaner defence.
“The team changed a little bit the mentality in the last few games,” Lamela admits. “And you can see on the pitch we are all together, trying to find the best solution. I think the team has so much quality, a lot of players who can win the game at any time. So if we improve in the other aspects, we can be much better. This season we conceded a lot of goals, and after it’s more difficult to win the game.”
So quietly, a skittish season finally, tantalisingly, seems to be ticking towards Europe. Leicester’s win on Thursday night finally put Tottenham’s Champions League dreams to bed. But a victory over the Foxes would put them in prime position to edge out Sheffield United and Arsenal for a Europa League spot.
“It’s true we are much better in the table, but still we can be better,” Lamela says. “In the last two games we were better. This team has so much potential, and the manager knows what to do. We know we have to qualify for something. It’s something that everyone knows. We need to play another European competition.”
There is an argument that missing out on Europe next season would give their league campaign a boost, allow Mourinho more preparation time between fixtures, lighten the fixture load in a season already likely to be compressed to brutal dimensions. Equally, European competition now runs in the club’s bloodstream, and after 10 straight seasons of qualification Lamela is in no mood to give it up.
“It’s something very important for the club, for the fans, for the players, for the staff, for everyone,” he says. “It already feels bad that we don’t go to the Champions League. But we need to accept it and try to go to the Europa League. Unfortunately our season wasn’t the best, and it took too long to find the situation like we have now, where we are winning and the team starts to feel better. But now we have two games and we need to try to win both and try to play Europa League. Let’s see.”
The Guardian Sport