Some months ago, and unbeknownst to me, Chris conducted a psychological experiment among our staff here. While not on the same level of duplicity as the Stanford Prison Experiment, it turns out that I was the guinea pig in Chris' no-blind study, with my love of Erik Lamela being the not-so-secret conclusion to which his mind games were designed to expose, as I was the only one of us to list Lamela among my top three for 2013 (As I said behind closed doors, I like shiny things, which I guess puts me on par with a small mouth bass).
While I don't think any among us will deny his talent and potential, for the sake of his honor and my own psychological well-being, I'm going to state my case and explain why Erik Lamela is already one of the league's best players, befitting of the praise he receives and the likely heir to Totti's thrown as the focal point of Roma's offense
As always, we'll employ the compliment sandwich method made famous by Stewie Griffin and utilized daily by passive aggressive H.R. reps the world over. After all, Lamela is only 21 years old and, despite his talent, he has not yet approached mastery.
So with two full seasons under his belt, let's take a look at Roma's Lamela Lessons.
The internet abounds with visual evidence of all the pretty things Lamela is capable of, so I won't bombard your video card with too many more of them. Like it or not, creativity and marketability are a part of the game, but what truly separates the great from the great looking is when that style is buttressed with a healthy amount of substance.
Fortunately for Roma, Lamela is legit. Unfortunately for Roma, if they don't get their act together, they may not profit from that legitimacy much longer.....happy thoughts, happy thoughts.
Playmaking & Passing: Tactical Impacts
The curse of the YouTube generation, when it comes to sports, at least, is that anyone can be made to look a fool or a genius, all it takes is some selective editing and carefully chosen Euro Trash club jams to set the mood.
When we think of Lamela, it's easy to dismiss him as a simple ball hog, a black hole into which any sense of offensive fluidity soon disappears, an event horizon for free flowing football, but that's simply not the case.
Whether he was a pure right wing in ZZ's 4-3-3 or a slightly more restrained right forward in any of Andreazzoli's formations, Lamela's passing remained steady, hovering around 82% under each man's respective tutelage, while his range of movement differed somewhat.
To illustrate the slight variance in Wide Lamela vs Narrow Lamela, and simply to address the more visual learners among us, have a look at the type of passes Coco made and the space he occupied in the 4-3-3. As always, these are selective samples meant to illustrate extremes, and in both instances, Lamela performed extremely well. But we like to accentuate the positive around here, if you hadn't noticed
In this match, notice how Lamela had virtual free rein on the pitch, moving up and down the touchline and laterally across the field, seemingly at will.
So, given the Laissez Faire attitude of Zeman's free flowing attack, it was no surprise to see Lamela doing his best at his best. On this evening, Lamela took advantage of those loose restrictions, covering large swaths of the pitch, moving to pick up the ball and initiating his own offense. And, you have to say, he did it all with relative ease, winning six of seven one-v-one scenarios. While this isn't exactly the picture of teamwork, sometimes these moments of individual brilliance and grace are the dividing line between winning and losing, and on this evening Lamela exhibited his greatest skill with aplomb.
The point being, this is what Coco does best: moving within space, making himself available to teammates and immediately heading towards the goal. As we'll see momentarily, he can utilize this same skill set to create for others as well.
Now contrast that to his performance against Siena under Andreazzoli. A few admittedly small differences stick out in this match, namely the confines to which he was kept. On this afternoon, whether by paradigm or providence, Lamela was far more centrally located and didn't seem to have same freedom of movement as he did in the sample above.
You'll also notice that he was withdrawn a lot more in this match, but what was strange, and a bit of a departure for him, was his lack of take-ons. As we mentioned, in a typical Lamela match, he drops back, seeks out the ball and proceeds to execute his own moves and/or shots. But on this night, perhaps due to his more restricted movement, he was far more the facilitator, creating three chances on the evening and tallying one assist.
So although he didn't have the same lateral liberty in this match, you'll notice that he was straying to either side of the center strip. His passing in this match was also more concentrated, generally occurring on either side of halfway line and far more lateral than the previous example; he was also far more precise on this evening, completing 93% of his passes.
His aim this night appeared to be more focused on working the triangles and give-and-goes than finding and creating his own scoring chances. Whether this was his choice or Andreazzoli's is immaterial, Lamela is capable subverting his ego and being a cog in the machine, as his numbers in this match indicate....although he did score in this one, too.
Are these huge, earth shattering, change the face of the game distinctions? No, and that's precisely the point and what makes Lamela so special. Offensively speaking, there are few flaws in his game. Sure, you'd like to see his passing percentage several points higher, but his willingness to seek out the ball and take the initiative works in two ways: he has the creativity and speed to blow past an opponent and the tactical feel to create chances for his teammates; a unique skill set not many players are blessed with, nor given the chance to utilize.
Erik Among Europes Elite
This is a numbers piece (more or less) so, much like a strand of spaghetti, I'll throw these against your proverbial wall to see if they stick.
Having narrowly edged out Totti as Roma's top rated player this season, it's only right that we measure him up against the rest of his contemporaries. Lamela's 15 goals not only paced Roma, but placed him tied for fourth in Serie A and tied for 15th across Europe's five major leagues.
His 2.6 shots per game were third most for Roma and tied for thirteenth in Italy. Going a bit deeper on this, 58% of his shots were on target, and while his overall conversion percentage was solid (17.4%), his on target conversion (43%) was well above the league average of 30%. As we've stressed here time and again, shots are all well and good, but what you do with them is an entirely different story. Lamela showed phenomenal efficiency in his shooting this past season, a great indicator of sustainability going forward.
Lamela's 1.7 key passes per match were third on the club and tied for ninth in Serie A. His three successful dribbles per match led Roma by a wide margin (Pjanic's 1.6 were next best), and tied him for third in Italy and tenth in Europe. These would be your vision, feel, and creativity categories, in which Lamela also excels. One thing is for certain, Lamela can beat you off the dribble anytime, anywhere; so one would hope that his passing improves commensurately, truly making him a multifaceted, unstoppable offensive threat.
I could go on and on, but you're getting the point. Whether we use standard or the always developing modern metrics, Lamela already stands as one of Europe's best young players, one who will soon stake that claim regardless of artificial age brackets.
So as we just witnessed, Lamela is indeed capable of using his powers for his own benefit, and that of his teammates. However, being only 21-years-old, there are bound to be moments in which you scratch your head or throw up your arms in sheer exasperation. Where Lamela fails, and I use that term lightly, is when he tends to rely too much on his individual skill, simply drifting or disappearing in a match waiting for an opportunity to arise. The problem being, they don't always arise, or he's quickly closed down on by the defenders, or, to the purist, he ignores or simply doesn't see the opportunities that do arise by working within the larger tactical movements. That is to say, yes, we know you can create your own chances, but by passing and moving, by exhibiting a little patience and persistence, the chances do still come.
Where he creates these chances can also be a cause of concern. Of all the things Lamela does well, scoring from distance is not among them. Of his 15 league goals, only one came from outside of the 18-yard box. So when Lamela does pick up the ball, he's best served doing so in the 20-30ish yard range, so he can make the most of his individual creativity. When he exhibits this same skill in a deeper position, the payoff isn't nearly as great. And, as I alluded to above, his passing isn't yet on par with his dribbling and shooting, so sometimes his moves, be they predicated on passing or dribbling, sometimes flounder from afar.
Of course, given all that he's accomplished and all that has changed in his two seasons in Roma, we tend to forget that he's only 21. And, like most supremely talented twenty somethings who find success early and often, they tend to think that this will always be the case, that they can always pick and choose their spots, that their showmanship will see them through. But if the career and retirement of Simone Perrotta taught us, and hopefully Lamela, anything, it's that physical persistence and tactical commitment reap their own rewards.
The Coco Combo
If you want evidence of the duality of Lamela, look no further than the two goals he scored against Udinese in October. The first was an exquisite exhibition of individual skill, composure and creativity. Lamela, with seemingly nowhere to turn and five defenders between him and the goal, drew the Udinese keeper off his line with the slightest of faints and, in an awesome display of angular momentum, bent the ball around the post and slotted it home.
While that first goal gave us a glimpse of Coco's creativity, composure and, let's face it, otherworldly skill, his second goal on this evening is emblematic of how seamlessly Lamela can fit within an attack, being equal parts contributor and concluder. Watch as he makes himself available for the initial pass, quickly lays it off to Miralem Pjanic and continues to head towards goal, keeping an eye on the passage of play while simultaneously being aware of the defenders. Next, notice how he subtly stalls his progression to remain onsides, and how he finds the narrowest of seams between the central defenders to receive Osvaldo's cross and bang home the header.
Simply a beautiful display of individual awareness within the context of a well synchronized team attack.
Taking Over for Totti
As we've seen, Erik Lamela, though still prone to the occasional bout of youthful apathy, has the rare combination of playmaking and goal scoring rarely seen in today's game. He is equally comfortable and capable of being selfish when the moment calls for it, while still possessing the feel for the game, vision, and touch necessary to create chances for his teammates.
So, while in terms of actual position and number of touches, Lamela isn't Totti's direct heir (that distinction is probably best saved for Pjanic), he is the next Totti in terms of his prominence within the Roman offense, being just as much the finisher as he is the facilitator of the Roman attack. If any Giallorossi player is given the freedom to roam as he wants, to demand the ball anywhere and at any time, to have the sovereignty to create and to kill as he sees fit, it's Erik Lamela.
When we speculate about Rudi Garcia's Roma, our first thoughts should be directed towards exactly that; how does Rudi envision Lamela's role within his offense? Will he rein him in or leave him be?
So while his curriculum is not yet complete, if there is one Lamela Lesson to be learned, it's this: He's a peacock, you gotta let him fly.
graphics courtesy of Squawka.com