Here comes the drum again. It became so fashionable over the summer to talk of this season as being a likely breakthrough one for Erik Lamela – and to tie that in with the arrival of compatriot Mauricio Pochettino as manager – that it is difficult to escape the perception that his start to the season, as with that of his team, has been a little underwhelming. So perhaps it is time for a little perspective, and a cold hard stat or two. Cesc Fàbregas and early-season form horse Gylfi Sigurdsson aside, Lamela has the joint highest number of assists so far this Premier League season. He is second only to Chelsea’s Belgian wanderer Eden Hazard in terms of dribbles, and he has bought into Pochettino’s pressing style, as exemplified by his key role in Nacer Chadli’s goal in the North London derby. While he is yet to find the back of the net for Spurs in the league, he scored a fine goal for Argentina in their recent 4-2 win over Germany, and he has pedigree in that area, having scored 15 in 30 for Roma the season before his move to White Hart Lane. The 22-year-old has made a mere 10 league starts for the Lilywhites since joining the club in the summer of 2013; as that figure continues to rise, it seems safe to say that so will his influence.
Spurs conceded 27 goals against top four sides in the Premier League last year. By picking up a draw against Arsenal this season, they have already matched their total from eight games against the Gunners, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool last season – of one point. In five of those eight games, they lost by scores of 0-6, 0-5, 1-5, 0-4 and 0-4. It would be fair to say, then, that things cannot get much worse. And yet even with those numbers piling up against them, they finished only ten points shy of a Champions League spot – and were in the race right up to the final weeks. They will always drop the occasional point in an unexpected place – for this season’s 0-1 home reverse against West Brom, read last season’s 0-3 against West Ham, or the 1-0 defeat at Norwich. So the margins to the top four are perhaps finer than many might think. And if the improvement was marginal against Arsenal – the Gunners dominated possession, shots, passes, and frankly most of the statistics except for the main one – improvement there was. Statistics schmatistics – Spurs never really looked threatened until Danny Welbeck’s glorious dummy for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal. Kaboul gave a captain’s performance, Lamela (yes, him again) was pulling the strings, and Chadli continued his bewilderingly productive start to the season. Perhaps this new style – contain, press and punish – is the template. It certainly seems to work better than last season’s gung-ho at the Alamo.
Apparent improvement against Arsenal notwithstanding, though, most Spurs fans, one suspects, remain of the view that the team is always one step away from cataclysm. Since the memorable May night at The Etihad in 2010 that saw Tottenham claim a Champions League spot at City’s expense and David Bentley parading in his pants on Sky Sports, the teams have faced each other eight times. Those games, for Spurs, have featured two 5-1 defeats and a 6-0, to add to a 1-0, a 2-1 and a 3-2. April 2013’s smash-and-grab 3-1 win is their bright spark, but otherwise the omens are for goals – many of them at the Tottenham end. If that trend continues this weekend, it will be a real test for Mauricio Pochettino’s talk of a new philosophy at White Hart Lane, and an early jolt for Daniel Levy’s notoriously twitchy trigger finger. Spurs have a history of mental fragility – if there is a collapse to be had, they will find a way to do it. But they must not let such a mentality develop. It may be trite to say it, but they only have to play Manchester City twice. If there are scars from recent history and City score early this time around – even if this weekend’s result goes against them to the same degree as last term’s – they must stick with it. A winning mentality is not built – and should not be destroyed – in a day.
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