Erik Lamela’s first season in the hustle and bustle of Roma highlighted the negatives in his character – and certainly only allowed glimpses of his breakout form at River Plate. From tangling with teammate and strike partner Pablo Osvaldo to spitting at Juventus full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Argentine youngster simply did not appear at ease in the capital. “We must educate him,” reasoned sporting director Walter Sabatini, as several sectors believed his behaviour optimised Luis Enrique’s lacklustre year at the club.
Enrique hastily shifted back to Spain at the end of a frankly embarrassing campaign last May. In his place arrived the eccentric Zdenek Zeman, off the back of a remarkable Serie B triumph with Pescara. Lamela was one of the first players to thoroughly back the appointment.
“Zeman will be ideal for me, he plays a 4-3-3 style that fits me perfectly. We are certainly contenders for the Scudetto.” The 20-year-old could have been accused of pandering towards his new boss, but he certainly had a valid point.
Last season the Giallorossi employed the former Barcelona B man’s typically Catalan style. Possession and passing levels were the name of the game from the onset, but ultimately led to unnecessary horizontal passes that were exploited by Serie A’s direct outfits.
Zeman’s all-out attacking approach would bring the attacker’s blistering pace back into the equation, and give him the opportunity he craves to counter-attack defenders. The chain smoking Czech also had a history of revitalising young forwards, and you only had to point to Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile down the Adriatico last term to prove that point.
The result has been evident for all to see, but has been masked by the Giallorossi’s stuttering start under Zeman. Lamela has already superseded his four successful strikes last season with six in the opening 10 games, including a brace and Man of the Match awards against Bologna, Atalanta and Udinese. The creative outlet only witnessed at River Plate before has now come to the fore, and he has made the most key passes in Serie A as judged by La Gazzetta dello Sport with 22.
The most welcoming aspect of Lamela’s rise for the Olimpico faithful has been the style with which he has scored, and in particular his mazy run against Udinese showcased the ability that was evidently always there.
“He works perfectly with Zeman’s tactics,” asserted director general Franco Baldini. “The thing that has impressed me the most, however, has been his tracking back and general attitude towards defending.” A key point that also has to be recognised is his return to help an inexperienced backline.
“I struggled at the start in Italy. Tactics were never my strong point, but I have improved there. Above all though I have improved physically,” revealed Lamela. With Roma only picking up 14 points from 10 games and slipping to seventh in the table, Zeman and the club’s supporters will be praying the significant improvement in his game will propel them into the European places.