The departures lounge at Heathrow airport could be a somber place on deadline day, with both Erik Lamela and Franco Baldini licking their wounds as they wait for flights back to Italy after two brutal years at Spurs.
Lamela’s exit isn’t yet confirmed, but appears more than likely, especially if as reported he has asked for a transfer and Inter Milan want him. Meanwhile the verdict has long been reached on Baldini’s reign as Director of Football and it has been about as effective as, well, a Lamela stepover.
Nobody can expect 100% of signings to work out, there will always be failures. But you generally want more successes than failures, and Baldini wasn’t even close. Only two — Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli — of his “Bale money” signings have been successes. The rest are all failures, and some such as Etienne Capoue and Vlad the Lad were failures by quite some margin. Baldini’s record didn’t get much better the following summer either.
It’s not just Spurs who waste millions on duff players. Look at Chelsea’s failure to find quality attacking midfielders
With the benefit of hindsight, we can question Baldini’s competence, and the decision making of Daniel Levy in entrusting him to the role. But can you honestly return to that summer and remember thinking, “meh, we could find someone better?”
Baldini had been Director of Football at Roma, a top Serie A club. He was Fabio Capello’s assistant as England manager, and had been with the Italian at Real Madrid. He was a hugely respected figure, with vast knowledge of the European game as well as that rare first-hand knowledge of England. Really, on paper, you were hard-pressed to think of a more suitable appointment for what Levy was hoping to achieve at that time.
Despite his overall poor record, I always thought Baldini would ultimately live or die by the Lamela signing. Not only was he a record signing, he was also from Roma where Baldini himself had been.
If there was one person in the world of football who would surely know if Lamela was the right man for Spurs, it was Baldini. Baldini knew the player, he knew English football after his tenure as Capello’s assistant, and he knew what Spurs needed after being handed a free reign and £100 million to turn the club into contenders. So how did he get it so wrong?
Was it simply incompetence? Of course there is some of that. This guy may have been smooth and well-connected, but that doesn’t mean he is great scout. But you don’t achieve the status Baldini has in the game by being a total chump.
To me, if the Lamela transfer flop shows one thing, it is how incredibly, incredibly hard transfers are.
It’s not just Spurs who waste millions on duff players. Look at Chelsea’s failure to find quality attacking midfielders, Man City’s failure up until this summer to improve its initial title winning squad, and Liverpool’s hilarious attempt to “do a Spurs” last summer after all of Brendan Rodgers’ big talk. Spurs may have had a rough couple of windows, but we’re in good company.
If Baldini couldn’t get it right with Lamela, then what hope is there for those without first-hand knowledge of a player?
Lamela’s problem wasn’t talent: he has a ton of that. It wasn’t positional: he was a left-footed winger at his best cutting in from the right, and Spurs needed exactly that. It wasn’t profile: the spiky hair and audacious trickery showed someone who felt he belonged. It wasn’t attitude: Lamela worked hard, got stuck in, and didn’t raise any red flags with off the field behaviour.
From what I can assess, Lamela’s problem was suitability to the English game. The pace, the intensity, or however else you want to describe it. Watching Lamela, it was like he just didn’t quite have the time he needed to make the passes, skill moves or runs that he had in Italy. The result was that he gave the ball away constantly, fouled constantly and rarely created chances or scored.
How do you see that problem coming? You can’t suddenly speed up a couple of Serie A games to see how he reacts. You only see someone like Lamela operate in the environment he is in, not how would be in a different one. How do you even begin to measure ability of players to adapt to different leagues? I’d be interested to see any analysis of this issue from the statistical perspective — I can’t recall reading anything, and as a layman I’ve got nothing.
Personally, I have sympathy with Lamela. The Spurs he leaves is utterly different from the one he joined. He thought he was joining a club that was primed for a tilt at the Premier League title, and he leaves a club rebuilding for a new stadium that doesn’t even have final planning permission yet. Even if he’d been the world-beater we’d hoped, I’m not sure he alone would have made much difference to the trajectory of the club. The only difference is he would be off to PSG or Real this summer, rather than heading back to Italy with his tail between his legs.
If a transfer goes wrong, as a minimum you have to learn why and avoid making the same mistake again. We’ve seen Man City realise that only the top of the range will improve them, so they’ve bought Sterling and (soon) De Bruyne. Liverpool have doubled down on their strategy from last summer, but along the way realised they need proven talent such as Milner and Benteke, not just prospects.
Spurs appear to have learned lessons too — we’ve bought in a new recruitment system with greater focus on analytics, and also appear to have been reinvesting in the scouting network which had evidently atrophied. But let’s not kid ourselves that this suddenly means we’ll start nailing transfers left, right and centre — new methods mean there are a whole host of new lessons just waiting to be learned.
You can bet your bottom dollar at least one of Son Heung-min, Clinton N’Jie, Kevin Wimmer, Keiran Trippier or Toby Alderweireld is a total flop. And probably more than one. All you can reasonably demand is that, on average, we start getting more right than we were previously, and that the failures are less glaring.
Just because the analysis that can go into transfers has become more sophisticated, it doesn’t mean that transfers have become “easier”. There will be more plenty more Lamelas to come, because this business is hard. Oh the joy of the transfer window.
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