Nine goals in his maiden Inter campaign. Five goals in 2020. For some, it may appear astonishing that Lautaro Martinez is the man Barcelona and Lionel Messi have seemingly plucked out to be Luis Suarez’s long-term successor at the Camp Nou.
Following his £22m switch to the Nerazzurri in the summer of 2018, Lautaro’s rise to stardom can be defined by an imperious three-month spell at the end of 2019 – with his showings in Europe’s premier competition garnering El Toro global attention.
Despite the claims of one Serie A scout who said that, if you’ve played and delivered in Superclasicos back in Argentina (in Lautaro’s case the Avellaneda derby between Racing Club and Independiente), “it’s unlikely adapting to Europe will be hard”, the former Racing hitman endured an indifferent debut season in Milan.
Playing largely second fiddle to Mauro Icardi in Luciano Spalletti’s favoured 4-2-3-1, Lautaro was rarely influential when he was granted the opportunity to play as the lone front man. With Spalletti’s Inter keen on monopolising possession, they’d often find themselves up against incredibly deep and compact blocks, which left Lautaro with little room to manoeuvre and ultimately meant he regularly cut an isolated figure up top as Inter’s creators sought to get on the ball in deeper positions.
Overall, it was the stylistic contrast between Icardi and Lautaro which set the latter up for a difficult opening term. The Nerazzurri simply couldn’t adapt to the differing profiles of their two strikers.
However, the arrival of Antonio Conte, his 3-5-2 and Romelu Lukaku in the summer of 2019 offered Lautaro a new lease of life in Milan, placing him in the optimal environment to thrive.
Following an unproductive start to the 2019/20 season, it didn’t take long for Conte’s strike duo to reach a stage of complete telepathy. Their respective skill sets are harmoniously complementary; with Lukaku’s target-man profile and Lautaro’s willingness to exploit space and befuddle opponents with astute movement. Thus, the pair left a path of destruction in their wake to round off the calendar year.
Between the start of October and the winter break at the end of December, ‘LuLa’ combined for 17 Serie A goals in 11 games, with the Belgian squeezing every milligram of potential out of the player he described as “one of the biggest talents” he’s ever seen.
While Lukaku outscored El Toro on the domestic stage, the Champions League – a competition in which he could only muster 53 minutes of action under Spalletti – was Lautaro’s playground.
It took just 90 seconds for the Argentine to open his account on the European stage in Inter’s second group game at Barcelona, as the bullish striker held off Clement Lenglet brilliantly before finishing past Marc-Andre ter Stegen with the sort of efficiency and ruthlessness that was only starting to be teased in Serie A.
A strike in the Derby d’Italia against Juventus and a brace at Sassuolo ensued before Lautaro was wreaking havoc on the European scene once more – netting at home to Borussia Dortmund after expertly peeling away from Julian Weigl and making the most of Stefan de Vrij’s perfectly weighted lofted pass by finishing beyond an onrushing Roman Burki.
While that strike was all about crafty movement, Lautaro’s opener in the reverse fixture two weeks later highlighted just how potent he can be with the ball at his feet, as he humbled Mats Hummels down the right flank before drifting past Weigl inside and firing home with his weaker left foot to round off a typical Conte move.
Although his wonderful individual effort would ultimately end in vain as Inter slumped to a 3-2 defeat, it was clear that Lautaro’s first Champions League goal at the Camp Nou was no flash in the pan. A superstar was emerging in the grandest European ampitheatres.
The Argentine’s an atypical second striker in that instead of being someone who creates via expert space manipulation (see: Roberto Firmino) or masterful ball manipulation (see: Paulo Dybala), Lautaro thrives when he’s doggedly running channels, breaking with Lukaku in transition or when a towering centre-half is right up his backside – his ability to shrug off physically superior defenders and combine with teammates is mightily impressive.
For all his work with the ball, his output without it just can’t be overlooked.
The Argentine’s the one to spearhead Conte’s typically fierce press from the front, with his overwhelming intensity out of possession helping the Nerazzurri win back the ball higher up the pitch. It’s for this reason why Inter often blitzed their way into quick leads before the break in March and why a frightening number of Lautaro’s 18 goals this term have come in the opening 30 minutes of contests.
One of those early goals came in the 3-1 win over Slavia Prague on matchday five of the Champions League group stages.
The November victory in Prague was a watershed night for the LuLa partnership, as Lukaku set up Lautaro for both of the Argentine’s goals before scoring himself.
After sweeping home a 19th-minute opener, Lautaro’s second and Inter’s third was a sequence of beauty. Lukaku instinctively picked out his predatory strike partner in the penalty area with a pinpoint outside-of-the-foot pass which allowed the Argentine to crash home ferociously on the volley.
It was a move which summarised the frightening telepathy between the pair.
However, Lautaro has ultimately built a reputation around this three-month spell and, in particular, his stellar showing on the European stage.
Following a bright start to 2020 – which saw LuLa tear apart Napoli at the San Paolo – Lautaro’s performances have been sub-par since he was dismissed late on in the 1-1 draw with Cagliari in late January.
El Toro was anonymous in tide-turning defeats at Juventus and Lazio which thwarted Inter’s Scudetto charge, while the killer instinct that was often on display during his sustained purple patch has seemingly deserted him since the restart. For every tap-in against Sampdoria, there’s a disasterclass at Parma and for every influential display like in the 3-1 victory over Torino, a no-show at Roma swiftly follows.
Despite his meteoric rise to one of Europe’s most sought-after talents, there’s no doubting Lautaro’s at a point where he’ll have to defy critics once more.
His consistency woes are worrying – and you fear for him if he was to make a move to Barcelona this summer – but his spell at the end of 2019 was a major indicator of his supreme talent.
With his desire, work ethic and sheer natural ability, there’s no doubting Lautaro will soon silence any skeptics just like he did in spectacular style following a tame maiden campaign in Italy.