Lautaro Martínez is perhaps currently one of the most exciting young forwards in football. The Argentine moved to Inter Milan from Racing Club in the summer of 2018 and looks better with every game that he plays for the Nerazzurri.
Currently 21 years of age, the forward made his debut for Racing Club at the young age of 18 but really burst into the limelight in the 2016-17 campaign. He almost joined Real Madrid in 2015 but chose to remain in Argentina. Again in 2017, he was close to signing for Atletico Madrid but the deal didn’t go through. Martínez currently finds himself playing a more important role for Inter than he would have anticipated in his debut season in Italy.
Following his compatriot and teammate Mauro Icardi’s fallout with the club, Martínez has led the Inter line more frequently over the past few months. In an ideal scenario, who better than Icardi to help mentor and guide Martínez over the course of his Inter career. However, given the current scenario, can Martínez develop into a striker of Icardi’s quality and carry the Inter attack the same way his compatriot has been doing over the last few seasons? This tactical analysis aims to look at that question
Understanding his skills
Lautaro Martínez is quick, strong and has great spatial awareness. These, along with his hard-working and industrious nature, mean that the youngster is a very well-rounded forward to have in any side. Martínez’s dribbling ability is a facet of his game that is very impressive. Something of a trademark move, Martínez loves flicking the ball around the defender marking him either by feinting or with a piece of skill. Rather than facing the opposition goal and looking for a through-ball, Martínez prefers to face away from goal and hold up play. Standing at 1.74 metres, the Argentine is not tall but his strength is quite impressive nonetheless.
On many occasions, during games, Martínez has his back to goal and is marked tightly by the opposition defender. Using his strength to hold off challenges, he surveys his surroundings very well, looking for passing options. When he receives the ball, rather than holding onto it for too long, he is quick to either find a pass or attempt to beat the defender marking him. This ability to hold up play enables him to bring his teammates into play and his height and low centre of gravity mean he is agile and quick, making him a real menace to mark.
In the above sequence of play, Martínez is being marked tightly by the opposition centre-back who is physically much larger than him. However, the Argentine shows a great deal of strength and determination to hold him off. Martínez’s line of sight allows him to survey any passing options. He opts for a very skilful flick past the defender, creating an opportunity for himself.
He does the same on this occasion where he anticipates the defender’s presence behind him and deftly utilizes the power of the pass to intelligently flick the ball into space where he can use his pace.
Natural instinct – movement & finishing
Martínez’s movement and finishing represent the natural goal-scoring instinct that the Argentine possesses. Similar to Icardi, Martínez is a great poacher in the box. When leading the line, the striker causes confusion in the opposition defence by wandering into midfield and rather discretely using the defender’s blind-spots to make runs into the box. As opposed to a more stationary striker, this constant movement and fluidity make him extremely difficult to mark and track allowing him to pop up in dangerous positions virtually unmarked.
In the above visuals, Martínez receives an aerial ball in a wide position. He controls it well and makes a pass to a nearby teammate. While the opposition defenders are focused on the man with the ball, he circles around before making a run into space vacated by the unaware defence. This is just one instance of his exquisite and well-planned movement.
Here we see Racing Club breaking as the ball is shifted to the wide player. In the previous stage, Martínez holds his run and waits for the wide players on either flank to overtake him, ensuring that the opposition’s centre-backs are unaware of his presence and focused on the threat from the wings. He follows this up by waiting for the ball to be played, appearing between the centre-backs and calmly sliding the ball into the goal
Fitting into different systems
Given the dynamic nature of modern football, it is vital for young players to be tactically adept so that they can perform in different tactical setups. Luckily for Martínez, he seems perfectly comfortable in varying tactical setups and in different roles. Inter are a side who go into most matches as favourites. They dominate possession and opposition sides usually defend deep and try to deny them space to play balls over the defence or overload wide areas.
This is where Martínez’s aforementioned ability to hold up play and invite pressure is valuable. Similarly if placed in a counter-attacking setup, the youngster’s pace and dribbling skill allow him to either lead the line or play on the flanks really well.
Here, as Argentina break, Martínez has the pace and agility to create a cohesive counter attack with his attacking counterparts. Aware of the numerical superiority and the wide options, he holds his central position before making a darting run between the opposition centre-halves.
At Inter, Luciano Spalletti usually opts for a 4-2-3-1 system but we’ve also seen the Nerazzurri play a 4-3-3 at times. While playing a 4-2-3-1, Spalletti usually opts for one of Icardi or Martínez leading the line. At times the duo has played together with Martínez as a number ten. The youngster recently admitted that he is comfortable playing in a deeper role and is looking to build his relationship with Icardi on the field.
If the Argentine forwards can fire together, Inter will have no concerns about scoring goals. Martínez’s defensive efforts cannot be ignored either as the forward plays an important role when his side presses and has no qualms with tracking back and helping out his teammates defensively.
More than just a striker
Upon observation, it is obvious that Martínez is far from just a forward. The youngster’s influence on his team is not limited to scoring goals. Icardi’s off-the-ball movement, positional awareness, and instinct make him a deadly goal-scorer but his influence in Inter’s buildup isn’t as heavy. This is where Martinez differs from his compatriot and perhaps offers a bit more. Undoubtedly, a striker’s main role is to score goals but this doesn’t have to limit the skill-set of a forward. Such is the case with Martínez. The youngster is a very well-rounded attacker with great dribbling and playmaking skills.
A different trait we can see in Martínez’s game is the way he likes to drop deeper to midfield and occupy half-spaces or position himself between the lines, almost like an attacking midfielder. He frequently does this when his side dominates possession in order to be more proactive in his movement and drag defenders out of position. Therefore, it is no surprise that Martínez has the ability to play across the front-line or as a false-nine and even as a number ten. He does not isolate himself as solely a striker but is more versatile.
The above heat-maps indicate Martínez’s tendency to drift and play with more freedom. We can see that his positioning is not limited to the opposition’s penalty area but the Argentine appears in pockets all over the pitch, sometimes even picking up the ball deep in midfield and advancing with it. The second heat-map especially shows his tendency to position himself between the opposition lines or in half-spaces in order to exert his influence on the game to a greater extent.
Looking at his goal-scoring record for Racing Club, Martínez has 26 goals in 58 appearances in Argentina, an impressive record for a player of such a young age. At the time of writing, the Argentine has nine goals and two assists in 29 appearances for Inter in his debut season in Europe. So clearly, Martínez has no dearth of goal-scoring ability.
Can he become Inter’s talisman?
There’s no doubt that Martínez has both the quality and temperament to be a very successful player in Europe for the years to come. His influence in the side is bound to increase with every season and should Mauro Icardi leave the club, the youngster will surely become Inter’s lead striker. With players like Candreva and Nainggolan not being at their best this season, Spalletti would do well to fit both Martínez and Icardi into the starting eleven and nurture their relationship on the pitch.
At the moment, Martínez requires some time to settle into the Serie A, which is a big leap in quality from the Primera División. However, given his work ethic, hard-working nature and general willingness to help the side, Martínez is on course to become a lethal striker in the coming years and perhaps even surpass Icardi as a forward.