At Inter Milan, Antonio Conte is attempting to reboot a club that has long been stagnated. After years of underachieving, the Nerazzurri have undergone a vast transformation this campaign, in not only personnel but in system and philosophy. Conte’s utilisation of his favoured 3-5-2 at Inter has contributed to an upturn in fortunes for many players, none more so than Lautaro Martinez.
With 11 goals in 22 appearances, a goal every other game in Serie A, Martinez has thrived within Conte’s well-structured, patterned style of play. Revelling in the tactical nuances and adaptations introduced by the manager, the Argentinian is perceived to be an integral asset of Inter’s long-term project.
But the club are reportedly set to have a fight on their hands if they are to retain the services of the forward for next season. The remarkable form of Martinez has captivated admirers from Europe’s biggest clubs and are even prepared to trigger the rumoured €111 million release clause in his contract. Barcelona are said to be leading the race, reportedly identifying Martinez as Luis Suarez’s eventual successor.
So, what’s changed? Why the sudden surge in form? In the composition of a scout report, we take a look at the reasons for Lautaro Martinez’s recent revitalisation at Inter Milan and why the 22-year-old has grown to become one of the most sought-after strikers in world football.
Partnership with Romelu Lukaku
In an age where tactical analysis figures show most managers in Serie A opt for a front three or a lone number nine, Conte’s Inter Milan have flourished with the tactics of a striking partnership up front. Playing with two out-and-out forwards has largely out of fashion amongst Europe’s elite, but Conte’s use of the 3-5-2 system has given Martinez and Romelu Lukaku opportunity to build a rapport with one another.
And while fitting two traditional strikers into a team is now widely viewed as archaic within the modern game, Conte’s use of both Martinez and Lukaku has breathed new life into the dying art of a successful strike pair. The Italian has altered the role of the forwards, in which they are tasked with fresh responsibilities and duties that must be handed out to merely compete with the ever-changing landscape of attacking football.
With a five-inch difference in height, most would expect their relationship to be the classic big man/little man combination. But in their way of keeping with the times, both are comfortable in interchanging roles and are able to do the job of an all-round centre-forward.
In the image below, 5’9 Martinez makes a movement to come to feet and drops in-between the lines – a position most would expect to 6’3 Lukaku in. At the same time, Lukaku spins in behind, playing on the last line of the Napoli defenders.
The ability to share striking roles and effortlessly intertwine in their duties has played a pivotal role in Antonio Conte’s rebuild. Markedly, the pair have together accounted for 57 per cent of Inter’s goals this season, with 28 of their 49 goals strikes coming courtesy of just those two. In a league where taking chances is essential to a team’s overall success, Martinez and Lukaku continue to demonstrate their clinical nature. Inter find themselves fifth in the goalscoring table, despite only having the eighth highest amount of shots in Serie A.
The consistency of their finishing can be depicted on the chart below, where if you compare to their neighbour’s AC Milan, their shooting efforts are significantly more likely to hit the target. Analysis shows AC Milan have attempted six more shots this season (286<280), yet Inter have troubled the opposing goalkeeper on 33 more occasions. This is largely down to Lukaku’s (39) and Martinez‘s (36) efforts, who have hit the target considerably more than any other Inter player.
Conte’s trigger and toiler
Out of possession, Martinez has become vital in how Antonio Conte wants his team to defend. Martinez’s primary role is to act as the trigger for the rest of the side to press, where he hunts down opposition defenders and engages with the ball high up the pitch. Pressing from the front naturally places a large burden on Martinez, due to the repetitive sprints the 22-year-old must do in order to apply instant pressure on the ball. Becoming the focal point of the press has meant Martinez expends a large amount of energy without the ball, regularly sacrificing his attacking prowess to help the cause.
Martinez’s industrious approach has been a major factor in Romelu Lukaku’s impact at Inter. In the past, Lukaku has struggled with managing his energy reserves, especially if he’s required on the defensive front. This then has a knock-on effect on him as a goal scorer, where his influence can diminish and his movement becomes laboured. But with Martinez alongside him, the workhorse of the two, Lukaku can conserve energy levels more efficiently.
In the image below, Martinez forces the Napoli defender to play backwards. This then triggers Lukaku – who supports from behind but not at the same intensity as Martinez – and the rest of the team to press.
Martinez continues to hunt the ball while Lukaku cuts off the short pass. This forces a rushed clearance from Napoli’s goalkeeper Alex Meret – it eventually results in Inter regaining possession.
When the opposition have comfortable possession and it’s no longer the opportune time to apply pressure, Martinez settles in as the second striker, dropping deeper to avoid Inter getting played through midfield.
In the same game against Napoli, the image shows Martinez hurrying Napoli’s central defensive midfielder, stopping him from playing through Inter’s lines to instead pass sideways. Notice how Lukaku is not in shot, further emphasizing Martinez’ as the first defensive barrier when defending. The nature of his attempted tackle can draw parallels to his combative approach this season, as amplified later on in the scout report.
Aerial ability and in-box-movement
Commonly a characteristic that can be easily seen in an Antonio Conte team is their strength to exploit either flank effectively. Accentuated In the 3-5-2 system, the wing-backs are relied on as a source of creating goalscoring chances. In Serie A, Inter Milan are second for crosses attempted and have the highest accuracy rate of those crosses finding the intended target. This season, Inter have attempted 219 crosses from wide areas, most of which are delivered by the wing-backs. 125 been successful with only 94 misplaced – a 57 per cent completion rate.
Due to the regularity of Inter’s attacks now coming from out-wide, Martinez has shown a precocious aptitude for making the cross-fixated style of the side work for him, despite his 5ft 9inch standing. The 11 headed goals the team have netted is the most of any this season, with Martinez matching Lukaku’s tally of three. Martinez also wins 3.27 aerial duels per 90 minutes, although he has been the shorter player in every individual duel this season.
While his heading talents may be perceived as surprising and understandably impressive, Martinez’s ability to steer away from his natural instincts are the determining factor in getting on the end of crosses. In the past, his all-action approach has led to the forward often coming deeper and joining in the team’s build-up play. Under Conte, Martinez has instead remained patient, largely operating high and in central areas of the pitch. Rather than go searching for the ball, he often waits for it to come to him and this season, that’s usually in the form of a cross.
Notice how Lukaku comes to feet to link the attack, while Martinez remains central and high, waiting for the phases of play to develop.
The attack advances down the right channel and Martinez’s is now in an excellent position (between full-back and centre-back) to get onto the end of the cross.
The case for Martinez’s improved patience is supported in his heat map this season. Due to the wide areas being left for the wing-backs to exclusively operate in, Martinez has had to remain disciplined in the central areas of the pitch. This naturally leads to him getting into better goalscoring opportunities, utilising his innate aerial prowess to his advantage.
Usually seen as a compact, crowded area of the pitch, Martinez has had to develop his movement in and around the box. A regular tendency of his this season is to get himself in between the full-back and the closest centre-back. By doing this, his positioning provides a range of options, from spinning off and getting round the back of the defence, to making a darting run across the face of the goal. This frequently creates havoc for the two defenders, as both are not sure whose responsibility it is to track Martinez, due to the floating-like position the Argentinian takes up.
In the game against Barcelona this season, Martinez creates a goalscoring opportunity through his movement in the box. Martinez initially stations himself in-between Sergi Roberto and Clement Lenglet. This allows the striker to survey the scene before deciding what movement to make next.
Lenglet is watching the ball and cannot see the striker in his vision. This causes Martinez to time his run and get across Lenglet. By the time the defender has seen him, Martinez is left unmarked and can attack the cross, profiting from his athletic leap to attack the high delivery.
So far this season, Inter are sixth for ball possession, recording their retention rate at 28 minutes per match. While the statistics are hardly damning, it is a far cry from their pinpoint crossing results; the stats underline Conte’s belief that possession is useful but not always essential. And that opinion is no more symptomatic than in Martinez. In the 22 games played, Martinez has a lowly pass completion rate of 66.5 per cent. Far below the average of any player in Serie A, there are mitigating, yet somewhat unusual, circumstances for it. With only 35 per cent of his actions successful, Martinez’s giveaway rate emphasises his willingness to take risks on the ball, perhaps opposing Conte’s once-renowned pragmatic approach.
With the Buenos Aires native growing to become an important player in Inter’s set-up, there is an arguable case that Conte may simply not care about the stats. After all, 65.7 per cent of the striker’s passes are forward and 50 per cent of those are played into the final third – an area that normally requires extra care or intricacy to retain possession, especially when teams defend in a low block.
In this example against Napoli, Martinez was immediately surrounded by five blue shirts all in close proximity after receiving the ball.
Martinez’s risk-taking nature, coinciding with the fact he’s employed in an area often devoid of space, should act as no revelation for his ball retention rate. If anything, it benefits him. Having the license to try different things and take risks may be a significant reason as to why the forward has recorded 55 attempts on goal, the 10th most shots in the league.
Tenacious, combative approach
With six yellow cards and one red to his name this season, it’s fair to say Martinez is more than adept of handling himself when it comes to the physical skirmishes of Serie A. Successfully aligned with his all-action, tenacious character, Martinez is now considered a pest for opposition defences, aggressive in his closing down and robust in physical encounters. All of which is perfect for an Antonio Conte team, where he is relied upon to act as the trigger to press (as explained earlier).
Fitting into a team that runs 112 kilometres per game, the most of any side in the league, Martinez shines at being in the forefront of it all. Leading the way for Inter in drawing the most fouls (50), the statistics more than suggest the 22-year-old is capable of handling the ruthless demands of European football.
Lautaro Martinez’s success this season has been through a refinement of his unquestionable natural and athletic capabilities under Antonio Conte, where a mix of Argentinian grit and a touch of intricacy has led to quite the end product. His steep development can draw comparisons to some form of regenerated creature, determined to re-construct a bigger and better version of themselves. All of which has culminated in Lautaro Martinez emerging as an integral figure in Inter Milan’s rebuild.