Inter‘s season has lurched from extreme to extreme. Their 15 matches so far in 2022/23 have yielded nine victories, five defeats, and just one draw. Injuries, prolonged transfer sagas, and the poor form of key individuals has compounded this diasporic environment.
Had the last five outings not been more impressive (four wins and a superb draw with Barcelona), then Simone Inzaghi could well have been out of the job.
Lautaro Martinez has experienced his own swings in form this season. Eight matches without a goal before facing Salernitana looked to be weighing the forward down, but the Argentine has come out the other side by showing the bullish character and fighting spirit that has long embodied his playing style.
One might even say Lautaro looks like he is about to start playing the very best football of his career.
No longer the bridesmaid
Lautaro’s career to date has been characterised as being a supporting act even to his own narrative. His blossoming at Inter came in the aftermath of Mauro Icardi’s protracted exit and Antonio Conte’s arrival at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Lautaro was playing as the young, promising Argentine replacing an older and more troublesome countryman.
Along came Romelu Lukaku, and whilst the pair struck up a frightening and coherent strike partnership as Inter finished second and then as Scudetto winners, it was the Belgian who drew the greatest acclaim and the consequent big-money transfer move.
Lukaku left, allowing Lautaro to take on the main man mantle only for Inter to fall away in defending their title. Lautaro scored 21 times in an impressive individual season, but again his contributions felt overlooked.
Even at international level, Lautaro‘s stature can feel smaller than that of Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala.
Even despite Lukaku’s shock return, Lautaro now looks to have found his calling as Inter’s talisman and is taking his game to a new level.
Lautaro‘s history of being a secondary figure has a lot to do with his playing style and his enabling qualities. It is what makes him so useful playing in a front two, rather than as a lone central figure.
His linking play has always been brilliant, dropping deep between lines to turn and play a fellow forward or an advancing wing-back in with an ambitious through pass. Lautaro pulls away from the centre-backs and move into wide channels to create space for said strike partner to exploit; a motion that was repeated time and time again by he and Lukaku in their devastating heyday together.
This season, however, we are seeing a more selfish version of the player. His 2.39 shot-creating actions/90 mins are his lowest contribution since 2018/19, and more than one whole action fewer than his 2019/20 creative peak. In other words, Lautaro is involving himself less in the creation of chances and shot-taking. Eight other Inter players with substantial league minutes rank above Lautaro by this metric.
Lautaro continues to shoot in high volume. Dating back to 2017, in only two seasons has he registered less than four shots/90 mins across a season, and his 4.23 shots this season continues this very nature. Lautaro is shooting from a further distance than before too, with his shots coming from (on average) a yard further out than ever before in his career.
What does this show? Lautaro has the bit between his teeth and is taking Inter’s erratic form into his own hands.
Hitting his scoring stride
This trigger-happy nature is coupled with a high shooting accuracy. Lautaro‘s 1.52 shots on target/90 mins over the last year ranks him in the 94th percentile of all top-five league centre-forwards.
Take his most recent non-penalty strikes of the season against Salernitana, and then in the chaotic 4-3 win away at Fiorentina. Lautaro gathers the ball through the lines and picks out the far bottom corner from distance with power and pinpoint accuracy in the former, and then for the latter drives forwards in transition, twists and turns away from an opponent and slips a finish into the far corner.
Then there was the goal at Camp Nou in the Champions League, bringing down a high ball under pressure from Eric Garcia in a way so to chest the it back across the Spaniard. Lautaro wrestled past him and slipped a finish in off both posts. Such a chance might once have been missed. So often a criticism has been his propensity to do something spectacular to create space or put himself into a golden position, before missing the easier chance. Not so here, and doing it on a stage as grand as this as Inter made their claim for a place in the next round at Barcelona’s expense summarised the season Lautaro is having.
Power and deftness, trickery and directness. Few forwards in world football combine such extremes like Lautaro is at present.
Has Lautaro always been ‘the man’?
Part of the allure of bringing Lukaku back was to reignite the partnership with Lautaro. The Argentine continued to grow and develop last season even with the less mobile Edin Dzeko as his new partner, but it was the prospect of bringing Lukaku ‘home’ that was seen as the coup that could bring the Scudetto back to the Nerazzurri.
Lukaku has appeared only three times in Serie A so far owing to fitness, so Lautaro is continuing to thrive even without the Belgian alongside him. Whether Inter will look to loan Lukaku again in light of said injury concerns remains to be seen. So successful and brilliant was he in his previous spell at the club that the downside of another loan could pale in significance to the potential upside should Lukaku get back on the pitch consistently.
What is definite however is that Lautaro Martinez has never been more important to Inter than he is now. Six goals and two assists in 11 Serie A matches at a rate 0.79 per 90 mins reflects the influence he is having in stabilising Inter’s form and propelling them back up the table.
If Inzaghi’s Inter are to have any chance of winning the Scudetto this season, it’s already clear that Lautaro will have to play as significant a role as anybody.
Data from FBRef.com. All stats correct as of 21st October 2022.