Lautaro Martínez – The Argentine Predator Wanted by Europe’s Elite
“Lautaro Martínez is already a champion. He scores in all sorts of ways and helps out his teammates” – Gabriel Batistuta.
One of Europe’s hottest striking prospects, ‘El Toro’ (The Bull) has been devastating for Inter Milan this season, living up to his nickname by rampaging and ripping apart defenses, forming a lethal foil to strike partner Romelu Lukaku, scoring 16 goals and laying down 4 assists in 31 appearances. An all-round striker with pace, power, physicality and an eye for goal, the 22-year-old is often compared to Luis Suárez, and compatriot Sergio Agüero. He has been hailed as Argentina’s next striking sensation, attracting the attention of heavyweights Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Real Madrid as the subject of a rumoured €111million move.
Prodigiously talented and matched with an unrelenting work ethic, we take a look at Lautaro’s footballing journey.
Born in 1997, to Karina Vanesa Gutiérrez and Mario Martínez, a former professional footballer who played in the lower leagues of Argentina, Lautaro’s childhood was as idyllic as the beaches of his homeland Bahía Blanca, a city located in the southwest of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires.
Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and carve out a career as a professional footballer, young Lautaro put in the hard yards. His sheer passion and determination, coupled with his father’s advice, helped him ace a trial at local club Liniers, where he started grabbing eyeballs. Progressively rising through the youth ranks of the club, Lautaro also simultaneously tried attending trials for some of Argentina’s biggest clubs and academies, including heavyweights Boca Juniors. However, it ended in disappointment for the then 15-year-old because of his physical constraints.
“They told me I had no power or speed and that I could come back if I had worked on it. I was half resigned and angry,” Lautaro later remarked.
Lautaro’s further development is a story of perseverance and hard work, as it is one of his unbridled talents. Not letting such disappointments stand in his way, he kept his head down and worked on his all-round game in the youth teams of Liniers, with his work finally coming to fruition in the club’s Under-17 League and National Cup. Scoring 13 goals in the former and netting in the latter’s final, he caught the attention of several club scouts, one of them being Racing Club’s interim coach Fabio Radaelli, widely renowned as the man who discovered ‘El Toro’.
“He is a mix between Juan Esnaider and Diego Milito. I remember when I first saw him, I asked myself if he was naturally left or right-footed as he controlled and played the ball with both, and that remains the same today. After watching him for 10 minutes, I realised that he was a particular kind of player,” Radaelli profusely praised the-then 16-year old.
This helped Lautaro earn a move to move to Racing Club, based in Avellaneda, another city in the province of Buenos Aires. However, Lautaro started suffering from severe homesickness and physical ailments immediately after the move.
“At that time, he was suffering from epilepsy, the separation caused him convulsions, and he was cured. Luckily everything is all right now, but at that moment it was as if a part of him was being torn away,” Mario Martínez, the player’s father, reminisced on his move.
Lautaro’s relentless work ethic again saw him overcome these initial setbacks, and “The Bull from Bahía Blanca” started looking like the fearsome striker he was touted to become.
Rise to Stardom
Scoring 53 goals in 64 appearances for the Racing’s reserve squad, Lautaro started attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs, as the latest target man to come out of Argentina, following the footsteps of stalwarts Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. In 2015, a deal was concluded between Racing Club and European elite Real Madrid for Martínez’s signature, but the youngster displayed a maturity well beyond his tender years by rejecting the move to the club that had won the Champions League just a year before.
He instead opted to remain at Racing to further his development and to be close to his family, a decision that immediately paid off as he made his league debut for the senior team on 1 November 2015 when he came on as a second-half substitute for Inter legend Diego Milito, then in the twilight years of his career, in a 3–0 win over Crucero del Norte. He scored his first goal later that year, netting the opener in a 1–1 draw with Huracán in November.
Lautaro’s all-round attributes, his aerial prowess despite his relatively diminutive frame for a striker, and his excellent positioning and awareness helped him cement his place in the Racing side for the 2016-17 campaign where he scored nine goals in 23 league appearances for the club.
In the following season, he continued to impress with his work-rate and willingness to track back, transforming into more of a team player than ever before, catching the attention of Spanish giants Atlético Madrid, where strikers of a similar profile thrived in Martínez’s compatriot, Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2 system. Lautaro even underwent a medical at the club; however, the move ultimately fell through, and he instead agreed to a new contract with an increased release clause at Racing.
Lautaro also put in stellar performances for Argentina in the 2017 South American Youth Football Championship where he ended as the tournament’s joint-top scorer with five goals, and in the process helped Argentina qualify for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where they were painfully eliminated in the group stage.
Move to Inter Milan
After an exemplary 2017-18 campaign where he scored 18 goals in 27 appearances for Racing, ‘El Toro’ finally realised his dream move to Europe. Inter managed to ward off some of Europe’s biggest clubs and won the race for his signature when the reported €22.7 million move was confirmed on 4 July 2018.
He made his official debut on the opening day of the Serie A when he started in a 1–0 loss to Sassuolo. Lautaro opened his account for Inter, scoring in a 2–0 win at San Siro on 29 September. Even with an established striker in Mauro Icardi leading the line for Inter, Lautaro, with his dynamism and tendency to get on the blind-side of defenders, offered something different from his compatriot. Rather than playing just as a target man, Lautaro was making effervescent runs into pockets of space, forever keeping defenders on their toes. Benefiting from Icardi’s troubles off the field and getting regular game time, he finished the campaign with nine goals in 35 appearances in all competitions, helping Inter achieve third place in Serie-A.
However, for much of the campaign, Lautaro was blamed for drifting in and out of matches, due to opponents sitting deep to counter then Inter coach Luciano Spalletti’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system with an emphasis on possession. This often found Lautaro isolated and unable to make his trademark intelligent runs in behind the defence due to the paucity of space and forced the player to rely more on his aerial prowess, akin to the role Icardi had played before his fallout with the club.
Taking Europe by Storm
“He has something of Luis Suarez and Sergio Agüero about him. Lautaro is learning to use his body to play with his back to goal. He is powerful, has a strong physique and is already confident, but that belief is growing with every game. He shows skills and does things done by players with 10-15 years more experience.”- Diego Godín.
Lautaro Martínez proved instrumental in Argentina’s run to the semi-finals of the 2019 Copa América scoring two goals and impressing with his work-rate and intelligence off the ball, exemplified by a Man of the Match performance against Venezuela in the quarter-finals.
This season, with the arrival of Antonio Conte in the dugout and the big-money signing of Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro has exploded, taking his game to another level. A change in tactics to Conte’s preferred 3-5-2 system has helped his intelligent off-the-ball movement and predatory instincts develop, opening up avenues of space for Lukaku’s brute strength and finishing, a perfect foil. Scoring 16 goals and laying down four assists before the campaign was prematurely interrupted, Lautaro has taken Europe by storm with his finishing and attacking awareness.
Martínez has also been instrumental for Argentina, scoring his first international hat-trick in a 4-0 friendly win against Mexico in September. He also has a knack for scoring important goals, becoming only the fourth Inter player in history to score in four consecutive Champions League games.
An integral cog of Conte’s Serie A contenders, Lautaro’s role in the Inter system is not just limited to his goal participation. His effervescent energy, work-rate, and relentless pressing are some of the hallmarks of Inter’s tactics, with the young Argentine putting constant pressure on opposing defenders and acting as a hindrance to teams that seek to build out from the back.
This was exemplified in a 2-1 Champions League away defeat to Barcelona, where Lautaro was a constant thorn in the side of the Barcelona defenders, scoring his first Champions League goal in the process. Though Barcelona took away all three points that night with a resurgent Luis Suárez scoring both goals, Lautaro turned many heads with a strong performance, so much so that he is widely seen as the Uruguayan’s long-term successor at the Camp Nou. However, the Catalans will not have it easy with a rumoured €111million price tag and stiff competition from other European heavyweights, including Chelsea, Manchester City, and even arch-rivals, Real Madrid.
The footballing journey and development of Lautaro Martínez as an all-round striker, serves as a testament to the player’s talent, tenacity, and dedication. The world is his oyster, and if he continues to develop at the same pace, “The Bull from Bahía Blanca” will be without doubt one of the world’s most lethal strikers both for club and country in the years to come.
Written by Sidharth Suresh
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