Lautaro Martínez: Inter’s Argentine Talisman in Attack

Since the introduction of the Italian top-flight in 1898, we’ve seen quite a few Argentine players come away with the top scorer award. Antonio Angelillo and Omar Sívori won it in back-to-back years to close out the ’50s, whilst Pedro Manfredini became the third shortly after. The Albiceleste would have to wait a quarter-century for their fourth as Diego Armando Maradona claimed the Capocannoniere, with Gabriel Batistuta, Hernán Crespo, Mauro Icardi (twice) and Gonzalo Higuaín all getting their hands on the trophy as well.


Lautaro Martínez looks set to become the eighth Argentine to come away with the Golden Boot after racking up 23 goals and 8 assists in 29 league appearances for Inter, eight goals ahead of second-placed Dušan Vlahović. At 26 years of age, Lautaro has won just about every trophy imaginable, from the Copa América to the Coppa Italia, from the World Cup to Serie A, but one that has evaded him is the Capocannoniere.



Since joining Inter in 2018, Martínez has replaced Icardi as Inter’s attacking talisman and played a pivotal role in their transformation, scoring 128 goals and 42 assists in 278 appearances for the Nerazzurri. So far, he has missed out on the top scorer award to Fabio Quagliarella, Ciro Immobile (twice), Cristiano Ronaldo and Victor Osimhen, but today, he is on track to not only claim the top scorer award, but his second Scudetto, with Inter currently sitting 14 points clear of second-placed Milan with six games left.


Despite growing up in the basketball-crazy town of Bahía Blanca, Martínez knew from an early age that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional footballer. “My old man was a great player, but he had no chance of making the step up to the big leagues, so he had to stick with playing in the second division,” said Martínez in a 2017 interview with El Gráfico. 


At 15, he tried out for Boca Juniors, but they told him he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough, but if he worked hard enough in those areas, he could return one day. Instead, Martínez began his career with local club Liniers, earning the nickname ‘El Toro’ or ‘The Bull’ for his agile, physical style of play. Despite playing against players who were one year older than him, he scored 13 goals in the U-17 league and captained Liniers to the Final of the National Cup, only to lose on penalties to Rosario.


One day, as he was going to a training session, Martínez stumbled into the path of Fabio Radaelli, who was the reserve coach of Racing Club de Avellaneda at the time. Radaelli was holding player tryouts in Buenos Aires, and decided to stay and watch Martínez train. He showed up at a few more of his games, and quickly offered him the opportunity to join one of the biggest clubs in Argentina. Martínez didn’t have to think twice.



It wasn’t easy for Martínez to make the seven-hour journey north and say goodbye to his family at the age of 16. He often suffered from epilepsy due to the sadness of being away from his parents and older brother, and he had to take medication to stop his convulsions. He desperately yearned to return home, but his teammate Braian Mansilla convinced him to stay.


“Do you understand what this is? We can play in the Primera! Stop messing around, stay here, and one day, we’re going to play in that stadium together, and we’re going to wreck it.”


Martínez stayed, and scored 53 goals in 64 appearances for Racing’s reserve side. When he was on the cusp of breaking into the first team, Real Madrid swept in and offered to sign him on loan with an option to buy. Martínez rejected the Spanish giants, preferring to lead Racing to glory before testing his skills abroad. He made his league debut on November 1, 2015, coming on as a substitute for Diego Milito. Milito had won the treble with Inter Milan in 2010 before returning to his boyhood club in 2014 to close out his career.


He would be forced to wait another 16 months to get his first real shot of cracking the starting line-up. In a tune-up friendly, first-choice striker Lisandro López tore his knee ligament in a goosebump-inducing injury. As such, then coach Diego Cocca was forced to start the teenager in the season opener against defending league champions Lanús. 



In the second minute, he made a darting run into the box, exploiting space created by his teammate Gustavo Bou’s audacious dribble. Martínez headed home Bou’s cross and started the momentum that would carry Racing to a 3-0 victory. He would go on to score nine goals in 23 league appearances during the 2016-17 season, before undergoing surgery in July to repair the metatarsal in his left foot, which would cause him to miss three months of action.


Nevertheless, Martínez bounced back with a bang. On November 19, 2017, he returned to the Bombonera to face Boca Juniors, the same club that told him he wasn’t good enough five years prior. After playing a quick one-two with Enrique Triverio, he accelerated to the center circle, before launching a cannon of a shot that went careening off the post and into the side-netting. Racing would defeat the eventual league champions 2-1, and teams took notice.


A month later, Martínez underwent a medical with Atlético Madrid. It was set to materialize, until he decided to stay put, renewing his contract for another year and increasing his release clause from €9 million to €25 million. Despite being just 20 years old, he was given the captain’s armband on multiple occasions, and wreaked havoc alongside the likes of Bou and Mansilla, finishing the 2017/18 season with 18 goals and 5 assists in 27 appearances. It was good enough for Inter, who paid €22.7 million to bring him to the club.


While Martínez did make a handful of starting appearances during the first half of the season, it wasn’t until February when he finally became a starter. This time, the window of opportunity didn’t open from a nightmare injury, but a war of words between the club hierarchy and its top scorer.



Mauro Icardi, who had spent the past five years reliably serving as Inter’s talisman in attack, was stripped of the captain’s armband due to a disagreement between the club and his wife / agent Wanda Nara. Inter had been trying to negotiate a new contract for Icardi, but after Nara complained that her husband was not getting enough appreciation from his teammates, the club removed the armband from Icardi, who had been weathering a seven-match goal drought.


“I would like Mauro to be more protected by the club because sometimes these bad things come from inside,” said Nara. Less than a week later, her car window was struck with a rock, as she was driving with her children.


With the armband ripped off him and his dignity in shreds, Icardi refused to travel with the team for their Europa League clash against Rapid Vienna. A player who has long been the target of controversy and transfer sagas, the club leadership decided that this was the scandal that broke the camel’s back. They temporarily suspended him, giving the reins in attack to Martínez.


Instead of playing alongside his compatriot, Martínez was now playing ahead of him. His first major test came on March 17, 2019 in the Milan derby. Inter, fresh off being eliminated from the Europa League by Eintracht Frankfurt, needed a spark of individual brilliance to take home all three points. They got it from Martínez.



Inter opened the scoring when El Toro latched onto a cross from Ivan Perišić, carefully cushioning the ball into the path of Matías Vecino, who smashed it across the goal mouth. When Inter were granted a penalty later on, Martínez stepped up and placed it past the reach of a helpless Gianluigi Donnarumma.


At the end of the season, Inter finished fourth, just good enough to earn the final Champions League spot in Serie A, and trailing one point behind them in fifth place were Milan. The 2019/20 campaign would see him shift from lone striker duty to a big-man little-man attacking duo alongside Romelu Lukaku, who arrived from Manchester United in the summer for a club record 75 million pounds. This took quite a bit of pressure off the Argentine’s young shoulders, and in turn, allowed him to thrive in a secondary striker role and lead them to their first Scudetto in over a decade.


Prior to Lautaro’s arrival in 2018, Inter had not finished inside Serie A’s top three in seven years. They’ve managed to finish in the top three in each of the last five seasons, and they look set to come away with their 20th Scudetto and surpass Milan as the second-top league winner after Juventus (36), with the Nerazzurri currently sitting 14 points above Milan, 20 above Juventus and 24 above Bologna.


Despite losing various starters in the summer such as André Onana, Edin Džeko, and Milan Škriniar, Inter have enjoyed a historic campaign under Simone Inzaghi and become the first team in Serie A history to score in each of their first 31 matches, as well as the second team to achieve 82+ points from 31 after Juventus 2018/19 (84). Prior to this season, each of the last four Serie A seasons had seen four different winners — Juventus, Inter, Milan, Napoli — but Inter are all but guaranteed to break that trend. The question is — do they have the means to build a genuine dynasty?


Inter have gone from also-rans to powerhouses in spite of their overwhelming financial issues that have forced them to sell key players like Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi, and Marcelo Brozović, and they will be desperate to keep hold of Martínez with his current deal set to expire in 2026. At 26 years old, El Toro has emerged as one of the most formidable center forwards on the continent and formed a dynamic duo in attack with Marcus Thuram in Inzaghi’s 3-5-2, and he’ll be looking to add to his trophy cabinet this summer as Argentina head to the United States for the Copa América.


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mattia Ozbot – Inter / FC Internazionale