It’s kind of funny that Lautaro Martínez is nicknamed “The Bull.” Not that the nickname is wholly inappropriate—Inter’s Argentine striker is certainly as tenacious, strong, and domineering as you’d expect from that moniker. Still, a nickname like “El Toro” calls to mind a big burly fella who crashes about in a single-minded and not-especially-graceful drive to reach his objective. Martínez is not really that, and not only because he’s relatively small compared to the true physical powerhouses like Erling Haaland and Romelu Lukaku. In fact the only fair way to summarize Martínez’s game is to say that he defies pithy summaries, because the hallmark of his play is that he can do it all.
Wednesday’s crucial Champions League match away at Barcelona was Martínez’s latest chance to show what, and how much, he can do. The stakes were about as high as they get in the group stage: Barça desperately needed a victory in order to put itself back on track to qualify for the knockout rounds, and Inter needed to avoid a loss so as to cement a commanding position in the group’s second spot. Being the more famous and favored team, most expected Barcelona to come away with the win. But even on a pitch with Robert Lewandowski, Martínez proved the forward best equipped to drag his team to the result it needed.
Both the bullishness and the finesse of Martínez’s game were on display in the sloppy but wickedly entertaining 3–3 draw. What’s most impressive about Martínez is his self-sufficiency. Most forwards need a lot of help to shine, whether it’s because they need their teammates to find them in their favorite areas of the pitch or with certain kinds of passes or by teeing them up with shooting opportunities. Martínez however needs very little assistance to do damage, as he demonstrated against Barcelona.
If Inter was sunk deep in its own penalty box and could only manage a thumped clearance in the Argentine’s direction, Martínez could control the ball, bat away harassing defenders, and keep the ball safe long enough for his teammates push higher up the pitch and start a possession in earnest. If Inter forced a Barça turnover and wanted to hit out on a quick counter without committing too many players forward, Martínez would be there powering down the pitch asking for a ball into space to run onto, or he would drop into an intermediate position where he could size up a passing angle to send a fellow attacker clean through on goal. If Inter had built a more patient attack but needed someone between the lines to unlock the defense, Martínez would drop into space and play little one-twos to serve as both passer and runner to open up crevices in the opposing defense.
With his back to goal or facing the game, creating space with long sprints or slipping into space with clever movement, buffeting shoulders with defenders or shimmying past them, finishing chances with thunderous shots or inventing chances with delicate passes, Martínez knew what each play called for and had the ability to meet the moment with the correct action. Playing like that requires an impressive physique, yes, but also tons of technical skill and a mind that can read, choose, and execute the right move at the right time. Proficiency at even just a few of those facets would make for a very good striker. His mastery of all of them is what makes Martínez one of the very best.
Most of the big takeaways following Wednesday’s game—the result of which means Inter only needs to beat lowly Viktoria Plzen in the next group stage match to lock in a spot in the round of 16—center on Barcelona. The draw means mighty Barça will very likely get bumped down to the Europa League for the second consecutive season, a fate both humiliating and potentially financially ruinous. But lost in all that focus on the continued manunitedization of Barcelona is the talent of Martínez. He is 25 years old, and has been one of the best strikers in Europe for a few seasons now. You’d think that would make him a household name, but toiling away in an under-appreciated Serie A and at a big-but-not-enormous club like Inter, Martínez has gone a little under the radar.
If and when Martínez gets that big transfer he’s due for to one of the Champions League contenders (boy would he be scary on Bayern Munich…) the greater soccer world will come to more frequently and thoroughly appreciate his talent. Until then, the least we can do is give him his props when he appears under the spotlight and puts on a show. Sure, his big-name victims look awful when he’s done with them, but it’s worth spending some time to stare at the triumphant bull instead of looking only at the crumpled mess in its wake.