Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez give Antonio Conte's Inter Milan a superstar strike partnership
It was an exceedingly painful match for Antonio Conte and Nerazzurri fans. Despite the umpteenth goal of the season created by Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku coming in the 44th minute, Barcelona came back and knocked Inter out of the Champions League. Yet that goal once again emphasized how the pair are now irreplaceable players for Inter, that they are one of the best pairs of strikers in Europe, if not the best.
Striker partnerships represent an almost iconic trait of Conte’s brand of football; he began his career setting up his players in a 4-2-4, before moving on to a 3-5-2. Think of Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tévez at Juventus, Graziano Pellé and Éder at the 2016 Euros, even Diego Costa and Eden Hazard at Chelsea, who despite being set up in a 3-4-3, the Belgian was given a lot of freedom and often ended up playing near the Spanish center forward.
Although these players were all at the highest level at the time (except the national team pairing), perhaps no other pair of attackers of Conte has ever had such a preponderant influence in his side. Previously, Conte often relied on an excellent midfield to elevate the work of a pair of strikers, sometimes to the point where it was, in fact, the forwards supporting the midfielders' goal scoring. Injuries have led Inter to regress compared to the beginning of the season, but the two strikers have covered for these absences, generating opportunities out of nowhere. Take Lukaku's goal against Barcelona: Lautaro creates the assist by transforming into gold a ball that was nearly turned over, like he is a modern-day King Midas.
Their offensive power was not enough to overcome Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, leaving them stuck with Thursday night football instead, but for now it has led the team to the top of Serie A, with a two-point advantage over Juventus. Inter has picked up 38 of the 45 points available to them, a sensational result for a team that last year finished 21 points behind the Old Lady.
Lukaku and Lautaro, paired up this July, immediately developed an enviable understanding that crosses the white lines of the playing field, so much so that the two seem real friends, judging by how they look for each other when it's time to celebrate a goal. In various interviews, the Argentinean has stated Lukaku is a great person on and off the pitch, with Lukaku backing him up by saying they get along very well.
It's unclear whether the key to their success is their friendship or Conte’s system that plays to their strengths, but it matters little now that the two have reached superstar status. They've scored 25 of Inter's 41 total goals, 7 of 10 in the Champions League and 18 of 31 in Serie A. Inter's many injuries — especially to Alexis Sanchéz, Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella — have forced the two to take on additional creative and offensive responsibilities, so much so that they scored 8 of the team's 9 most recent goals. And, crucially, neither is exceeding their expected goals.
Their goals are almost equally distributed, as Lautaro has scored 13 goals so far while Lukaku has netted the ball 12 times. Among Serie A players with at least 900 minutes played, only Joaquín Correa (0.55) has a better xG per 90. Lautaro averages 0.51 xG per 90 (up from 0.37 last season), topping Lukaku’s 0.48 xG per 90 (a slight increase from his two seasons at Manchester United, where he averaged 0.40 and 0.44 xG per 90 respectively). No other pair of Serie A attackers generates as many xG on average (0.98 per 90), not even Correa alongside Ciro Immobile, slightly lower at 0.97 per 90.
It's interesting how Lukaku and Lautaro that the two put up almost the same numbers in terms of expected goals generated and goals converted, yet have different philosophies in front of goal. Lukaku is wiser in choosing his shots, so much so that he makes less than three attempts per game (2.85, 17th in the league), but these have a relatively high average quality (0.17 xG/shot). El Toro, meanwhile, is a trigger-happy shooter; the only Serie A striker with at least 900 minutes who shoots more on average (4.73 shots by 90) is Cristiano Ronaldo (5.40). However, compared to his partner, his attempts only average 0.11 xG/shot.
It's worth remembering that this is Lautaro's first full season as a starter in one of the top five European Leagues, which may be why he turns the ball a bit too often in comparison to his teammate, and completes only 15.57 passes at a 59.8% clip, Inter’s worst player in both categories. Neither he nor Lukaku are able to consistently play the last pass (they generate 0.26 xG assisted combined), as Conte's direct system means the pair are not asked to combine in attacking areas to break teams down. Instead, both are good at initiating dangerous combinations with the rest of Inter’s offensive players, who then move the ball up the field quickly to the strikers, who are free in the box. They more than doubled their average touches in the box in comparison to last season: Lautaro jumped from 7.04 to 16.22, while Lukaku increased from 6.43 to 14.43.
Both are very skilled at defending the ball which makes them pivotal in the Nerazzurri’s style of play. Lukaku's size allows him to shield the ball with his body and dominate the aerial game (2.91 aerial wins per 90), while Lautaro has excellent lower body strength, planting his legs firmly when he plays with his back to the goal. This allows him to win a remarkable number of fouls (3.26, 4th in the league), integral to a team that is currently second-best in set-piece goals scored (5).
Martínez completes more than twice as many dribbles as Lukaku and offers an enviable contribution to the defense. His average number of pressures (20.95) and pressure regains (3.26) are on par with that of Roberto Firmino (22.56 and 3.02), a striker universally known for his contribution during pressing. On several occasions, he literally pressed for two, especially when Lukaku's ability was affected by back pain.
On the other hand, Lukaku offers a more all-round game, playing the ball out from deep in the field and looking to advance his side. The Belgian is an essential reference point for his teammates, acting as a target man and playing the ball under pressure (40% of his passes are pressured). Now that he seems to have definitively put his physical problems behind him, it will be interesting to see whether he'll be able to level up.
The €65+ million Inter spent to bring in Lukaku looks like a great investment. But it is certainly not comparable to the €25 million Inter paid to Racing Club for Lautaro, who is likely now worth four times that much. For a young striker like El Toro, it's incredibly advantageous to be coached by a manager of this level who relies so much on him, one with enough confidence in him to start him in Champions League play. And given that he's only 22 years old, he still has so much room to improve.
Four months into the season, and Lukaku–Lautaro appear to be a match made in heaven. But now the question on all calcio fans minds is whether Inter can continue this impressive start, or whether they will slide down in the second half of the season, which has become somewhat of a tradition. If Lukaku and Lautaro continue to perform at this level, this just may be the year Juventus are prevented from clinching the title.