Raging Bull: The Power, Intelligence and Brilliance of Lautaro Martinez

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IMay 27, 2020

B/R

Lautaro Martinez had just bagged his first goals in continental competition for Racing Club, his second hat-trick in a month. And yet, as he walked off the pitch with the match ball under his left arm amid the noise of thousands of fans chanting his name, he looked surprisingly frustrated when approached on the sidelines to discuss his performance on TV.

"The truth is that, personally, I didn't like the game I played," Martinez told Fox Sports after the 4-2 victory over Cruzeiro in the 2018 Copa Libertadores opener.

"Apart from the three goals, I lost some easy balls that I could have done better with, so I need to keep improving. I go home very upset tonight, but still happy because the team won in its opening match."

It was not the sort of postgame interview you'd expect from a 20-year-old starting to make waves in his career, but it soon became clear he was not some average player rising through the ranks at Racing.

Lautaro was different to the other local teenagers who had burst on the scene in the recent past, both on a technical and, above all else, mental level.

His killer instinct had already dragged then-Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli to the Cilindro stadium several times that season.

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Along with Inter Milan sporting director Piero Ausilio and emissaries from other top European sides, Sampaoli was once again in the stands with his right-hand man, Ezequiel Scher, that night. They all wanted to watch the kid who was tipped to fill a void that had lasted for over a decade in the country.

"[Sergio] Aguero made his senior debut in 2003, while [Gonzalo] Higuain did so in 2005. Lautaro emerged in 2017. In the meantime, Argentina did not see any other forward of this caliber break through. The only exception was Mauro Icardi, although we did not get to enjoy him [in the domestic league]," Scher, who was a member of Sampaoli's national team staff, explains to Bleacher Report.

"Lautaro's talent is undeniable. He's the best player to have graced Argentinian football since Aguero and Higuain."

"He has the mentality of a 'crack' [a top player]. That day he scored a hat-trick and said afterwards he was unhappy seemed to me like his letter of introduction, a way of saying, 'I netted three times, but I want more.' He's a very intelligent kid, adapted to this social media universe, far from any kind of scandal."

Martinez while at Racing Club
Martinez while at Racing ClubRodrigo Valle/Getty Images

Lautaro has always been this self-demanding.

At just 14, he was already buying videos of his matches with hometown outlet Liniers de Bahia Blanca from a local broadcaster to correct mistakes.

Such dedication has ensured he never looked back in his career, paving the way for one challenge after another.

Lautaro was only 15 when he marked his professional debut for Liniers with a goal in 2013; a year later, he was signed by Racing and, unlike other boys coming from across the country, did not even have to undergo a trial; in 2015, he broke into the first team, replacing club legend Diego Milito.

He refused an offer to join Real Madrid Castilla the following season and followed that up with five goals on the road to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017; the year after that, Inter splashed out €25 million to secure his services ahead of anticipated competition from Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and other sides; and finally, in 2019, he formed what has been one of Europe's best strike partnerships with Romelu Lukaku.

With 19 goals to his name this campaign across 32 appearances for Inter and Argentina, Lautaro is now reportedly on the verge of moving to Barcelona this summer.

Earlier this month, he found himself on the front page of Argentina's main sports newspaper, Ole, followed by a headline that highlighted the fact that if the Spanish giants trigger his €111 million release clause, he will become the country's most expensive player of all time.

His compatriot Lionel Messi has done nothing to play down these talks, too, repeatedly praising him in public.

"He's an impressive striker. He is strong, he dribbles well, he scores goals, he knows how to protect the ball," Messi told Mundo Deportivo in mid-May.

TOPSHOT - Argentina's Lautaro Martinez (R) celebrates with teammate Lionel Messi after scoring against Venezuela during their Copa America football tournament quarter-final match at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 28, 2019. (Photo by M
MAURO PIMENTEL/Getty Images

In Lautaro, Barcelona would be getting what many pundits are calling an improved version of Argentinian legend Gabriel Batistuta.

"Sampaoli was the first one to tell me, 'He's like Batistuta.' That was after watching Lautaro hit a ball straight from a corner kick and score a great goal," Scher recalls.

"He was the dropped striker from the 2018 World Cup squad. It was between Higuain and him. I believe that in the end he did not have enough timehe was called up only once and trained with the team at Manchester City and Real Madrid's bases. He was still settling in and couldn't give his best."

Returning from the international camp, Lautaro himself admitted feeling "two seconds" behind his colleagues from Europe.

Since then, he has turned that page and currently sits as the top scorer under new boss Lionel Scaloni with nine goals in 17 appearances. He has managed to send City forward Aguero to the bench and leave Juventus striker Paulo Dybala in the dust.

His meteoric rise is no surprise to Racing icon Claudio Ubeda. Having coached him with the club's reserve side and for the Argentina under-20 team, he could see it coming.

"I think that he will be the country's No. 9 for a long time," Ubeda tells B/R.

"Great players usually have something that makes them special and distinguishes them from others, but Lautaro, no, he's the combination of a lot of things. He has an extraordinary work ethic, a mental strength that is beyond normal and even more technique than Batistuta.

"He's absolutely prepared to be a part of a club like Barcelona. He's the sort of striker who creates space for his team-mates and also for himselfone of his main strengths is his off-the-ball movement. He would fit perfectly into their system."

It's no coincidence that, among other traits, the 22-year-old's mental attitude is constantly singled out in every interview by those who know him best.

To this day at Racing, it's not only his all-round attributes that come to mind straight away whenever his name is mentioned at the Buenos Aires club, but also a remarkable psychological test that he took right after arriving at Casa Tita, the club's famous dormitory in Avellaneda.

Fabio Radaelli, the man who first spotted his talent at Liniers and lured him to Racing, still remembers the episode.

"Racing have a psychological department, which is run by Cecilia Contarino. One day, she called me aside and asked if the newly arrived kid played really well. 'What happened?' I replied to her, already concerned that he had done something wrong," Radaelli, who is now in charge of Aldosivi's youth set-up, recalls to B/R.

"But that was not the case. 'No, no, keep calm,' she rushed to clarify. 'I asked you that because he did one of the best psychological tests in our history.'

"So the point here is that when we talk about Lautaro, it's important to bear in mind that we are not only speaking about a boy who is very impressive on the field. But also someone who possesses an intellectual capacity much higher than the average player. He's very complete in all senses."

Inter have been able to see glimpses of that.

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 26:  Lautaro Martinez of FC Internazionale celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale and Cagliari Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 26, 2020 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Em
Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Despite refusing to take any Italian classes upon his arrival, he has successfully learned the language on his own and already sounds comfortable in interviews.

El Toro (The Bull), as he's affectionately called by the fans, showed such confidence from the very first moment he arrived at the Giuseppe Meazza.

When he landed at Milan Malpensa airport to complete his transfer, he was asked which number he would like to wear. "The No. 10," he answered. Inter's representatives tried to dissuade him from the idea, explaining that it would add extra pressure on his shoulders. "If it's available, I have no doubt that I want it," he insisted. And so they had to grant his wish and hope for the best.

After a slow start, Lautaro has managed to live up to the hype, notching against the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Dortmund. He surely isn't looking to hit the brakes on what has been a non-stop ride to the top.

The boy from Bahia Blanca, a city located 636 kilometers away from Buenos Aires, right where the Patagonia region starts and basketball reigns over football, has already proved that wherever he goes this summer, he will be looking to achieve great things.

As Messi may have already found out, it will take more than just a hat-trick here and there to leave him fully happy.

"The difference when you see a player like him and the rest is that there's no way you can make a mistake about his potential. He has qualities that leads you to think that he doesn't even need to be tested," Radaelli concludes.

"His case is unique because he's a unique footballer."

                 

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves

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