Romelu Lukaku & Lautaro Martínez – Why Inter’s Dynamic Duo Is Key for Antonio Conte’s Football
As Inter sails towards their first Serie A title in eleven years, let’s take a look at how Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez became a vital part of Nerazurri’s successful football philosophy in the last two years.
Just like Guardiola’s idea of playing ‘false fullbacks’ in midfield, or the central role that Atalanta’s wingers have under Gasperini, the way Antonio Conte plays his striking duo is also to be considered as one of the most recognizable and interesting aspects of contemporary football. In the last two seasons, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez reached an incredible synergy, with similar patterns to those that Conte was able to build in his past experiences when he used to play with the Tevez-Llorente or Pellé-Eder duos.
Conte’s history tells us that it is vital for him to have two dominant strikers, able to both manage a quick verticalization and to be always ready to move with coordination to attract defenders or play wide on the wingers. Conte wants advanced players to be able to manage all the physical duels with opposing defenders, but also to read the play and pick the right zone to unpin and help the build-up. To fully comprehend Conte strikers’ movements, the complete tactical situation needs to be taken into account.
Conte’s idea of team dominance is based on their ability to lure the opposing pressure as high as possible, then outflanking it and speeding up possession with medium-long verticalization, then attacking the opposing half with open spaces. Inter is one of the teams that most empathize the build-up from the back, even in even-number situations. They’re a team with clear offensive links but they’re also willing to take risks by taking the ball a little bit longer against the opposing pressure if that can help them attack better. Conte uses the principles of positional football during the play’s build-up but then when playing up the pitch, he prefers to set up extremely codified, almost schematical movements. For his strikers, Conte keeps an extremely Italian approach, made by specifically combining un-markings and a limited range for movements during possession. And the very way in which he hybridizes these two aspects is what makes his game so unique.
Lautaro and Lukaku play in perfect symbiosis and it’s mainly thanks to their quality that they were able to maintain a certain unpredictability regardless of Conte’s strict codifications. The two of them have a huge responsibility in occupying central spaces: Inter use the two wingers in the 3-5-2 system to set the range during the whole play, while the central midfielder has to help the defense close to the box by forming a quadrilateral during the build-up. The two inside-forwards support in different ways, sometimes by helping the defenders in the build-up, sometimes helping the wingers to overload the flanks. By doing so, most responsibilities to receive between the lines fall on the two strikers.
With their insisted passing, Inter wait for a space to open to find the two strikers, which work by splitting the pitch horizontally during the build-up. Generally, Lukaku starts from the right-center while Lautaro starts on the left-center. Against teams with very aggressive pressure, which tend to create 1v1 situations, Inter try to use the two strikers to lure one of the defenders out of the line by having one of them linking in the midfield while the other attacks towards the defense.
But if the opponent maintains horizontal density, not allowing for vertical passes to the strikers, then Inter try to use the combined movements of wingers and inside-forwards to move the ball up the pitch.
Moving the ball laterally, the two strikers split the pitch in half horizontally; one of them supports the strong side while the other one attacks the defensive line on the weak side to push it back and create a pocket for midfielders and wingers to run into. This allows Inter to take advantage of another feature linked to the build-up from the back: the diagonal passes from the winger on the flank to the striker running internally. This is a play that can be done by a classic winger, the inside-forward or the full-back. Basically, by whoever finds himself receiving the ball with space at the start of the play, freeing somebody else for a movement without the ball.
The Third Man
Once past the first line of pressure, either with a direct verticalization or by using the winger first, Conte’s team is able to take advantage of the third man. It’s rare to see an offensive combination that only involves the passer and the receiver, a classic give and go. Inter firstly try to continue the attack in a different vertical space than the one where the build-up started. Or at least, if they had to come back to the same vertical channel, they try to do it with a different player than the one who made the pass.
When Inter move the ball quickly on the winger, then they quickly try to come back in the center, and vice versa. When they’re able to quickly find the strikers in central areas, then they try to open the play on the wing. All this happens with a certain ability to use quick diagonal passes, which makes it harder for opposing teams to absorb the play, especially in open spaces.
In both scenarios, the two strikers have the delicate task of linking the center of the pitch with the wings, coordinating between them to actively pin the defensive line and, hopefully, lure one defender out of position to allow a teammate to receive in the open space behind him.
Both Lukaku and Lautaro look like players which are willing to lie deep to receive the ball and this makes Inter’s range of possible solutions even larger. Even if Lukaku seems to be the preferred receiver most of the time, it’s important for Inter to maintain a certain variation of the movements. Rather than safety options to secure the ball, Conte’s strikers need to be moving supports, always ready to speed up the play and to link with wingers and midfielders to attack horizontally as quickly as possible.
Regardless of his physique, Lukaku has never been particularly strong when playing back to goal. In fact, his struggles with Mourinho, according to Conte himself, were imputable to an excessive demand for ball controls to allow the team to move up the pitch. For Conte, Lukaku must be free to attack the open spaces – with or without the ball – possibly alongside another striker that could unburden him from linking play. But in reality, in the two years spent together, Lukaku became almost unmarkable even with a defender behind him.
He’s surely helped by the fact that his team always tries to get him the cleanest passes possible but there must be some specific work behind this improvement. This also frees Lautaro to attack the box, while his teammates decide whether to link to a midfielder or a winger or to turn, pass the defender and run with one of his devastating progressions.
Having a winger in an advanced position on the weak side reduces the chances for the opponents to double-team and cover for the defender marking the Inter striker occupying the center, so creating the premises for a potential 1v1 close to the box.
We saw a slightly different version of Inter attack between last season’s post-lockdown matches and the start of the current campaign. Inter frequently played with a 3-4-1-2 with a trequartista (mainly Barella, but sometimes also Eriksen) playing behind the two strikers and lying deep laterally if the opposing pressure required so. Differently, if the opponent was more opportunistic, Inter moved the ball laterally, with one of the two center midfielders laying deep beside the center-back while the fullback moved upwards. The other fullback was usually pushed internally, overloading the half-space.
With this system, not so different from the usual 3-5-2, the two strikers had a mostly horizontal split of spaces and played more distant from the ball. With an advanced midfielder starting in the central space behind them during the build-up, they were more often called to position in the intermediate channels. They moved less in central areas and more to support teammates on the wings.
As for Lukaku, this wasn’t a problem, as the Belgian loves to play decentralized to either pass diagonally or attack the spaces behind the positioned defense. And as on his side – the right-hand one – Inter could count on Hakimi’s attacks, it didn’t take long for that area to be the dominant one in offensive transitions. Lautaro, on the other hand, seemed to be less involved in the transition and, even if he could attack more freely the weak side, he risked spending large bits of the match without touching the ball, losing focus and being less sharp when he had to finalize.
There was another massive change during the season, because if Conte is never willing to accept compromises in the offensive phase, he’s more likely to do it in the defensive one. After starting with ambitions of high pressure, after a few weeks, he decided to start defending with a medium block, more oriented to cover the passing lines. Consequently, he gave up on 3-4-1-2 and using a trequartista, he again opted for a three-man midfield, with a central mid playing in front of the defense instead of the double-pivot, with the aim of limiting all the occasions conceded to opponents who were able to strike them between the lines.
Conte is a rather sensible manager when it comes to defensive balances. In such a congested season with lots of games, he probably didn’t feel like further insisting on a project that clearly needed more time to work. This led Inter to assume a more pragmatic attitude, playing more games with a low line of pressure. From a defensive standpoint, during these games, Lukaku and Lautaro are particularly generous in pressing on ‘triggers’ (generally Conte’s shouts from the dugout), double-teaming or triple-teaming on the wings against more challenging opponents.
From an offensive standpoint, neither of them have problems with starting the offensive transition far away from the goal, also because the movement dynamics aren’t that different than the principles of attacking the open space when building up from the back. The main difference is that strikers, even if they’re immediately involved just after winning the ball back, often risk having little support in the first seconds and must keep the ball to let the team move upwards. But when they can, they’re not at all afraid to attack the open spaces behind them.
Many teams, though, won’t concede Inter those spaces, not after high pressure, nor in defensive transitions. Then, Conte’s team has to prove to be able to attack against a defense playing with a low block. In these phases, Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez play closer to each other, occupying the center and pinning the center-backs, in the spaces between center-backs and full-backs in a three-man defense, or in front of the two center-backs in a four-man defensive line.
Inter can decide if they want to take advantage of the inside forward’s run on the wing opposite to the ball, if switch play towards the winger isolating on the weak side, or if directly attack centrally, using give-and-goes between the two strikers and the internal runs by the inside-forward and the winger on the strong side.
Inter still remains a team capable of hurting opponents with crosses, both for their ability to bring a lot of players in the box and for the aerial qualities they have, especially with Lautaro.
Ultimately, even if they are the most harmonious expression of the collective dimension of Conte’s football, it doesn’t sound exaggerate to say that the two strikers are perhaps the most important individual players for Inter, which in the last year adapted to take advantage of their power. Sure, this could also be a significant flaw, which possibly contributed to the Champions League debacle. But Inter is firmly navigating towards their first Scudetto in eleven years and – even if it’s clear that their season changed when they decided to give up on high pressure and a few minutes of ball possession, they actually owe a lot to their strikers, capable of creating goal-scoring opportunities out of nothing and to play for and with the team.