In the eight years they’ve held the Scudetto, Juventus has never faced a stiffer challenge than Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan. Conte, who guided Juve out of its post-Calciopoli struggles and back to the top of Italian soccer, is having a successful first season with his former employer’s historical rivals, and his super striker partnership is the biggest reason why.
Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku have been a stunning success for the Nerazzurri, scoring 25 of Inter’s 39 goals so far in Serie A. Between Martinez’s relative inexperience and Lukaku’s offseason fitness issues, no one expected them to get firing this quickly, but they’ve proven exceptionally reliable. The pair were at their best Monday, scoring all of Inter’s goals in an impressive win away to Napoli.
Lukaku has 14 goals in Serie A this season, good for second in the league. Martinez is tied for sixth with nine. They are visually and aesthetically classic complements of each other — the powerful big man and the tricky little man.
The striker partnership, once a fixture across world soccer, has died out some. As attackers have gotten fitter and more well-rounded, coaches have sacrificed the extra body up top for better coverage in other areas of the pitch with three-man midfields. One complete striker coupled with wingers that like to cut inside can give teams just as much presence in the attacking penalty area as they’d get with a 4-4-2.
But strategy aside, there’s something uniquely enjoyable about a striker partnership, especially the big man-little man tandem. A combination between two forwards with completely different skillsets, helping each other work their way around the defense, is an increasingly rare play at the highest level of the game. Inter Milan is one of the only teams competing for trophies that gives us this little bit of joy alongside its success.
Lukaku and Martinez have been good statistical complements, too. Playing like a traditional target man, Lukaku usually sits a bit deeper than Martinez, wins 50-50 challenges, and holds the ball up to give his midfielders and wingbacks some time to get forward. He’s asked to find the right spaces to receive the ball when Inter are out of possession, and he rarely presses.
Martinez, on the other hand, is constantly pressuring defenders and looking to make runs behind them. He’s a high-volume shooter who has actually been a bit unlucky with his finishing so far this season. If Lukaku is unable to keep up his impressive scoring clip, Martinez could pick up the slack in the second half of the season.
Inter’s primary attacking threat has been to get the ball up to Lukaku quickly, and have him flick the ball on for Martinez or make a smart pass. The Nerazzurri are Serie A’s third-most direct team. They have the third-fewest attempted dribbles and the second-fewest completed dribbles, according to StatsBomb.
Those numbers might come up as Lukaku works himself towards full fitness. As impressive as Lukaku’s performances at Inter have been, he’s probably performing at less than 100 percent. Following some harsh criticism from Gary Neville over the summer, Lukaku admitted he was overweight, saying he had a digestive problem he is combatting with the help of a nutritionist.
Early in the season, Lukaku was exceptional at winning the ball in the air and bullying defenders to open up space for his teammates, but he was missing his trademark pace. With each game, he has looked a bit more dynamic. Against Napoli, he opened the scoring with an impressive 50-yard run before his shot.
Until recently, Lukaku has needed Martinez to do a lot of running for him. Martinez having more defensive pressures than Lukaku will likely continue by design, but the Argentine probably won’t have to do all of the running from now on.
Martinez should also improve as a finisher. The fact Martinez has been less clinical than Lukaku in their time together was to be expected. He’s just 22, and in his second season in Serie A. But Martinez scored at a decent clip during his first season and a half as a starter in Argentina before really picking it up in the months before he moved to Inter. During his last season in Argentina, Martinez scored four goals in the first half of the campaign, then 14 in the second half.
He’s now been an Inter regular for the same period of time, and has similarly improved over time. He has 14 goals in 23 games this season across all competitions after scoring nine times in 35 games last year.
Martinez and Lukaku have both been a joy to watch, and extremely effective for Inter this season despite not operating at full speed. If Inter goes on to win the Scudetto, their strike partnership — how good it has been, and how much better it can become — will be the biggest reason why.