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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Inter: Nobody does it like Lautaro Martinez and Co

Champions League final hangover? No chance. Inter Milan, captained by Lautaro Martinez, might win (almost) everything this season.

A 1-0 loss to Manchester City in the Champions League final in June prevented Inter from sealing an historic cup treble last season after winning the Supercoppa (Italian Super Cup) and Coppa Italia.

Defeat by bogey team Bologna ended Inter’s Coppa Italia defence this season but on Wednesday, Simone Inzaghi’s side contested their sixth final and lifted their fifth cup since the start of 2021-22. Inter, who have become Europe’s best knockout side, beat reigning Serie A champions Napoli 1-0 to win a third consecutive Supercoppa.

Inzaghi, who took over in summer 2021, is their longest-serving coach since Roberto Mancini in the mid-2000s. He has won a trophy, on average, every 28 games, and overtook Mancini and Helenio Herrera (both four) as the Inter coaches with the most trophies won in finals, in which he has beaten four different teams: Juventus (twice), Milan, Fiorentina and Napoli.

Lautaro’s 91st-minute winner against Napoli was his 123rd Inter goal. He is joint-ninth on the all-time list, tied with Christian Vieri.

Inter, and Lautaro, are often mischaracterised — always 3-5-2, capable of defending deep in a 5-3-2, hitting teams on the break or scoring from crosses. Lautaro (who is 5ft 9in tall) looks like the “little man” in a strike partnership.

Both things are true but Inter and Lautaro are chameleonic. “I think this Inter team has what it takes to win any type of match,” said Inzaghi in April 2022.

The numbers vindicate Inzaghi. This season in Serie A, Inter have the joint-most open-play pass sequences featuring 10 passes or more, as well as the most ending with a shot or touch in the opposition box.

They also have the most goals from high turnovers, which are open-play sequences starting within 40m of the opponent’s goal. Inter are second for direct attacks: open-play sequences starting inside their own half with at least 50 per cent forward movement, ending with a shot or a touch in the opposition box.

“In decisive games, we’ve always managed to play well, to look after both phases — defence and attack — in the best way,” said Inzaghi after the Supercoppa win.

In Serie A, Inter are second, two points behind Juventus with two games in hand. Their total of 51 points after 20 games is the fifth-most by any team in Serie A history; Inter themselves only started better in 2006-07, under Mancini. That team won the league with 97 points, 22 clear of second place.

If Juventus’ strength is their defensive solidity, winning more games by a single goal than not, Inzaghi’s Inter are elite adaptors. Lautaro scored twice in Inter’s 5-1 away win over Monza earlier this month. They had just 43 per cent possession, one of seven league wins with a minority share of possession.

The build-up to their second goal, a Lautaro tap-in from a cutback by left wing-back Federico Dimarco, encapsulates Inter’s fluidity.

They recycle play back to goalkeeper Yann Sommer and Monza press. Central centre-back Stefan de Vrij takes up an advanced position, a feature when Inter play out — it often pins the opposition No 9 to complicate pressing, and overloads midfield.

Nico Barella makes a trademark Inter No 8 movement — start high, sprint deeper, receive from the centre-back, and play forward or wide. He releases De Vrij, who makes a third-man run.

De Vrij skips through midfield and finds Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Inter, with a four-v-three, work it wide to Dimarco, and he sets up Lautaro — notice how Inter’s front two (Lautaro and Marcus Thuram) take up different positions, creating space for one another and attacking different parts of the box.

The fifth goal was a classic Inter counter — 11 seconds from regain to goal. From their 5-3-2 low block, Mkhitaryan intercepted a pass and immediately dribbled forward, supported by No 9s Lautaro and Thuram. He switched play to Thuram, who dribbled into the box, checked back, and scored.

In their away win, Inter matched Atalanta’s off-ball intensity and defended their positional rotations. Their opening goal was a penalty, won by right centre-back Benjamin Pavard on the overlap. Their second started with a regain from a high press, then they lost it and counter-pressed to recover possession, and Lautaro curled a far-post finish.

Pavard made a similar overlap to assist the Supercoppa winner against Napoli, who sat off completely after going down to 10 men. Inter’s wide combinations happen on both sides, specifically with (6ft 3in) left centre-back Alessandro Bastoni. Eleven different Inter players have multiple assists in all competitions.

Defensively, they adjust. Against Napoli, in the heat of Riyadh and without the in-behind threat of No 9 Victor Osimhen, Inter pushed up the right side of their mid-block (wing-back and right No 8), to limit service into Kvichara Kvaratskehlia, who Pavard man-marked. Kvaratskhelia was hooked on 70 minutes, having completed just one of five dribbles.

Serie A, compared to elsewhere in Europe, is filled with 3-5-2s, which cancel out Inter’s system and deny them last-line overloads when they push wing-backs forward (which they would get taking on a team operating with a back four). Even so, Inter beat the press through quick build-up and smart midfield runs. Their equaliser away to Juventus in November showed this.

Sommer passes wide to Denzel Dumfries, baiting Filip Kostic — Juventus pressed wing-back to wing-back.

Dumfries lets the ball run across him and finds Barella’s run through midfield. Juventus have a three-v-two on halfway but centre-back Daniele Rugani steps out and Barella threads Thuram through.

Thuram drives to the byline and crosses low for Lautaro, who makes a phenomenal double movement. He first goes behind the defender, into his blind spot, then darts across to sweep the ball into the far corner.

That is one of four Thuram assists for Lautaro, the best combination in Serie A. Thuram, a free summer signing from Borussia Monchengladbach, is Lautaro’s third recent strike partner after Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku. The Argentina international shows immense adaptability in playing alongside different profiles — Lukaku and Lautaro combined for eight goals (five assists by Lukaku, three by Lautaro) in 2020-21.

Speaking to UEFA.com in June, Lautaro described Dzeko and Lukaku as “two very different players. Edin likes having the ball. He drops back and links with his team-mates, while Romelu tends to attack spaces and has defenders follow him to create space for the second striker. If I need to attack spaces to free up space for Edin, I can do it easily, and the same thing applies for Romelu.”

Lautaro and Dzeko profiled as a “big man, little man” combination but attacked fluidly, sometimes with Dzeko running channels and Lautaro showcasing his underrated back-to-goal game, particularly his strength to pin a centre-back and his passing range.

Two standout examples are against Milan’s Fikayo Tomori, renowned for his one-v-one defending. He rolled the England international to run in behind and score in the 2023 Supercoppa. Inter lost the derby 3-2 in September 2022 but scored the opener; Lautaro held the ball for four seconds with Tomori touch-tight, then passed wide for Joaquin Correa to release Marcelo Brozovic to score.

Pep Guardiola described Inter’s trademark attacking pattern after the Champions League final: “They bring you up (bait the press). They found the strikers, they link really well, (they) can keep it, and after they run for the other side.”

When opponents press high, Inter go direct to either Lautaro or Thuram, who sets up the other, and they can release a midfield runner or hit the wing-back early — it resembles the bump, set and spike of a volleyball attack.

Inter’s opening goal away to Salernitana was a version of this pattern. Lautaro, who came on at half-time, became the first substitute to score four goals in a Serie A game — all were one-touch finishes.

The elephant in the room is the World Cup, which Argentina won but Lautaro struggled in. He was wasteful, failed to score from 14 shots, and was dropped for Julian Alvarez after starting the first two games. Lautaro and Thuram both came off the bench in the final.

Ironically, Lautaro’s international record is good: 21 goals in 54 caps. He scored three at the 2021 Copa America, including in the quarter and semi-finals. Argentina beat Brazil in the final at the Maracana.

His World Cup underperformance could wrongly deter Europe’s (other) elite clubs from the 26-year-old as he likely enters his prime. Between April 9, 2022, and December 23, 2023, he played in 89 consecutive Inter games in all competitions. Add jetting across the world for international breaks and that makes it hard to maintain performance levels.

Any doubters only need to look at three things. First, Lautaro’s all-rounder role; leading the press, linking play and creating chances. Secondly, his leadership: with the Argentinian taking the armband sporadically last season before being made club captain this season. Thirdly, his big-game goal record. Eight goals in 15 derbies is the most by any player to not play for both Milan clubs.

Inter have won five derbies in a row, the first time either Milanese “cousin” has managed that. Their success depends on Lautaro. He has scored in all three Supercoppa wins under Inzaghi, as well as three goals in Coppa Italia semi-finals, and a brace in the final last season against Fiorentina. Inter conceded early, playing against a man-for-man press. He equalised following a smart run in behind a low block for an angled finish off a through ball, then hit the winner with a sizzling volley from Barella’s cross.

He scored two and set up Lukaku in the 2019-20 Europa League single-leg semi-final against Shakhtar Donetsk (Inter were coached by Antonio Conte then). Again, two very different goals; opening the scoring with a bullet header from a cross and adding a third with a finish from distance after a high turnover. He sealed their Champions League final spot last season with a second-leg match-winner against Milan, another angled finish, assisted by Lukaku.

Lautaro already has 21 goals in all competitions this season, seven off a personal best (from last season), with 18 in the league. Only Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe have more in Europe’s top-five leagues.

Incredibly, for all their success, Inter have not won Serie A under Inzaghi and Lautaro has never won the Capocannoniere as Serie A’s top scorer, finishing second in the last two seasons (scoring 21 both times). He was bought in 2018 as the heir to his countryman Mauro Icardi and is just one goal behind him in Inter’s all-time charts.

Icardi twice shared the Capocannoniere, scoring 29 in 2017-18 (joint with Ciro Immobile) and 22 in 2014-15 (joint with Luca Toni). Not since Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2008-09 (25 goals) has an Inter player been Serie A’s outright top scorer. Lautaro is currently six goals clear of next-best Dusan Vlahovic.

The next five games are a big test of credentials. Inter have to visit Fiorentina and Roma, with a home Derby d’Italia against Juventus, and a Champions League last-16, first leg against Atletico Madrid — Inter finished joint-top of their group with Real Sociedad, going unbeaten in the group stage.

Former Inter manager Jose Mourinho said that “Inter should win the league by 20 points” when he was Roma head coach earlier this season.

They are unlikely to be crowned champions by the kind of landslide that Napoli managed last season but Inzaghi has developed an adaptable, resilient side. Adding domestic success and European glory, led by Lautaro, is more realistic than ever before.

(Top photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

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