Argentina continued their dismal recent youth record with another poor display at the U20 World Cup, crashing out at the group stage for the second tournament in a row. Defeats to England and the hosts South Korea left them on the brink, and despite a 5-0 hammering of Guinea, the Albiceleste couldn’t sneak through as a best third-placed team.
After a veritable golden era between 1995 and 2007 during which they won the U20 title on five occasions, the best performance Argentina has mustered in the last decade has been a quarter-final appearance in 2011. In 2009 and 2013 they didn’t even qualify for the tournament, really hammering home their downturn in fortunes.
Nevertheless, Argentina’s campaign was not without its positives. First and foremost was the performance of striker Lautaro Martinez, who scored a well-taken brace against Guinea. For the first, he beautifully controlled the ball on his chest before swivelling and bending in a shot into the top corner from the edge of the area. The second was the result of a clever short free-kick routine – think Javier Zanetti versus England at World Cup 98 – which he finished with aplomb.
True, Martinez received a silly, if slightly controversial, red card against England but, if it wasn’t for the 19-year-old striker’s five goals at the Sudamericano then Argentina wouldn’t have even made it to South Korea in the first place.
Born in Bahia Blanca, a naval city on the southwestern coast of the Buenos Aires province, Martinez moved to the capital to join Racing’s esteemed youth academy in 2014. 26 goals in as many games for the Sexta (the equivalent of U17s) saw him quickly promoted to the reserves, where he continued to flourish before earning his debut for the first team at the end of October 2015. The man he replaced? None other than club legend Diego Milito.
Named player of the tournament at the COTIF tournament in L’Alcudia in 2016, Martinez was already attracting attention from the likes of Real Madrid, Arsenal, and Valencia before he had established himself as a regular for Racing.
Martinez carried that form into the start of the season and since the turn of the year has been in electric form, first with the Argentina U20 at the Sudamericano and then for Racing in the league with 7 goals in his last 10 appearances.
In the space of six months, Martinez has become one of the hottest properties in Argentinian football. With a list of suitors queuing round the corner, here we analyse the latest graduate of La Academia.
Given Martinez’s goalscoring record at every level, it is no surprise that his clinical finishing is one of his finest attributes. Partly what makes Martinez so deadly is his ability to score all types of goals. Fond of shooting from outside the area with his favoured right foot, he also possesses the movement, intelligence, and awareness to be lethal inside the penalty box too.
As some of the clips below demonstrate, Martinez is a very clean striker of the ball and likes to get a shot away early, rarely taking more than a couple of touches before shooting. His speed of thought and execution, especially in penalty box situations, gives him the upper hand over defenders and helps to make him so clinical.
Another important aspect of his finishing is the mental side. His concentration, key for all strikers, is second to none and Racing’s resident psychologist Cecilia Contarino revealed the Martinez scored the highest (97/100) for concentration in the entire club.
His ability to maintain these levels of concentration go some way to explaining the number of important late goals Martinez scores, such as vital goals in the Sudamericano against Peru (90th min equaliser), Colombia (91st min winner) and Brazil (95th min equaliser).
Martinez has drawn comparisons with Radamel Falcao, especially regarding his good heading ability. Although not particularly short, Martinez is not the tallest and therefore relies on intelligent movement to be effective in the air. This elusive movement and intelligent positioning mean that many of his headed goals actually come from almost a standing position as he doesn’t need to rely on his leap.
Though he does have the physicality and leap to compete in aerial duels, his game is not best suited to that of a target man. While his headed attempts are good, these other areas of his aerial ability still need some work.
Perhaps one of more unsung elements of Martinez’s game is his defensive capabilities. He works hard to track back and is able to press from the front effectively too. His tackling is better than most strikers but his propensity to slide in does lead to giving away a fair amount of fouls.
These defensive qualities mean that Martinez is often able to win the ball back high up the pitch and can initiate counter attacks while possessing the pace and mobility to then bomb forward and join the breakaways he has helped create.
A perfect example of this ball-winning and ability to transition defence quickly into attack is Martinez’s goal against Lanus.
The ball is played out to the right back, seemingly under minimal pressure. However, Martinez presses him and dispossesses him.
Martinez then pokes the ball to his strike partner, Gustavo Bou, who drives at the unorganised defence. The dispossessed full back and central defensive midfielder both turn and run towards Bou, while Martinez, not content with having won the ball back, arcs his run behind them into the centre of the pitch.
As Bou reaches the edge of the area, he goes on the outside of the centre back, drawing the retreating two defenders with him. This leaves Martinez in acres of space and he bursts forward to the edge of the box unmarked.
Bou gets to the by-line, evading the three defenders trying to close him down, and stands the ball up. The other defender on the edge of the six-yard box looks to have the ball covered but Martinez, by this point making a late burst from the edge of the penalty area, uses his pace to get in front of the flat-footed defender and thump a header in to give Racing an early lead.
Another of Martinez’s strengths is his dribbling. Nicknamed el Toro – the Bull – for his potent mix of pace and strength, Martinez can spin past defenders that get too tight with a drop of the shoulder and has the mobility, skill set and technique to excel in one-on-one situations.
As the video below demonstrates, these qualities make him ideal in counter-attacking situations when he has room to move into and can use his pace and close control to take defenders out of the game. As a result, it is not uncommon to see him drift wide into the channels to look for that extra space to exploit.
These dribbling skills also mean that Martinez is able to win a lot of fouls, although there can also be some occasions where his decision making could be better once he has created a yard of space for himself.
Martinez has stated his desire to win trophies at Racing before he makes the inevitable move to Europe and is said to have a mature head on his young shoulders. A model professional off the field, respectful and eager to learn and improve, Martinez will look to continue his sensational start to the year as Racing push for a spot in next year’s Libertadores.
Nevertheless, as is often the case, his next move may come sooner than planned, with the sharks already beginning to circle. Porto are the latest club to be heavily linked and a buy-out clause of around $12 million is unlikely to dissuade any potential suitors.
Expectations in Argentina are high and one of his former coaches even likened his potential to that of Paulo Dybala, but it’s still early days in his fledgling career. However, if he can continue his current trajectory then whoever lands Martinez will consider it money very well spent.