Romelu Lukaku picked up a wayward Napoli pass in his own half and began conducting. With strike partner Lautaro Martinez sprinting to his left, and a 2-on-2 transition opportunity ahead, he pointed at the Argentine striker to run across his body to take the attention of a Napoli centerback. Lautaro’s movement created enough space for Lukaku to continue dribbling towards his favored left foot, where he performed a stepover and blasted a shot that went in off the inside of the post and into the net. While Lukaku was the main character of the counter attack, the sequence displayed the understanding between the two Inter strikers in how to create and attack space with both on and off the ball movement.
Lukaku and Lautaro have won other matches by themselves. Lukaku fed Lautaro for Inter’s first goal in a 3-1 win over Slavia Prague in the Champions League. Lautaro returned the favor by opening up space for Lukaku during Inter’s second goal with a dummy. Lautaro closed out the match by hitting a full volley off Lukaku’s outside of the foot cross. Sometimes, it’s Lautaro who does the hold up work to lay off a ball for Lukaku, as he did against Barcelona. The pair can fluidly interchange between leading the line and dropping deeper to link play. Individually, they can create problems for backlines with their dribbling and directness. But their skills are versatile enough to augment the other’s abilities, powering Inter’s attack as they seek to win their first Serie A title since 2010.
The duo have accounted for 24 out of Inter’s 41 goals in the league this season. At one point, they had scored 30 of Inter’s 49 total goals. They may be the most dangerous attacking duo in Europe, by default, with modern sides built around attacking trios. The reason for a move away from strike partnerships is tactical, with attacking patterns today built around inverted wingers cutting inside to create space for fullbacks.
“I always say it doesn’t matter who scores...we work every day to help create that unity on and off the field,” revealed Lautaro of he and Lukaku’s success.
Lukaku and Lautaro represent a throwback from a tactical perspective. And leave it to Antonio Conte to walk his own path at the expense of modernity and trends. Though Conte’s past use of a 3-5-2 formation has always emphasized this dynamic in attack. He previously built a target player-dribbler partnership at Juventus with Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez, and then again with Eder and Graziano Pelle with Italy during the 2016 European Championship. Pairing two distinctive skillsets up front has allowed Conte to get the most out of players who are limited otherwise.
The structure of a dribbler-target player partnership has a function outside of just scoring goals, with Lukaku’s aerial ability and link-up play taking pressure off Inter’s defense as Lautaro stretches a backline with his pace. This current Inter side represent a change from past Conte teams defined by the energy and strength of a midfield trio. Now, it’s Lukaku and Lautaro who create space so the midfield can breathe.
Lautaro, meanwhile, was signed for just $28.5 million from Racing Club in 2018. He displayed the requisite footwork and trickery in Argentina, with Italy refinishing his physical strength and counter attacking play. If Lukaku brings the well-rounded experience of a European striker, then Lautaro provides the dribbling x-factor. It was also inevitable that Barcelona begin inquiring about one day signing the 22-year-old Argentine.
This understanding of player-interplay is why Inter aggressively pursued Conte over the summer. The 50-year-old’s team-focused work ethic is a contrast to past Inter sides defined by the singular goal-scoring of Mauro Icardi. Icardi still may be the most dangerous player in Europe inside the penalty box, his skill so decisive that it excused his lack of interest when operating anywhere else on the field, with or without the ball. One could see the clash between a player focused on goalscoring and a manager who demands that his players “eat grass”. In came the Lukaku from Manchester United. And while the 26-year-old may have lacked a decisive quality, he always worked for the team. His improved playmaking may come as a surprise for Premier League supporters as the Belgian grew more infamous for his amateurish first touches.
“I heard people say Lukaku was a donkey...I always said Romelu was a diamond that needed work to smooth him out,” said Conte. Lukaku called Conte the best manager in the world before his summer move, adding that Serie A was his favorite league.
Conte, the rebuilder of legacy brands throughout European soccer, came to Inter with the singular focus of winning the Serie A title. He certainly paid the price for the move, with Juventus fans petitioning for Conte’s star to be removed from the stadium’s Walk of Fame. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli had to step in to quell the fallout amongst supporters, saying that Conte’s name will remain at the club.
But the venom of the supporter reaction may also partly be a byproduct of fear as much as a feeling of betrayal. Juventus supporters experienced Conte’s transformational managerial ability first-hand. Cesc Fabregas echoed Lukaku in saying he thought that Conte was the best manager in the world for this trait. Conte burning out is inevitable. But first, there will be trophies,
Juventus once again head into the weekend top of the table by four points with their own new manager in Maurizio Sarri. And it was Sarri who eventually replaced Conte at Chelsea. While they’ve been mostly respectful in public, there are small moments. After Sarri complained about Juventus having to play Atalanta in the mid-day heat, Conte told Sarri to stop his complaints, reminding him that “he’s on the powerful side now.”
Does one trust Conte or Sarri more in a tight league race? They both must have grown during their time in England, adding small wrinkles of intensity, tempo, and controlling the second ball. Conte was forced to use a different shape with Chelsea in his title-winning 2017 season, moving away from a strike partnership to feature Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and Willian in his front three. Sarri also leaned towards pragmatism in response to the frenetic pace of the league, finishing in third place during his own season abroad.
At some point, a team will eventually defeat Juventus to win the league. Conte has interestingly gone back to England in signing Ashley Young, Victor Moses, and reportedly even Christian Eriksen over the winter. Perhaps Conte identified the need for more directness and physicality to take advantage of the spaces created by Lautaro and Lukaku. We might have looked at the narrative of a resurgent Serie A in the wrong context in our search for new, up-and-coming managers. Instead, it’s two experienced managers, with nuances learned in the Premier League, pushing the domestic game into the future.