Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 19

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyze a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Lautaro Martínez

Age: 22

Club: Inter

On October 2, 2019, Antonio Conte’s upstart Inter Milan paid a visit to Ernesto Valverde’s flailing Barcelona. The third meeting in 12 months between the two sides, it was a clash between polar opposites; Inter riding the early waves of Conte’s honeymoon, Barcelona sleep-walking through the last matches of Valverde’s tenure, as the Basque manager’s future hung delicately in the balance. 

Less than two minutes into the match, the deadlock was broken. A quickly taken free-kick from Marcelo Brozović bounced off Stefano Sensi, who failed to control it with his first touch, and ricocheted off Gerard Piqué, who misjudged his clearance, and zipped into open space.

It became a foot-race between two players: Inter’s Lautaro Martínez and Barcelona’s Clément Lenglet. The Argentine raced to the ball with a bullish aggression, held off the ensuing Lenglet, and just as he was sliding onto the wet grass, curled a shot past Marc-André ter Stegen’s outstretched arms.

It was a goal reminiscent of Luis Suárez in his prime: the anticipation, the strength and speed, the Pistolero-style finish. Barcelona would claw their way back and take all three points, but Martínez’s performance must have left a serious impression on both the fans and the executive section of the Camp Nou. As the Blaugranas look to move on from Suárez, 33, Martínez has emerged as Barcelona’s number one transfer target.

Racing Up the Ranks at Racing

Despite growing up in the basketball-crazy town of Bahía Blanca, Martínez knew from an early age that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional footballer. “My old man was a great player, but he had no chance of making the step up to the big leagues, so he had to stick with playing in the second division,” said Martínez in a 2017 interview with El Gráfico. 

At 15, he tried out for Boca Juniors, but they told him he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough, but if he worked hard enough in those areas, he could return one day. Instead, Martínez began his career with local club Liniers, earning the nickname ‘El Toro’ or ‘The Bull’ for his agile, physical style of play. Despite playing against players who were one year older than him, he scored 13 goals in the U17 league and captained Liniers to the Final of the National Cup, only to lose on penalties to Rosario.

One day, as he was going to a training session, Martínez stumbled into the path of Fabio Radaelli, who was the reserve coach of Racing Club de Avellaneda at the time. Radaelli was holding player tryouts in Buenos Aires, and decided to stay and watch Martínez train. He showed up at a few more of his games and quickly offered him the opportunity to join one of the biggest clubs in Argentina. Martínez didn’t have to think twice.

It wasn’t easy for Martínez to make the seven-hour journey north and say goodbye to his family at the age of 16. He often suffered from epilepsy due to the sadness of being away from his parents and older brother, and he had to take medication to stop his convulsions. He desperately yearned to return home, but his teammate Braian Mansilla convinced him to stay.

“Do you understand what this is? We can play in the Primera! Stop messing around, stay here, and one day, we’re going to play in that stadium together, and we’re going to wreck it.”

Martínez stayed and scored 53 goals in 64 appearances for Racing’s reserve side. When he was on the cusp of breaking into the first team, Real Madrid swept in and offered to sign him on loan with an option to buy. Martínez rejected the Spanish giants, preferring to lead Racing to glory before testing his skills abroad. He made his league debut on November 1, 2015, coming on as a substitute for Diego Milito. Milito had won the treble with Inter Milan in 2010 before returning to his boyhood club in 2014 to close out his career.

Martínez would be forced to wait another 16 months to get his first real shot of cracking the starting line-up. In a tune-up friendly, first-choice striker Lisandro López tore his knee ligament in a goosebump-inducing injury. As such, then coach Diego Cocca was forced to start the teenager in the season opener against defending league champions Lanús.

In the second minute, he made a darting run into the box, exploiting space created by his teammate Gustavo Bou’s audacious dribble. Martínez headed home Bou’s cross and started the momentum that would carry Racing to a 3-0 victory. He would go on to score nine goals in 23 league appearances during the 2016-17 season, before undergoing surgery in July to repair the metatarsal in his left foot, which would cause him to miss three months of action.

Nevertheless, Martínez bounced back with a bang. On November 19, 2017, he returned to the Bombonera to face Boca Juniors, the same club that told him he wasn’t good enough five years prior. After playing a quick one-two with Enrique Triverio, he accelerated to the center circle, before launching a cannon of a shot that went careening off the post and into the side-netting. Racing would defeat the eventual league champions 2-1, and teams took notice.

A month later, Martínez underwent a medical with Atlético Madrid. It was set to materialize, until he decided to stay put, renewing his contract for another year and increasing his release clause from €9 million to €25 million. Despite being just 20 years old, he was given the captain’s armband on multiple occasions, and wreaked havoc alongside the likes of Bou and Mansilla, finishing the 2017/18 season with 18 goals and 5 assists in 27 appearances. It was good enough for Inter, who paid €22.7 million to bring him to the club.

Adventures in Milan

While Martínez did make a handful of starting appearances during the first half of the season, it wasn’t until February when he finally became a starter. This time, the window of opportunity didn’t open from a nightmare injury, but a war of words between the club hierarchy and its top scorer.

Mauro Icardi, who had spent the past five years reliably serving as Inter’s talisman in attack, was stripped of the captain’s armband due to a disagreement between the club and his wife/agent Wanda Nara. Inter had been trying to negotiate a new contract for Icardi, whose current deal expires in 2021. But after Nara complained that her husband was not getting enough appreciation from his teammates, the club removed the armband from Icardi, who had been weathering a seven-match goal drought.

“I would like Mauro to be more protected by the club because sometimes these bad things come from inside,” said Nara. Less than a week later, her car window was struck with a rock, as she was driving with her children.

With the armband ripped off him and his dignity in shreds, Icardi refused to travel with the team for their Europa League clash against Rapid Vienna. A player who has long been the target of controversy and transfer sagas, the club leadership decided that this was the scandal that broke the camel’s back. They temporarily suspended him, giving the reins in attack to Martínez.

Instead of playing alongside his compatriot, Martínez was now playing ahead of him. His first major test came on March 17, 2019 in the Milan derby. Inter, fresh off being eliminated from the Europa League by Eintracht Frankfurt, needed a spark of individual brilliance to take home all three points. They got it from Martínez.

Inter opened the scoring when El Toro latched onto a cross from Ivan Perišić, carefully cushioning the ball into the path of Matías Vecino, who smashed it across the goalmouth. When Inter were granted a penalty later on, Martínez stepped up and placed it past the reach of a helpless Gianluigi Donnarumma.

At the end of the season, Inter finished fourth, just good enough to earn the final Champions League spot in Serie A. Trailing one point behind them in fifth place were Milan.

This season, rather than playing as a lone striker, Martínez has formed a big-man little-man attacking duo with Romelu Lukaku, who arrived from Manchester United in August for a club-record 75 million pounds.

This has taken quite a bit of pressure off the Argentine’s young shoulders, and in turn, allowed him to thrive in a secondary striker role. Martínez has registered 16 goals and 9 assists under Conte, finding the back of the net against the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta and Juventus.

Next Big Move?

So far, Inter have been unsuccessful in their attempts to remove his €111 million release clause from his contract, and will not accept anything less than the full value of his release clause to part ways with him. While the football shutdown will have a reverse effect on inflation, it won’t have any impact on Inter’s stance. If anyone does manage to pry El Toro off Inter’s hands, they’ll have to pay the full value of his release clause.

Manchester City will be on the lookout for a new striker to replace Sergio Agüero, who will likely return to his boyhood club Independiente upon the expiry of his contract next summer. Chelsea are another potential suitor who could emerge from the fray, with the Blues reportedly unwilling to meet first-choice striker Tammy Abraham’s demands of a new £180,000-a-week contract. But out of all the potential destinations, none make more sense than Catalunya.

Barcelona have already shelled out eye-watering fees for the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann, which could be a setback for them in trying to muster an €111 million transfer fee. But if they can find a way to pull it off, they should get it done at whatever cost.

Luis Suárez is coming off knee surgery, and at 33, his best days are behind him. After six years of loyal service and consistent performances, it’s time for Barcelona to turn the page, and pass on the torch from El Pistolero to El Toro.


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