By Cronan Yu | @Cronan_Yu
It is said that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had a 15-year-old Lautaro Martinez been told he would one day be playing alongside Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou, he would no doubt have afforded himself a big smile. However, in all likelihood he would stood in silent belief, trying to process the absurd suggestion.
All of this hypothesising might seem presumptuous if not downright uncharitable, over a potential superstar of the game. Yet conversely, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of pressures Lautaro would have faced as a teenager, not only from those who influenced, but also from himself. At an age when considering his future career options would have been furthest from the minds of his peers, Lautaro was at a crossroads.
“As a boy I played basketball,” he recalls. “But when I was 15, I had to choose and I decided on football. But, if I weren’t a footballer, I would play basketball, I love it. What is more, I’d rather watch a basketball game than a football game.”
Talent is just one of many factors and despite his potential there were lingering doubts as to whether he’d ever have the mental fortitude to leave his home, let alone succeed on Europe’s biggest stages. Upon arriving at Racing Club aged 16, Lautaro struggled to adapt: isolated and desperately homesick, the prodigious forward contemplated returning home with his teammate Braian Mansilla imploring: “Stop messing around, stay here. One day we are going to play together, we are going to break into the first team. Come on, stay.”
So stay he did and he immediately impressed, so much so that he was snapped up by Real Madrid in 2015 after a scoring 53 goals in 64 appearances for the reserve side, only for that move to fall through. “Everything was agreed with Real Madrid but he made the decision not to go”, his father, Mario, revealed in 2017. The reason: Lautaro just was not ready yet. He is now. He is one of the best attacking options in world football now and is exactly the sort of player Barcelona need in their ranks to re-establish their credentials as one of Europe’s leading clubs, according to Oddspedia
Though diminutive – by comparison – in frame, Lautaro is a giant in attack, a force to be reckoned with. He is powerful, physical, dynamic, quick and agile with a footballing IQ that belies his years. Not only that, the 22-year-old is versatile, comfortable on the ball, good in the air and lethal inside the box, elegant and graceful on the ball, and determined and hardworking off it. There’s joy, excitement, and explosion in the way he plays. As Messi puts it: he is, put simply, a beast.
Given his profile, Lautaro would slot in as a like-for-like replacement of Suarez. Not only does he possess the Uruguayan’s natural attributes, the Argentine operates tactically in similar vein to the experienced striker – he’s fluid and happy to drop deep to link up play with the midfielders, dragging defenders out of position in the process. The added benefit of all of this, of course, is that his movement complements Messi’s style of play in that it unleashes space for his compatriot to wreak havoc.
While there’s great hope that Lautaro is indeed the man Barcelona need up front, there are risks associated too. For starters, not since 2014 – the year Luis Suarez arrived at the Camp Nou – have Barcelona made a successful signing in attack. And so, the kind of pressure that will inevitably be heaped the 22-year-old who bares many of the Uruguayan’s similarities could prove to be daunting for a kid who is still relatively inexperienced on the European stage. Then there are the distractions associated with living in the world’s fifth-ranked city, all of which, in the past, have derailed even the most promising talents.
Nevertheless, five years on from that collapsed move, and two years after making Inter his “home” away from home, Lautaro is ready. Only this time, after months upon months of public flirtation, it is Barcelona, not Real Madrid, that’s calling. And on paper, it looks to be the right move for both player and club – a perfect match; one made in heaven.
The one remaining big question is whether or not Barcelona can afford to pay his €111m release clause, with a recent report in Diario Sport outlining how the Milanese club are under no pressure to sell after generating €50m in the sale of Mauro Icardi to Paris Saint-Germain. Martinez’s future beyond this summer will go a long way to defining next season.