The concept of playing with a front two is one that’ll make your typical modern-day manager heave.
Nowadays, it’s all about false nines and forwards who are equally as effective at combining in deeper zones of the pitch and unbalancing opposing defences with their movement as they are in and around the penalty area.
Overall, the sight of the strike duo phenomenon among Europe’s elite is rare. Well, unless you’ve been following Antonio Conte’s coaching career.
From Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez at Juventus to Eder and Graziano Pelle for the national team, Conte has persistently used two up top in a 3-5-2 or 4-2-4 system based around rapid transitional play, pre-determined patterns and a fierce intensity out of possession.
Even when he used a lone forward during his time at Chelsea in the form of the aggressive Diego Costa, the deployment of Eden Hazard and Pedro as inside forwards alongside the Spaniard helped establish the dribbler-target man dynamic he likes to create in the front line.
And this dynamic was established swiftly after Conte took the Inter job last summer, with £75m Romelu Lukaku drafted in to partner the diminutive but well-rounded Lautaro Martinez – who underwhelmed in his debut campaign in Milan after arriving from Argentine outfit Racing Club for £22m.
And following a spell of just two goal contributions in his first six Serie A games this season, there were concerns that Lautaro just wasn’t going to be the desired long-term replacement for Mauro Icardi.
But with help of the big Belgian, that all changed in the blink of an eye.
From the start of October, the ‘Lula’ partnership established themselves as the most potent strike force on the planet, with their mutual understanding simply awe-inspiring on occasions. The counter-attacking sequence which played out for Lukaku’s first strike against Napoli in their 3-1 victory back in January was a prime example of the pair’s cohesion.
With Lukaku driving towards the Napoli box, Lautaro made a diagonal run to occupy Kostas Manolas and open up space for the Belgian one-v-one against Mario Rui, allowing his partner in crime to blast home after outfoxing the Portuguese defender with a swift stepover.
Lukaku’s capacity to hold the ball up and bring others into play combined with Lautaro’s willingness to exploit the space created by the 6’3 Belgian and make runs into the channels have transformed Inter into a deadly unit in attacking transition.
Slick instances of combination play – like the one-two for Lautaro’s strike against Atalanta at San Siro – are a regular occurrence, while the fluidity at which they interchange between leading the line and dropping deeper into midfield is seemingly innate and a constant cause of confusion for opposing defences.
Their performance away at Slavia Prague, meanwhile, was a watershed moment for Lula, as Lukaku set up Lautaro for both of the Argentine’s goals that night, while getting on the scoresheet himself in a 3-1 victory.
Inter’s third, meanwhile, which saw Lukaku instinctively pick out his predatory strike partner in the penalty area with a pinpoint outside of the foot pass before the Argentine crashed home with a fierce volley summarised the quite frankly frightening telepathy on display that night.
I mean, they even wore the same bloody Givenchy sweater post-match.
And although Inter failed to qualify out of the ‘Group of Death’, the pair rounded off their stellar group stage showing as they combined expertly once more in the 2-1 defeat against Barcelona on the final matchday.
This time around it was the sturdy Lautaro who turned provider; as the Argentine utilised his sneaky upper body strength to out duel the towering Jean-Clair Todibo after receiving a long ball from Danilo D’Ambrosio. El Toro held off the French defender for long enough before setting-up a surging Lukaku, who struck home brilliantly from outside the area.
The Belgian’s strike meant that in five Champions League appearances, Lula had combined for seven goals and, before the universal suspension, 39 in all competitions – that’s 55% of Inter’s strikes this term.
Sure, a demise in team performance coincided with decreased productivity from the front two, but that shouldn’t take away from the impact Lula had on this Inter side in the first half of the campaign where they were constantly fluctuating their place at the top of Serie A with Juventus.
Following a tough debut campaign, El Toro has swiftly established himself as one of Europe’s most sought after forwards following a season which saw Lukaku’s skill set get the best out of him. The Argentine’s bullish nature combined with supreme technical attributes, output out of possession and poacher instincts has seen him thrive as part of a strike duo, while the often selfless work of Lukaku went unnoticed amid Lautaro’s remarkable run between October and December.
After constant slander for his trampoline touch and looking like he was running in a pair of spray on jeans during his final days in Manchester, the Belgian has once again established himself as one of Europe’s finest number nine’s, with his high footballing IQ and effectiveness in transition seeing him excel under Conte.
Lula, however, whether it be in the latter stages of the Champions League or in a deeper Scudetto run, have got so much more to give to an Inter side on the up with an elite coach at the helm.
And overall, it’d be a travesty to see a pair who so obviously play for one another broken up after just one year of spellbinding performance.