Maxime Lopez : Marseille’s New Star Winning Admirers
A new name is filling in the column inches in the south of France at the moment. Whereas the return of Dimitri Payet has unsurprisingly captured the imagination of Olympique de Marseille supporters, the real adulation has been reserved for 19-year-old Maxime Lopez who has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign so far in 2016-17 following his graduation from the youth side.
Lopez was long regarded as a future ‘espoir’ in an OM academy that has failed to really produce outstanding talent since the likes of Andre Ayew and hometown favourite Samir Nasri. There were even fears that the club’s structural problems would see them lose young talent to other clubs before even getting a chance to see them in the famous white and blue jersey.
In the last year alone this fear transpired when Sevilla swooped in to take Bilal Boutobba, a youth product who made his debut at just 16 under Marcelo Bielsa in late 2014. Perhaps it was that underlying dread that saw Lopez fast-tracked into the first team this season.
The young midfielder showed considerable talent in the Marseille reserve and youth teams, consistently churning out solid performances against his peers in particular. He made 21 appearances for OM’s CFA2 team in 2015-16, but at 17, was considered still too young for the first team by Michel, much to the surprise of then-academy director Thomas Fernandez.
“He has nothing more to do with us in the CFA squad. It’s necessary that he improves his finish, and perhaps his passing in the final third. But I think he has totally gone past this level,” his then-coach told La Provence. At just 17, he was already deemed good enough for professional football.
Unlike Lyon, OM is not an easy side to establish yourself at. There is considerable caution taken when it comes to youth players’ development and talent is likely to be farmed out on loan in order to prove themselves before their promotion to the first team (if they make it that far). Bielsa proved an exception to the rule however, with the likes of Baptiste Aloe, Stephane Sparagna, Gael Andonian and Bill Tuiloma all featuring. With the Argentine gone, all four were loaned out. At the time of writing, a path to the OM first team for the quartet is difficult to envisage.
But that established procedure has been torn up for Lopez who made his first team debut in August away to Guingamp. Coming off the bench to replace Abou Diaby, he notched an assist for Florian Thauvin and subsequently made three substitute appearances for OM under caretaker coach Franck Passi. The then-OM boss preferred to use the academy graduate as an impact player off the bench, not entirely entrusting him with a place in the starting eleven.
The arrival of Rudi Garcia, however, has changed all that. Out has gone the preference for speedy wingers flanking tough-built midfielders. Garcia, long famed for a possession-based football, has implemented a 4-3-3 system that requires an intelligent midfielder capable of quality distribution as well as vision. The stage was set for Lopez to blossom under a coach who ‘spoke’ his type of football.
The 19-year-old hasn’t held back. In the 18 games under Rudi Garcia, Lopez has played in 17 – the exception being the 0-0 draw away to PSG in Garcia’s debut (OM played 5-3-2 in that game, with a ‘park the bus’ mentality). The former Lille coach has built his new OM vision around a capable midfield headed by Lopez, alongside new recruit Morgan Sanson and the formidable William Vainqueur. While previous managers preferred strength and defensive ability in midfield in a 4-2-3-1, Garcia has opted for a side capable of keeping the ball and initiating good attacking opportunities for the creative wingers such as Florian Thauvin, Clinton Njie and Remy Cabella.
In the 17 games since, Lopez has struck a well-worked goal in a difficult game away to Dijon, as well as picking up five assists. He was voted Ligue 1 player of the month for December after barely eight weeks of professional football. As such, he has received attention from the wider European football family as the next big thing emanating from the production machine that is French football.
What type of player is Lopez?
Likened to Andres Iniesta, the midfield metronome is a player who has the ball attached to his feet. He has a desire to be at the centre of every forward venture, and appears assured and confident in his distribution. In the match against Caen, Lopez got on the ball 129 times, with a pass completion rate in the 90s. No Marseille player in the last 10 years has recorded such a figure according to Opta statistics.
Like the Spanish maestro, Lopez is of a similar build – at 167cm and slight. However, his small stature has not been an obstacle to holding his own against bigger and leaner opponents. He has shown himself to be smart on the ball in attack, and equally adept at picking off stray passes from the opposition. Moreover, Lopez is mobile across the field, positioning himself for a pass wherever the opportunity may arise.
More notably, he has built a strong rapport with Florian Thauvin, both on and off the field. The two are on the same wavelength, and it shows in their attacking forays. Indeed, it was Thauvin, Lopez’s closest friend in the OM squad, who laid on the assist for his first professional goal in Dijon.
Lopez is undoubtedly a star on the rise. And with a considerable good run of form in the last few weeks, it is clear that he is beginning to attract suitors. Linked with Arsenal and Liverpool as early as 2014, it was the turn of Premier League leaders Chelsea to send an emissary to the Stade Velodrome to watch Lopez star for OM in a 2-1 cup win over Lyon. He didn’t do too badly with an assist in that game.
Will Lopez move any time soon? The tendency is that he will not, with the Marseille-born midfielder still revelling at his dream season with his boyhood club.
“When you’re 19 and born in Marseille, playing for Olympique de Marseille, with the likes of Florian Thauvin, Bafétimbi Gomis and Lassana Diarra, you can’t help but be happy. Honestly, I get chills. When I was younger, I was in those stands chanting names. Hearing mine chanted was something huge.”
Words that will surely endear himself to a challenging and demanding OM faithful. There is no doubt that Rudi Garcia, Marseille and French football in general have another gem on their hands. There is hope – and more importantly time – for him to make a big splash soon.