Le50 2017 – Maxime López
No-one really expected a young homegrown player to flourish at Marseille this season. Not least Maxime Lopez, the creative 19-year-old midfielder. At the start of 2016/17, OM were on their knees, without financial support or direction, and had seen another young hope, Bilal Boutobba, decide to jump ship for Sevilla.
Then, when the saving grace arrived in the form of Frank McCourt’s millions, attention quickly turned to which big-hitters OM could attract in midfield. Not exactly a nurturing environment. Indeed, Lopez did not feature at all in 2015/16, being called to the bench only twice in the club’s 50-odd-game season.
But an opening came, and the diminutive midfielder quickly took it. In the second game of the season, a disjointed OM side were 2-0 down to EA Guingamp right in the middle of the summer of discontent. The key players had long gone and were replaced by largely average players. Then caretaker coach Franck Passi named Lopez on the bench, before bringing him on with 25 minutes to go as the game slid away from les Olympiens.
Lopez, in his debut for the first team in competitive football, looked assured and confident, bringing another dimension to an otherwise flagging side. He picked up an assist in Florian Thauvin’s long-range effort and was generally praised as the only bright spot in an otherwise forgettable encounter.
Passi did not capitalise on Lopez’s burgeoning talent, instead preferring to stick rigidly to a 4-2-3-1 set-up. It wasn’t until Rudi Garcia arrived in mid-October, bringing with him a change of formation, that there seemed to be opportunities in the centre of midfield for a creative passer like Lopez. But Garcia didn’t just hand the 19-year-old opportunities; he effectively handed him the keys to the midfield.
The former Roma boss had clearly identified the youngster as central to his 4-3-3 set-up, counting on Lopez’s passing and movement qualities to complement those of William Vainqueur and later Morgan Sanson. Lopez debuted in this new set-up in Garcia’s first home game, a 0-0 draw against Bordeaux, and has started every game bar one since.
Lopez’s dictation of the game and great sense of movement between defence and attack has galvanised OM’s forward play. He links up superbly well with Morgan Sanson and Florian Thauvin, with the arrival of the former also giving Garcia’s side a more creative outlet. Indeed, Lopez’s determination to retrieve the ball and stay with it meant he racked up more than 100 passes in that match against Bordeaux, a figure not matched by any Marseille player in the last 10 years.
Often likened to a former academy graduate in Samir Nasri, Lopez has widely attracted plaudits including from close family friend Zinedine Zidane who labelled him an “outstanding natural talent”.
High praise indeed, but Lopez must be wary of maintaining form in what is sure to be a competitive fight for places in the new OM next season. While he has benefited from the ‘homegrown’ tag, there can be little room for error, as experienced in a conspicuously off-form period between February and April. Nevertheless, this is a young player clearly on the up, a fact not lost on Europe’s big guns.