Young Marseille Star Maxime Lopez Has What It Takes To Be A Top Technical Midfielder

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Maxime Lopez is only 19-years-old, and he’s only just starting to find his feet in the world of professional football, but that doesn’t mean clubs haven’t already rolled out the red carpet for him. The Olympique Marseille man recently revealed that Liverpool once tried to sign him, pulling out all the stops in the process. “They told me: ‘In five years, you’ll play in [Philippe] Coutinho’s position.’ They really sang my praises. I even met Steven Gerrard in the stadium after the match,” Lopez told L’Equipe. “I wanted to go there, but also to stay at OM. To leave like that, at that age even if my family would have gone too, it was very hard. I had noted that they had thirty-odd young professional players, not even counting the first team. You really have to be ready mentally.”

Lopez eventually opted to stick with Marseille, and given the way his game has progressed this season, that’s probably been a good thing for his development. He started 26 times in Ligue 1 in 2016/17, and also made a further four appearances from the bench. During that time, he showcased his talents as a technical marvel in the centre of midfield. He’s a little guy, standing at only 167cm, but as is so often the case with players of this stature, the ball often looks like it’s somehow connected to his feet, and the stickiness of his dribbling and the range of passing have made him an important member of Rudi Garcia’s team. That’s significant for Marseille, as he’s a graduate of their youth academy, and the club will undoubtedly be thrilled to see a local boy coming through the ranks and putting his attributes to good use at the Stade Velodrome.

It could’ve been different if he opted for Liverpool, but, as a young Samir Nasri once did before joining up with Arsenal, he has had the chance to shine on home soil in a Marseille jersey due to his decision to stay put. “I used to come to matches when I was a kid, I’d hear the crowd chanting a player’s name,” Lopez said earlier in the season. “Now it’s my name and that is something very special.”

The fans, however, are only yelling his name because he’s producing football that could also be defined as very special. This excellence has been part of his output for plenty of the Ligue 1 campaign, even if he’s been a little patchy at times, and his quality has been particularly apparent in recent matches. In his last four games, he’s added two goals and two assists, impressive numbers for a man fielded in the middle of the pitch. He completed his first full term as a member of the senior team with a supreme performance against Bastia, lighting up the encounter with 76 passes at 92% accuracy and a mammoth 7 key passes. These are the kinds of figures that are alerting mega clubs, such as Barcelona, to his presence, and as a diminutive midfielder who can tee up teammates at a moment’s notice, it isn’t hard to see why.

If there’s one thing that stands out about Lopez, it’s his passing. Put simply, the precision and range associated with his distribution are superb, and when combined with his quickness in the dribble, he has the important ability to get the ball out of his feet and weave away from danger before assessing his options. That means he often has the time and space to ensure his passes are accurate, and in a lot of ways, it’s this which enables him to be both efficient and adventurous in possession.

Consider the following statistics. Throughout the 2016/17 Ligue 1 season, Lopez has averaged 60 passes at 87% accuracy. Those numbers are impressive on their own, but when you throw in the fact that he also completed 1.6 key passes per game – good enough for 19th place in the league – they’re even more so. That’s because it’s so difficult to mesh efficiency with the desire to push the game forward by playing killers balls, and Lopez seems to strike a lovely balance between the two. Indeed, of those 18 players ahead of Lopez in the key passes per game statistic, only one has a better pass completion percentage than he does. That man is Jean-Michael Seri, an established Nice player who, at 25 years of age, is attracting interest from the likes of Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. That Lopez is even able to hold a place amongst footballers of his quality, as a teenager in his first full season as a top-flight footballer, is near enough to incredible.

In positional terms, Lopez likes to mix it up. This is something his coach, Garcia, has wanted him to do since mentioning it earlier on this season. “In the first games he was effective in a deeper creative role, but a player of his quality should also be capable of getting in to the box and being decisive,” Garcia asserted. “If he’s capable of doing that he’ll become a fine player. He’s young, he still has a lot of work to do, but he is showing a lot of courage, audacity and enthusiasm.”

Lopez clearly viewed these comments as something of a challenge, as he quickly worked that forward thrust into his game. Of course, he’s still very much responsible for operating in deeper locations, and he regularly drops into a right-sided position, in behind an advanced fullback, to help with Marseille’s build-up play. When he has the chance to get up into the final third himself, though, he’s now much more willing to take it.

This attacking instinct of his can take a number of forms. Sometimes, Lopez will simply just saunter into the final third, arrive at the right edge of the penalty area and hope to receive a ball from the wing. From there, he can either curl a ball into the box or retain possession in a more straightforward fashion. Then, of course, there are his forward runs. He’s becoming increasingly adept at getting up the pitch, and interestingly enough, he often likes to do so by heading out towards the wing.

Indeed, some of his finest moments have arrived via some link-up play along the flanks. Take, for instance, his recent assist for Patrice Evra against Nice. Here, he picked up on a loose ball, in an inside-right position, before playing it wide to Dimitri Payet. Lopez continued his run into the area as his teammate took possession, and in effect made a run not dissimilar to that of an underlapping fullback. Payet quickly slid a pass into his path, and after hitting it first-time, Lopez teed up a diving header for Evra. The veteran defender finished the job with aplomb, but Lopez mixed energy and technical quality to create the opening in the first place.

In Marseille’s final Ligue 1 game against Bastia, Lopez again made use of the spaces near the right-hand touchline. This time, however, the roles were reversed, as he was on the outside. He kicked things off by receiving a pass from Florian Thauvian, and once it became apparent that the room available to him was closing, he gave the ball back to the former Newcastle man. Thauvin then returned the favour and, now with a little more space at his disposal, Lopez cut inside onto his right boot before crossing into the area. The ball curled into the path of Bafetimbi Gomis, a player Lopez has described as “like a mother hen” to him, and the target man hit the back of the net with a lovely header back across goal.

All of this, in conjunction, means that Lopez is now finding a way to contribute higher up the pitch. Add in a lovely double against Caen, where he got onto the end of a counter-attack to score before later firing in a shot that ricocheted back into his feet, and this is a player on the rise. Which, of course, isn’t really a surprise to those who have known him for some time.

Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, a former Marseille player himself, recently talked about Lopez. “He’s part of the family and I’ve known him for a very long time. Especially my kids, who know him very well – they played together in Aix-en-Provence,” Zidane said. “He always had this outstanding natural talent at his age and for his stature. It’s amazing what he’s doing, not just at his age, because today age means nothing, but mostly because of the personality he has in the game. In other words, he’s someone who runs a lot, but is someone who plays a lot and makes others play as well.”

Running, playing and allowing others to play is pretty much the job description for a central midfielder, and the fact that Lopez can do it at 19, and at such an impressive level, is the major reason why he’s become so important to Marseille. How long the crisp-passing midfielder stays at the Stade Velodrome remains to be seen, but if he can continue to develop there and wait until the time is right, just as Nasri did before moving onto Arsenal, then there’s every chance that he’ll have a wonderful foundation from which to succeed on one of football’s even bigger stages.