Olympique Marseille have seen their much-vaunted Champions Project, under American owner Frank McCourt, struggle to take off, with its focus on established, albeit ageing stars being the opposite of youth-centric models that have thrived in Ligue 1 and elsewhere. The likes of Steve Mandanda, Dimitri Payet, Luiz Gustavo and Adil Rami had become emblematic of a side which looked like it was stuck in the past. Last year’s run to the Europa League final seemed like genuine progress, but timid exits from the Champions League and both domestic cup competitions by January of this year stoked the fans’ unrest.
However, Marseille have rallied since then, with a 3-1 loss to PSG before this international break snapping a six-game unbeaten run. The likes of Boubacar Kamara, Duje Caleta-Car and Mario Balotelli have been crucial across this time, but midfielder Maxime Lopez has stepped up to take responsibility and finally showcase his potential. In this piece, we will analyze the 21-year old’s style of play and determine why he is so highly rated across the continent.
Attacking style of play
Lopez is one of Marseille‘s own, so to speak, having graduated from the club’s academy into the first-team. He made his senior debut in August 2016 and has already made over 100 appearances for the club. His technical ability has been evident since the beginning of his career. The Frenchman even made a club-record 129 touches of the ball in a home game against Caen in October 2016.
He usually plays as one of the flanking midfielders if deployed in a 4-3-3, or as part of a pair of central midfielders if used in a two-man midfield. Rudi Garcia has been using a 4-4-2 in recent games, pairing Valere Germain and former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli up front, which has meant that Lopez and Morgan Sanson have formed the midfield duo in most games. Lopez’s heat map for the season, shown below, illustrates his playing position.
Lopez’s strength lies in playing short, quick passes around opposition players. He is extremely comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and finding a teammate, making him ideal for sides looking to play out from the back. According to Whoscored.com, he has been fouled 0.4 times and dispossessed 0.5 times per game this season, which demonstrates how press-resistant he is.
He is extremely intelligent, knowing when to vary his movements and support attacks down the flanks, and when to drop deep to receive the ball from his centre-backs.
His intelligence on the ball is abundantly clear, as can be seen below.
Playing in a 4-4-2, Lopez’s brief has been to stay deep, which means that he is not usually the player making the final pass. This is backed up by the fact that he has only four assists in 30 games this season. He is the one who sets the tempo and keeps the ball moving like any deep-lying playmaker is expected to do.
The comparisons with Samir Nasri are therefore a bit misleading. They are only due to their shared Algerian heritage and similar progress through the Marseille academy, along with their diminutive stature.
Defensive style of play
As part of a two-man midfield, Lopez is expected to contribute his fair share in defence as well. Whoscored.com’s stats show that he has made 1.6 tackles and 0.7 interceptions per game this season, which shows that he is a lot more proactive, looking to win the ball back quickly rather than sit back.
Being the deepest midfielder, Lopez is also often in his own penalty area during the defensive phase, looking to intercept cut-backs and crosses.
He is yet to completely master this side of the game though, as he does have a tendency to allow his marker to run off him.
The stats show that he gets dribbled past 1.1 times per game. This, combined with his lack of aerial threat (he is only 5’5″ tall) means that the Marseille native can be easily targeted by opposition sides, especially with a more powerful and mobile central midfielder.
Maxime Lopez is certainly not the next Samir Nasri – the two players may have some physical resemblance, but their styles of play are completely different. However, that does not mean that Lopez cannot match up to or even surpass his compatriot’s achievements. He is the archetypal modern-day deep-lying playmaker, capable of controlling a game and providing his team with the ball in advanced areas of the pitch.
While he is defensively capable, there is still some work to be done on that front, especially since he has been playing as part of a two-man midfield at Marseille. His gifts would probably be better utilised if he played slightly further up the pitch, with the security of an extra man in midfield. Nevertheless, he has shown enough quality this season to dispel any doubts about his ability. Lopez has not been linked with any of Europe’s big-hitters yet, but expect that to change if he continues to perform at this level.
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