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Since the Premier League began plucking talent from all over Europe, it seems as if they have always had one eye on France for the next generation of talent. Back in 2013, Arsenal took on Marseille in the UEFA Youth League. The Londoners won 4-1, but for the first time, they were introduced to a 15-year-old Maxime Lopez.
The away side featured Hector Bellerin, Serge Gnabry, Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but Lopez would come off the bench for 24 minutes and obviously caught someone’s eye. Scout Gilles Grimandi was given the task to keep an eye on the youngster.
At that stage of his career, Lopez was seen as an attacker, but as he matured, the local kid would transform into an influential central midfielder. Arsenal’s radar, as well as the previously linked Liverpool, was alerted when he played 31 minutes off the bench in the second game of the season against Guingamp. A starring role in the cup win over Clermont followed and then he was given his debut league start in the goalless draw against Girondins de Bordeaux.
“He played a great match,” former Newcastle United winger Florian Thauvin told La Provence after the 0-0. “It’s not a surprise for me. We know his qualities. He’s a very good player and has a very bright future. He was able to show everyone the extent of his talents.”
Marseille have struggled this season, but under new boss Rudi Garcia, there have been signs of improvement. Lopez was on the bench as they drew with PSG at the Parc des Princes, but it was his performance against Bordeaux that he really gave a glimpse of what he is capable of providing.
Playing in Garcia’s 4-3-3, the 18-year-old is the link man between the defence and attack. Former Arsenal and Chelsea man, Lassana Diarra, is the anchor, and Lopez is always looking to get himself into space and pushing the game forward. He will get back and look to win the ball when OM are not in possession, but it’s when his team have the ball when he comes alive.
“We enjoyed the first start of Maxime Lopez,” Olympique de Marseille analyst Jean-Charles De Bono told the official website after the Bordeaux match. “We saw a completely relaxed player with remarkable technical ease. He worked between the lines, he kept the ball when the situation called for and he rarely lost the ball.”
The youngster is not big on trying to do everything himself. Lopez keeps the game simple, collects the ball, gets his head up and looks to start the attack. Everything he does is simplistically excellent. He is capable of picking out long balls and more spectacular passes, but as he is young, it’s clear he’s growing into his position, rather than trying to walk before he can run.
As soon as the links with the Premier League teams resurfaced, he was likened with former France, Arsenal and Manchester City man, Samir Nasri. Like Lopez, they both signed their first professional contract with OM as a 17-year-old, but in terms of style, that’s where the comparison ends.
When you look at the current Arsenal team, you would draw more parallels with Santi Cazorla. Able to play much further forward and after arriving in England as a more advanced player, the Spaniard has developed into the deeper role. “Lopezinho” has done the same and that looks like where his future lies.
They are both the metronome that links the play and dictates the tempo of their teams. This season, Lopez is averaging 52 passes per game, that is much lower than Cazorla’s 70 passes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Against Bordeaux, in his first full 90 minutes, he made 87% of his 97 passes. Then again, playing in the defeat to Montpellier, he completed 95% of his 93 passes. No doubt he is seeing plenty of the ball, his average dropping down because of his lack of games and three of his five appearances coming from the bench.
To give another insight into how good Lopez’s numbers have been, Marseille as a club are averaging 120 fewer passes per game than Arsenal and 100 fewer short passes. For the 18-year-old to average and complete the same amount as the Spanish midfielder, OM are looking to play a lot of their game through the youngster. Testament to how promising a talent he is.
Lopez is averaging 1 key pass per game, as well as 0.6 dribble attempts. Cazorla is up at 1.3 for key pass attempts and 1 dribble per games. Their styles are really similar. Great at finding space, as soon as they are in position, they have the awareness to play on the turn, looking to hit the attacking members of their team.
Nasri, back in his early Arsenal days and his last productive season with City, the injured Sevilla midfielder was averaging less passes than Cazorla, but making more key passes. That showed in his numbers for goals and assists, something that Lopez doesn’t quite have in his locker at this stage.
The young French midfielder is more defensive minded, and in a similar build to Cazorla, he’s shown that he has the upper-body strength and physical strength to compete with bigger opponents.
Announcing his as the next Nasri, for good or bad, grabs the headlines, but the young prospect looks a much rounder prospect and certainly has already, in his young career, shown he has an old head on young shoulders. That will capture the attention of both Wenger and Jurgen Klopp.
Marseille fans will be hoping that recent investment in the club will help them keep young stars like Lopez for longer. That can only help his development in the long run. However, if he continues his rapid rise, it will be hard to convince him not to make the jump to England.