FEATURE | Maxime Lopez – A Great Hope Already Fading?

On the surface, calling Maxime Lopez’s situation dire might seem a little too drastic.

The 22 year-old midfielder has been a solid player for Marseille since his professional debut in 2016. His clever and quick passing allowed his breakout 2016/17 season in Ligue 1 to attract a lot of attention, wowing fans with his dynamic playmaking.

Back in December of 2016 when a young Lopez was turning 19, he was awarded the UNFP Player of the Month Trophy. The award is made following a combination of fan and player voting, recognising Ligue 1’s strongest player in a particular month.

For someone who weighs 58kg and whose height is 167cm, the Frenchman’s presence in the football world was initially gigantic.

First impressions are indeed strong, as Lopez goes to show. It seemed the entire football world was talking about this young prospect at the start of his career, with him being touted by some as the next Samir Nasri.

The resemblances are striking. Lopez, like Nasri, is Marseille born and bred. Both players are products of Olympique de Marseille’s youth academy, rising through the ranks to eventually make their debuts for the club. Additionally, the pair’s style of play has a lot in common with each, with strong passing and decision-making ideal for the midfield roles that they have both harboured in their careers, although both have also spent time on the wing.

Throughout his young career, clubs have sought the services of the young Frenchman. Liverpool were desperately keen for him in 2014, with other premier league powerhouses such as Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea linked with the midfielder.

However, the one problem with stellar starts to a football career, is that people tend to notice when such form is not replicated or bettered as a player matures. The annals of football are full of examples of young stars who faded into relative obscurity, not living up to the hype surrounding their name, and never realising their destiny of fame and glory.

Indeed, looking at Lopez’s stats, it’s clear that the 22-year old has not fulfilled his potential just yet. He has never equalled the seven assists of his debut season, in fact has never gotten more than half that amount since then.

Get Football Group data partner InStat’s player rating system involves a complicated algorithm which assesses players’ performances. For Lopez, his seasonal average ratings are telling. 2019/2020 contained his worst performances, whilst 2016/17, unsurprisingly, was his best.

At one point the brightest prospect in Marseille’s youth system, it seems the tides have turned for Maxime Lopez. The big question of course, is why.

There’s been no significant injuries. There are no reports of him being a disagreeable player. Perhaps the young midfielder needs a change of scenery, in order to reinvigorate his career.

Lopez has historically been candid about moving overseas. When it was suggested that Barcelona was interested in him, he admitted that his new-found stardom had got to his head: “It was then when in my head I said to myself: “That’s it. I’ve made it.”

But Lopez had not made it, and he confesses that he lost himself for six months afterwards.

“I was young, I had just completed my first season. We all know what Barcelona is, you imagine too many things. Football gets your head upside down so fast.”

Given his ecstasy at the prospect of playing overseas, perhaps a transfer out of France would be helpful.

And if history is anything to go by, it would be Lopez’s best option. Lopez is currently at a crossroads in his career. He is contracted at Marseille until June 2021.

And at a very similar point in his own career, Samir Nasri, a predecessor of sorts of Lopez, moved to England.

And what a move it was. Nasri enjoyed several years at Arsenal, from 2008 until 2011, until transferring to City, where he played until 2017.

At Arsenal, Nasri was a regular starter, finding his feet quickly at th​e North London club. Playing alongside stars such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, Nasri’s first transfer move of his career was an intelligent one.

The former Marseille player then moved to Manchester City – it seems along with every Arsenal player from that period – with consummate timing. Nasri won the Premier League twice with them, in 2012, and again in 2014.

Ignoring later off-field drama, one cannot deny Nasri’s success: a Premier League title is arguably our game’s most coveted domestic ward.

Nasri is Lopez’s test case. Nasri’s own experiences as a very similar player are a barometer for him, whose readings could forecast smart career moves for the 22 year-old. He should draw confidence from the fact that an early career overseas transfer for Nasri propelled his career.

Lopez is now at a stage in his career similar to that of Nasri’s, when Nasri transferred from Marseille. Nasri had made 121 appearances for Marseille when he moved, Lopez has made 106.

Cristiano Ronaldo once said that “football is an artform in itself.” But football is a science too, and past data and experiences should inform present decisions. It would appear rational for Lopez to mimic Nasri’s actions, given the likeness between the two.

And hopefully a study of Nasri’s trajectory will allow the 22 year-old to even better his predecessor, learning from his mistakes as well.

Yet the difference between the two is that Nasri was one of Ligue 1’s best talents at the time he moved across the Channel, Lopez right now is barely a footnote in the story of the 2019/20 Ligue 1 campaign. How Lopez can combat that reality in what will be one of the most peculiar summer transfer windows in recent history owing to the COVID-19 disruption is anyone’s guess.

Louis Goldsmith

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