Fulham, is Maxime Le Marchand the one that got away?
By Alessandro Schiavone at Stade de La Meinau, Strasbourg
"When he is there or not, we can feel it, he is a pillar", a Strasbourg supporter claimed ahead of the Ligue 1 fixture between Strasbourg and 2021 Ligue 1 champions Lille on Friday night.
A big deal since he signed for Strasbourg two summers ago, Maxime Le Marchand was close to earning rave reviews for yet another bravura display in Friday's home game against Lille.
But the former Fulham defender’s near-perfect first-half was undone when he conceded a penalty that led to the guests' opener on the stroke of half-time.
His outstretched left foot was a fraction too late as he brought down Ismaily following a cutback.
Canadian hotshot Jonathan David made no mistake to take his goal tally to eight and momentarily pull level with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts.
Apart from that unfortunate moment, Le Marchand was his side’s standout in the first 45 minutes.
A pillar of the Alsatians’ defence since signing at Stade de la Meinau on a free deal following his release by Fulham in 2021, he hadn’t put a foot wrong all game.
Robust in the duels and pressing Lille’s players high up the pitch, he was a key factor as to why Strasbourg kept a clean sheet from open play.
He always beat Lille’s frontmen to the balls in the air, displaying physicality and tenacity in the one v ones.
It wasn't a straightforward task, but MLM held his own against quick players like Adam Ounas, Remy Cabella and David as Lille barely threatened for all their talent and pace as Strasbourg kept things tight at the back.
And he even attempted to catch Lucas Chevalier out from his own half after confidently marauding upfield undisturbed.
By the time the second period got underway Le Marchand, who played 48 games for the West London club, wasn’t among the 22 players on the pitch.
Manager Julien Stephan decided to hook him for precautionary reasons having been on a yellow card.
Yet without MLM's tactical nous and ability to read the game, Strasbourg’s defence crumbled.
Hence it wasn't long until Canadian striker David, who is linked with Premier League clubs, added a second shortly after the break as he tapped home Timothy Weah’s laserlight square pass.
Life was hard for Stephan’s men without the composed Frenchman at the back, and Remy Cabella sealed the deal with a confident finish with ten minutes remaining.
Recent history suggests that many struggling Premier League players revived their careers after moving to Ligue 1.
From Arsenal flops Mateo Guendouzi and Nicolas Pepe, the list is thick.
Yet it would be unfair to consider the 32-year-old Frenchman a Fulham misfit.
Incidentally, MLM’s time at Craven Cottage was marred by injuries and his managers’ tendency to go with Denis and Tim Ream at the back. While the overall hiccups and crisis that engulfed Fulham in those years added to his woes. Just like a number of personal issues that few people know about.
Even when fit, he barely had a look-in during his time in the Premier League which amounted to 18 months over two-and-a-half seasons.
He played 2.251 minutes of top-flight football in his first campaign in English football which ended in relegation.
Yet despite the fiasco, MLM always looked like one of few players who could be trusted upon, certainly more than Denis Odoi or Tim Ream in those turbulent years.
He eventually slipped down the pecking order as the Cottagers bounced straight back up, playing only 12 times in the Championship.
In his third and last campaign in the capital he was not even given the chance to impress under Scott Parker, racking up a disappointing two appearances before leaving for Royal Antwerp on loan.
Yet since that brief stint in Belgium and his move to Strasbourg, MLM hasn’t looked back.
He looks like the player of old, the one who caught the eye at OGC Nice, where he peaked between 2015 and 2018 before leaving the French Riviera for England, his nadir to date.
Even though he has long moved on, being dubbed a failure at Fulham still rankles with him.
But his turnaround is nothing short of remarkable. These days he is a regular starter in a three-man backline, an experienced leader and fan favourite.
Ahead of the game, Capital Football spoke to a number of supporters outside the ground.
A young fan, wearing the club’s tracksuit, described him as someone who has a decent “positional sense and ability to play out”.
He added: “He’s one of the major defenders at the club and when he’s not there, it impacts the result.”
Another strasbourgeois added: “He always rolls up his sleeves and doesn’t gives up. He’s everywhere and brings a lot to the team. He brings calmness to the team.”
Despite the praise coming his way, MLM knows full well about the transitory nature of the game and how quickly a player’s stock can fluctuate.
At nearly 33 years of age, his insatiable hunger for improvement continues and MLM is not thinking about retirement, determined to play in France’s top-flight for a number of years.
Stephan has plenty to ponder as Strasbourg are in danger of relegation after only one win in 11 games but MLM is, as numerous fans pointed out, indispensable if the club wants to stay up.
Barring a penalty he gave away to make up for the left-backs’s soft defending as the ball came in, he shut up shop and didn’t give the quick Lille players a prayer.
And with Fulham boasting the fourth-worst defence of the Premier League, having leaked 20 goals from 10 games, are we sure that the friendly Frenchman would have fared any worse than Ream, Tosin and company?