Written by Alex Brotherton
It is moments of exceptional quality, produced in the biggest of games on the greatest of stages, that separate the good players from the special. Having already converted a penalty to put his Sevilla side 1-0 up in El Gran Derbi, a huge game in its own right, made even bigger as the curtain-raiser of LaLiga’s post-coronavirus return, Lucas Ocampos produced such a moment.
Running to meet a corner at the front post with his back to goal, the Argentine winger instinctively flicked the ball between his legs and on to teammate Fernando, who obliged in heading the ball home. The move was pulled off with the precision, skill, and effortlessness usually associated with the likes of Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema, not someone who had attracted the interests of Burnley and Everton the previous summer. For Ocampos, the rise to become one of LaLiga’s hottest talents has been unconventional.
When Ocampos was signed from Marseille for £13.5 million in July 2019, he wasn’t exactly the talk of world football. Over seven years playing in Europe, he has earned a reputation as a hard-working, versatile winger, as well-known for his defensive abilities as his attacking; a South American James Milner, if you will. It was expected that he would play an important role in new manager Julen Lopetegui’s organised, new-look Sevilla, but few foresaw his exceptional attacking output. As of matchday 34, the 25-year-old has scored 13 league goals and assisted three; those 16 direct goal contributions account for roughly a third of Sevilla’s total for the season.
As La Liga Lowdown’s Sevilla correspondent Gregor Chappelle explains, Ocampos’ exploits at both ends of the pitch have been invaluable. “I was surprised by how good he’s been, turning into one of the most important players in the team. He obviously enjoys playing in Lopetegui’s system and he takes a lot of confidence from being the main man,” he explained.
“But Ocampos also works really hard defensively. He’ll drop back to cut out quick balls out wide, while the full-back on his side will press the opposition to try and force an error. He’s got a great engine on him as well as physicality and strength, so he provides good defensive cover and gives as good as he gets in 50/50 challenges,” Gregor added.
So how was it that Ocampos, the kind of all-purpose attacker that is so rare in football, flew under the radar before his arrival at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán?
Born and raised in Quilmes, the Argentinian city that gave us the Milito brothers and Sergio Agüero, Ocampos learnt his trade as a striker-cum-winger in the youth sides of Quilmes Atlético Club. In his mid-teens he was spotted and snapped up by giants River Plate, and when crisis ensued at El Monumental, he got his chance. Los Millonarios were playing the 2011/12 season in the second division, following a first-ever relegation from the Primera División. Handicapped by financial constraints and the need to sell his top players, manager Matías Almeyda called up a 17-year-old Ocampos from the youth side.
As Fede Praml, football journalist at Oh My Goal and River Plate fan, tells us, the baby-faced winger was a revelation. “The kid was gold. He made his debut at El Monumental in River’s first-ever second-division match. No pressure. In his second match, he scored. In the third, a goal and assist. He was electric,” he remembers.
“He was the first kid that Almeyda promoted to the first team. The story goes that in a training session against the youths, Ocampos nutmegged Almeyda (who had been a player the previous season) twice. Almeyda was 37 years old, Ocampos just 16.”
That season Ocampos made 23 appearances as River won the title, scoring three goals. To all involved, it was obvious that the teenager was destined for great things, especially when he scored incredible goals like this long-range curler against Chacarita Juniors.
“At such a young age he was fundamental to us going up, but I knew there was no way we could keep him for more than a season,” admits Fede. “We had no money and he was an absolute ace.”
But before Ocampos could make his mark in the Primera, French club AS Monaco swooped in with a lucrative offer. In the French second division, he excelled and became a permanent fixture in the promotion-winning side. He then adapted well to his first taste of top-flight football, helping the club to finish surprise runners-up and qualify for the Champions League. But gradually his impact and production waned, and in February 2015 he was loaned to Marseille before the move was made permanent.
However, as Marseille stagnated following the resignation of coach Marcelo Bielsa, Ocampos again struggled. After few minutes and little productivity in 2015/16, the winger spent the 2016/17 campaign in Italy on two fruitless loan spells at Genoa and AC Milan. Had Marseille, now backed by new ownership, not prioritised investment at striker and centre-back, he likely would have been moved on. But he was retained and given a final chance, albeit with a different role to play.
“Previously the fans couldn’t wait to see the back of him, but under Rudi Garcia he dropped the fancy inconsistent stuff and became a hard-working, industrious midfielder,” journalist Mohammed Ali explains. “His pace, tenacity and grit made him the archetypal wing-back, attacking and defending in equal measure and leaving the crafty work to Payet and Thauvin.”
Ocampos was reborn. Showcasing his versatility and quality, he made 53 appearances in all competitions scoring 16 goals, as Marseille marched to the Europa League Final. The one-dimensional attacker had metamorphosed into a bona fide starter, a manager’s dream of a player who could play anywhere. Yet there was a feeling that he still had attacking potential to be exploited, given the right system.
A successful year in France later, Sevilla provided that system. “Lopetegui is giving him more of a free rein in a squad with a higher attacking IQ than Marseille, so now he’s strutting his stuff,” Mohammed admits.
But despite finally emerging as a premier attacker, Ocampos still appears to relish defensive duties. In the 101st minute of Sevilla’s recent win against Eibar, in which he scored his 13th goal of the season, he donned the goalkeeper’s jersey when Tomáš Vaclík was stretchered off. The crucial save he made from Eibar goalkeeper Marko Dmitrović’s last-gasp effort is just another extraordinary moment in an exceptional season.
So, what does the future hold for the Argentine? Sevilla will be eager to keep hold of their new talisman, but the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are all rumoured to be interested. In typically modest style, Ocampos isn’t getting carried away. In fact, speaking to Mexican radio station Planeta about River Plate’s 2018 Copa Libertadores final victory in Madrid, he explained his wish. “I would love to retire at River, to enjoy what I couldn’t in my first spell.”
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