If there is one upside to the financial plight of most Argentine clubs, it is the increased game time given to a number of young academy products across the league. The 2021 Liga Profesional de Fútbol is proving a terrific breeding ground and among a number of breakout stars this term there has perhaps been none greater than José Manuel López.

For it seems as long as you care to remember, there’s only been room for one center-forward at Lanús and while the now 41-year-old José Pepe Sand is still banging them in, the emergence of López has given the Granate a double-edged sword with which to slice through opposition defenses.

The pair with 22 goals between them - an amount only nine of the other 25 clubs in Argentina’s top flight have surpassed - has papered over Lanús’ fragile defense and allowed Luis Zubeldía to ride high in the table.

For one of those sides that will likely hurt more than the others. López spent seven years at Independiente before a back injury limited his playing time and the Avellaneda giants released him in 2016. El Rojo’s loss has been to Lanús’ gain despite it taking a little time and requiring a 2019 loan to lower league Colegiales.

Since scoring on only his second appearance in January 2021, ‘El Flaco’ (skinny) hasn’t looked back. While as the nickname suggests López doesn’t possess the most powerful of builds, at 188 cm tall he has the physicality to play as a traditional number nine and his aerial prowess has seen no player in Argentina score more headed goals in 2021.

Though there is much more to López’s game than just looking to get on the end of crosses. The 20-year-old has posed the greatest threat inside the penalty area yet there is a variety to his shooting and positionally he is comfortable roaming deeper or across the frontline.

There has certainly been little wrong with López’s finishing this season. Eleven goals scored so far putting him level with Julián Álvarez and Pepe Sand at the top of the rankings, with substantially lower expected goals than both (5.28xG in contrast to Álvarez 9.24 and Sand 15.17).

The 41-year-old Sand remains the more fixed positionally, the more likely to be applying the finishing touch in the six-yard box and on penalty duty yet López still averages a goal every 139 minutes.

2.33 shots per 90 with a favorable 40.9% on target, López has demonstrated versatility to the type of striker he can be and his left foot a real weapon.

Much of that versatility stemming from the fact that López played much of his youth football either as an enganche (attacking midfielder) or as a winger.

A good burst of speed and underrated dribbling ability makes López comfortable with the ball at his feet. With 4.12 dribbles per 90, López can either carry from halfway or look to beat his marker in wide areas.

This has also enabled López to contribute to Lanús as a creator with two assists and two second-assists.

River Plate’s highly sought-after Julián Álvarez is the only player in Argentina’s top flight with more goals and assists.

Glimpses of López’s former positions are still evident from time to time as he unselfishly does a lot of work for the side outside the box.

His weight of passing is good and his positional awareness to drop and receive the ball into his feet while knowing where his teammates are enabling López to link play and create opportunities for others.

With 3.44 touches in the penalty area, López aims to get himself into goal-scoring opportunities but has decent involvement in the build-up phase - 2.06 passes into the final third and 1.43 into the penalty area.

A positive Covid-19 test for José Sand this week may provide a further glimpse of López’s ability to lead the line alone but the 20-year-old has given the Granate an alternative they didn’t necessarily know they had at the start of the year.

In an ordinary football environment, you might look at López as the ideal person to take over the mantle when the day finally arrives for Sand to hang up his boots. Yet while Pepe shows no signs of slowing down, the Argentine football market suggests López might be gone before that. It is perhaps a relatively small sample size but there will be plenty of interested parties at the end of the season if López maintains his form until the end of the year.

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