Mike Maignan is one of the reasons that Lille’s season is finally on the up. The 22-year-old goalkeeper has been one of the heroes of a run of form that has seen LOSC win four of their last six games and move out of the relegation zone.
His contribution over the last 10 days has been immense and was no better encapsulated than his performance against Toulouse at Stade Pierre-Mauroy last Saturday.
With just three minutes of that game remaining, Lille had a penalty awarded against them when Fode Ballo-Toure blocked a ball in the box with his thigh. Referee Benoit Millot thought it had come off his hand amid appeals from the guests, yet their goalkeeper ensured justice was done as he rebuffed Andy Delort’s spot kick to secure another precious victory.
The reaction of his team-mates spoke volumes as he instantly found Thiago Maia on his back, while a rush of players congratulated him on his save.
That Maignan kept the penalty out should have come as little surprise. He has earned himself the tag of a specialist in such situations, having made four stops (plus one effort off target) from eight such situations in his 26-game career in France’s top flight.
Edinson Cavani and Mario Balotelli – perhaps the best spot-kick taker in the game today – have both been denied from 12 yards by the man signed for just €1 million in 2015.
Indeed, he had thwarted Nabil Fekir only days earlier in similar circumstances as Lille’s season really took off thanks to a 2-1 win in Lyon.
On Saturday, he goes chasing a unique hat-trick of penalty saves when Lille visit Paris Saint-Germain, though of course he would rather not have the opportunity.
For Maignan, the weekend’s match is something of a homecoming, having spent six years in PSG’s youth set up before eventually earning professional terms, though he would never have an opportunity to shine in their starting XI.
Back in Paris, though, he will aim to showcase what the capital side missed out on.
It has only been in the last year that he has forced his way into Lille’s plans on a regular basis, having been preferred to long-time servant Vincent Enyeama by head coach Marcelo Bielsa, who is currently suspended from the role.
The Argentinian’s thinking was that Maignan is a more modern goalkeeper than his Nigerian counterpart, most notably more comfortable with the ball at his feet. And there is little doubt that Maignan feels part of a new breed of custodian who are not content simply with stopping shots.
“I wanted to be an outfield player with my friends and score goals,” he told France Football. “In fact, in my head I consider myself as an outfield player. When my team has the ball, I take part in the game and try to give an outlet to my defenders. It’s only when my team loses the ball that I become a goalkeeper again. It’s my job after all!”
And Maignan performs the day job to a high standard.
He ranks ninth among Ligue 1’s regular shot-stoppers in terms of save percentage and could be even higher had he not been abandoned by an erratic defensive line that has left him hopelessly exposed on several occasions this season.
It could have been very different had youth coach Romain Damiano not talked Maignan - who never knew his father - into a trial with the Clairfontaine academy as goalkeeper when he wanted to be an outfielder.
He was not easy to handle as a young player, either, with Damiano telling So Foot: “One day he p***ed me off so much that I tore up his playing license. I was his coach but also his proxy father. He wasn’t always easy, he messed around a lot, especially at school, where his marks were bad.”
Football, however, has provided Maignan with an outlet in which to shine, having been capped by France at youth level from Under-17 to Under-21.
Now he is seeking to progress further, and a decisive performance by this penalty specialist at his old stomping ground would be a further step in the right direction.