“When I watch him dribble, he’s thinking. He thinks when he plays and that for me is the most important thing in a player. He thinks. He uses his brain.” – Thierry Henry on Kylian Mbappe
If age is but a number, Kylian Mbappe is one of the best footballers in the game today. Even if it weren’t, and you wanted him to show more than his year and a half of consistent top-flight football, it shouldn’t matter. While his technical and tactical gifts are plain to see, the measure of his ability can be summarised thus – he can be whatever player his team or coach needs him to be at any given time and perform at elite-level. There are not many players like this in football today, particularly attacking players. They can be counted on one hand. And Mbappe just turned 19.
Mbappe, in choosing to join Paris last summer, walked into a situation that required he adjust his game, perhaps radically so, to coexist with his new attacking playmates. Neymar had just arrived from Barcelona to take his place on a ready-made Parisian throne, and has been scintillating since arriving, leading, scoring, creating and generally making Ligue 1 his playground. Edinson Cavani, after waiting years for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to vacate the no.9 position has hungrily set about feasting on defences, taking advantage of the creativity and space created by the on-the-ball menace of Neymar and Mbappe. Cavani’s not even giving up penalties, not to speak of his position. And he is Europe’s top scorer across all competitions, so can justify his claims. So, what about Mbappe?
Mbappe’s story has been told, re-told, hashed and re-hashed but it’s worth repeating some nuggets here for context.
- At £165m, he is the second most expensive footballer in history. He was 18 at the time and turned 19 in December 2017
- In 16/17, was involved in a league goal (either scoring or creating) every 65 minutes
- Youngest player in history to score 10 Champions League goals
- First teenager, since Lionel Messi, to be named in top 10 Ballon d’Or (he finished 7th in voting). He is also the youngest player to ever be shortlisted for the award
- In 17/18 so far, has registered 12 goals and 11 assists in 19 French League and Champions League fixtures
He was second to Ngolo Kante in French Player of the Year 2017 voting, and is already considered an indispensable part of the French starting XI going into the 2018 World Cup. The only question is where he should start – he’s capable of playing pretty much anywhere along the midfield and attacking edge (left midfield, left wide forward, striker, supporting striker, right midfield and right wide forward).
Monaco v PSG – adapting his game
With Monaco last season, playing alongside Radamel Falcao, he provided the most accurate Thierry Henry impression since Igwe himself, drifting off to the left wing to find space and causing havoc with his speed and ability on the ball. This season in Paris, with Cavani and Neymar, he plays off the right side of the field, sometimes as a high and wide forward, other times as a right-sided midfielder. His output has not wavered – in fact, he is surpassing last season’s performances. While his 8 assists in Ligue 1 last season was impressive, he has really come to the fore as a creative force this year in a role that is more obviously about creating space and chances for his more established attacking partners.
It’s worth noting the ease with which he has slotted into this Paris side. Last season, Monaco played a predominantly counter-attacking style – he excelled, always finding space down the channels to sprint into, or behind defences to either glance headers in or apply his already-elite finishing touch. At Paris, currently second to Manchester City in the European club possession charts, he spends more time on the ball, attempting nearly three times the number of passes he was attempting at Monaco in 16/17. Paris also encounters more teams playing lower blocks than Mbappe faced at Monaco, the result being constricted space and less room to play in in the final third of the pitch. Rather than struggle, he has blossomed. His close control is remarkable, even if he is all legs. He can beat a defender going outside with his pace, or coming inside with his ability to deceive and evade. His speed, over short and long distances, takes some getting used to. He dribbles in tight spaces with short and nimble steps, but expands his loping legs to eat up ground faster than recovering defenders when counter-attacking. He loves a fake shot, ala-Henry, but also fancies a stepover or two. He’s employed the Ronaldo chop, both as an evasive tactic, but also routinely to execute passes (and make goals) because he’s just having fun. There isn’t much he can’t do on the ball.
And he’s currently doing all this playing as a right footed right sided midfielder/winger. Somehow, in this age of inverted wingers, the best wide forward in Europe (not named Neymar) is not playing on the wrong wing. Why though? As Thierry Henry said, he thinks; he is always thinking. Take Paris’ trouncing of Bayern in the Champions League group stage. While Neymar was man of the match, Mbappe was not far behind. With Bayern dominant in possession, Mbappe had fewer touches and fewer passes than what he has averaged per game at Paris – which meant fewer opportunities to make an impact. He took the opportunity to re-announce himself to Europe with a performance of astounding efficiency maturity. He has a gift, one that only very few have – the ability to simply situations on the pitch, balancing safety and risk in a manner that belies his age. His bamboozling of Alaba in the lead up to Neymar’s goal was delicious, but his assist for Cavani’s goal, receiving the ball, waiting and playing the perfect pass into the Uruguayan’s stride spoke of his ability to do the simple things simply. Even Neymar, for all his gifts, for a long time retained an individualistic, almost selfish, streak to his football identity that meant that team decision-making was regularly sacrificed on the altar of self-indulgence and gratification.
More recently, Mbappe provided another reminder of his talent against Caen in Ligue 1. Beating three players with a combination of body feints, quick feet and sprinter’s pace, he then delivered the perfect cross to Cavani who converted with an exquisite flick of his heel. Mbappe is making the absurd look normal, with end-product to match.
Surprisingly, his finishing this season is the one aspect of his game that has suffered. While this could be because he’s being asked to do more on the pitch than he did at Monaco last season, it is probably because playing on a better team, with more opportunities to express himself and ‘enjoy’ has led to lapses in focus and concentration in critical moments. Additionally, he is not the primary scorer – there’s Neymar and Cavani before him. Some matches come to mind – the trouncing of Anderlecht in the Champions League (in Belgium) was pockmarked by some awful misses, while his return to Monaco was littered with poor decisions and even poorer finishing (chalk that down to nerves, perhaps). While this dip cannot be ignored, particularly given his stellar conversion rate of 30% last season, his finishing ability is well-documented – he just needs to stay switched on all the time.
A Tale of Two Captains
When Johan Cruyff predicted that one of Neymar and Messi could leave Barcelona, many found it difficult to envisage. In his view, two captains (and by two captains, he meant two players that are, if not ball-dominant, naturally placed to lead their teams) could not co-exist for long because one’s star would inevitably start to shrink the room needed for another’s to grow. He suggested that Messi be sold to make room for Neymar – Neymar is younger, after all. However, Barcelona’s reality, with its La Masia core retiring or ageing, meant this was likely never going to happen, particularly with its spotty record of getting consistent and prolonged excellence out of Brazilian stars (compare this to Lionel Messi’s almost mechanical consistent genius). In Neymar’s time at Barcelona, he was a winger, then became a true wide forward, almost Pedroesque in his off the ball movement, before gradually taking on a more creative role in the team. In the 2nd half of his 4 years at Barcelona, it was not unusual for Neymar to have more touches of the ball than Messi, who was more than happy to share the limelight (partly due to increased freedom but also partly because he’s more self-indulgent). But it wasn’t enough, playing second fiddle to Messi, even as grateful as he is for Messi’s guidance.
Paris may end up having a Two-Captains conundrum, that is if Neymar and Mbappe are together that long. In Joon Lee’s excellent Mbappe feature for Bleacher Report, Antonio Ricardi, one of Mbappe’s first coaches, opines that he is “sure Mbappe can be better than Neymar in two years.” It is difficult to see this either happening at Paris, or being acknowledged at Paris, while Neymar remains. Right now, there is no doubt that Neymar is the technical leader, the player that commands the most touches and the most attention. He goes where he chooses on the pitch and how he interacts with his teammates, almost without reproach. Mbappe’s talent and rapid progression means that, very soon, his gifts will need room to be a captain. Right now, he thoroughly enjoys playing with Neymar, learning in training, exchanging tricks and flicks, 1-2s and assists, but he is also individually ambitious; after all, his idol is Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mbappe and Neymar will not last very long as a partnership, certainly not as long as Messi and Neymar lasted. While Neymar is the older of the two, he is a more self-indulgent spirit than Messi is, which means that as Mbappe’s influence on the team grows, it is likely Mbappe will be forced to seek his own kingdom or Neymar will depart for pastures anew.
Mbappe is the best teenage footballer football has seen since Lionel Messi. His precocity is only surpassed by fantasies of how bright his star, once fully developed, could be. Before every match, he has a lollipop in his mouth, looking every bit the teenager that he is. He looks like he’s having fun because he really is – the game comes so easily to him, physically, tactically and technically. Will he be one of the best footballers on the planet? He already is. Let’s hope he continues to remain interested in being so.