This feature on Kylian Mbappe first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!
It’s been a long season for Kylian Mbappe. Ask him, and he feels like he’s played non-stop for the past two years. Considering that there were only 28 days between last season’s Champions League final defeat against Bayern Munich and Mbappe’s first appearance of the new campaign – already delayed for three games because he contracted coronavirus at the beginning of September – you can see his point.
The 22-year-old has played a lot, scored a lot, won a lot and even lost a fair bit as well. But everything can change now. If Paris Saint-Germain’s young superstar leads France to Euro 2020 glory this July, the perception of his entire being will shift: his performances, his season, his impact on French football... his place in world football’s pantheon of modern greats. In a year where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are nowhere near favourites for the Ballon d’Or, Mbappe still has a huge card to play.
As a big basketball and NBA fan, Mbappe knows he is now entering the money time of the season – his season. The tyro will approach this summer’s tournament with huge ambition and hunger, but with far more responsibility than in 2018 when he was a gifted 19-year-old eyed with childlike affection.
Kylian Mbappe. That's it, that's the tweet. pic.twitter.com/C9ejxkakq7February 16, 2021
Things are considerably different now. Mbappe is one of the top five or 10 (depending on who you ask) players in the world. He is France’s most important squad member, the darling of Ligue 1, loved by fans at home and all around the world. He is now a genuine world-class forward, not merely the talented teenager with everything ahead of him. He has matured and established himself among football’s royalty. Now, he just has to deliver another historic double for Les Bleus, like Zinedine Zidane & Co did back in 1998 and 2000. ‘Just’...
This might not be an issue for him, though. For most of his career so far, Mbappe has proved himself as the perfect big-game player. Since his maiden Champions League start for Monaco – against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in February 2017 – when he was barely 18, the thrilling Parisian has usually thrived on the grandest occasions.
Remember him scoring in every Champions League knockout round except the final that season: both legs of the last 16 against City; in each quarter-final clash against Borussia Dortmund – twice at Signal Iduna Park; and in the semi-final second leg against Juventus.
Remember when he tore Argentina apart at the 2018 World Cup, becoming the youngest player ever to score two goals in the same knockout match. Remember his goal in the final against Croatia, emulating (if not quite surpassing) a 17-year-old Pele for Brazil in the 1958 showpiece.
Remember months later in October 2018, when he scored four times in 13 devastating minutes against Lyon in Ligue 1. He wasn’t even 20 then. Remember earlier this campaign, and his sumptuous hat-trick at the Camp Nou to crush Barcelona in the Champions League last 16; then his brilliant brace in Munich against Bayern in the next round, where the whizz-kid simply looked unstoppable.
Of course, there are exceptions – matches where he disappeared and disappointed; where he was well marked and couldn’t help his team win.
The biggest let-down of all was last August in Lisbon. For the first Champions League final of his career, although he wasn’t fully fit, Mbappe had the opportunity to win it for PSG against Bayern. Instead, he missed his big opportunity just before half-time, when his shot inside the penalty box went straight at Manuel Neuer. It could all have been so different had he scored. Since then, Mbappe has sworn to himself that he will never finish on the losing side in a final.
Almost a year on from that heartbreaking setback, the boyish assassin has another chance to do something special at Euro 2020. If France are joint favourites to triumph at Wembley, it’s not only because they’re the reigning world champions – it’s also because they have Mbappe upfront. As a team, there hasn’t been much progress from 2018 for Les Bleus: Didier Deschamps dabbled with a couple of new systems during the Nations League and 2022 World Cup qualifiers, using a back three and a diamond midfield. Both times, he quickly reverted to the 4-4-2 that made France the best in the world.
They are still solid and pragmatic. Adrien Rabiot has replaced Blaise Matuidi on the left of midfield, Presnel Kimpembe has taken Samuel Umtiti’s spot in central defence, while Kingsley Coman is back in contention – as is Ousmane Dembele. The old guard, including the captain Hugo Lloris, Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko, remain. There may be a few new faces in the squad, most notably the rehabilitation of Karim Benzema from the international wilderness, but there will be one huge difference: Mbappe is no longer a right winger as he was in Russia three years ago. Deschamps has moved him centrally, either alongside Antoine Griezmann or supporting Giroud or Benzema as a focal point. Either way, Mbappe will wear the No.10 jersey as France’s main man, like some of the legends before him.
“That’s the normal evolution, though,” says former France defender Frank Leboeuf. “He started on the wing, like Thierry Henry, but he was destined to be a centre-forward and lead the team from there. He’s so talented that Didier Deschamps had to make his side evolve to suit him and fit around him almost. Even in a team featuring Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane or Antoine Griezmann, Mbappe has to be your main asset.”
If needed, he can always play wide again, like he does regularly at PSG. But regardless of his position, Mbappe is now at the heart of everything for France. He has far fewer defensive responsibilities, because the team relies on him more than ever at the other end. He’s the preferred option with the ball – everything is focused on finishing with him, whether he plays with Griezmann or Giroud. Or potentially now Benzema.
That’s not to say everything has been perfect for him on the international scene this season, however. The 22-year-old didn’t score in any of France’s games against Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Sweden, with Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine in particular deploying a special anti-Mbappe plan. Each time he picked up possession, two or three opponents quickly shut him down, as if in an especially zealous game of hungry hippos. His impact was minimal and Ukraine’s trap worked, earning them a 1-1 draw in Paris.
In Ligue 1, Monaco had done the same thing a few days earlier. Les Monegasques suffocated their former prodigy at every turn, enforcing a stranglehold which snuffed out his threat in a 2-0 loss for PSG that severely dented their title hopes.
Mbappe will know exactly what might be coming again this summer. France’s Group F opponents are infamously strong, but their star man and his manager will have to adapt and find different solutions. Thankfully, Les Bleus are hardly short of the star quality that might enjoy the extra space, but there’s no doubt that taking out Mbappe weakens their cause substantially.
But this is what happens with the very best: special treatment has awaited that kind of player for decades, and the Parisian knows it. It’s the greatest compliment of all. Mbappe has always wanted to be the biggest star; the player who opposition defences fear the most. Getting used to the added attention, and keeping a cool head when the going gets tough, is part of the journey.
Ex-France and Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires, who now commentates on France’s matches for television, has watched Mbappe develop significantly in the last few years.
“He was a prodigy at 17,” he explains to FFT. “I can still remember the first time I saw him play at such a young age – I couldn’t believe it. He’s always had so much maturity, awareness and intelligence, but he’s improved these qualities even more. He’s stronger now physically but also more confident.
“Of course, opponents will be tougher on him now; more aggressive; more prepared. They will have studied his game and all his qualities, but he’ll get over it and continue his rise to the top. He really is that good.”
To win the Ballon d’Or, it’s not just enough to do well on the domestic or even European scenes. Rightly or wrongly, international football always counts more when there’s a big tournament on. If Mbappe were to win Euro 2020, three years after his key role in Russia, having reached a Champions League final and semi-final in the space of a year, after a third straight season of 30+ goals in all competitions… who can stop him from winning football’s greatest individual prize?
The competition will be as fierce as ever: Messi and Ronaldo haven’t had memorable campaigns with their clubs, but the Copa America and Euros still lie ahead. If Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias or Bruno Fernandes can inspire Belgium or Portugal respectively to success after European finals, they will be in contention. Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski broke Gerd Muller's 49-year-old Bundesliga record in firing 41 league goals (plus a further seven in all competitions), after a similarly unforgiving 2019 when he should have won the prize but for its coronavirus-induced hiatus.
Having already endured major heartache once this season, as an injured bystander in the Champions League semi-finals against Manchester City, this is another monumental summer for Mbappe. Regardless of whether he wins the Ballon d’Or, his popularity both home and abroad is greater than ever. He has recently passed 50 million followers on Instagram, dwarfing French team-mates Pogba and Griezmann. On Twitter, he’s fast approaching six million followers, making himself an irresistible commodity for hungry sponsors desperate for a piece of the action. Everybody loves him – but at 22, Mbappe’s global standing would explode if he became the king of Europe too.
Get it right, and it doesn’t even feel like an exaggeration to think that an entire decade of dominance could await him. Messi and Ronaldo’s days of passing the prize between one another appear to be over, and with Erling Haaland having the disadvantage of representing Norway, Mbappe may well own the whole kingdom soon enough. He will only continue to improve, and the terrifying thing is that there is still plenty of room for it. He needs to work on his finishing, on his game with his back to goal, and on his heading. Mbappe must learn to be effective in games when the space to run into doesn’t exist.
But that will all come. Already, the PSG man is so much better than the player who took the World Cup by storm in 2018: more complete, more experienced, more focused. “He’s the most decisive player for us,” said his 2020/21 PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino. “It’s unthinkable to not have him.”
Didier Deschamps and France share such sentiments. Not for the first time, Mbappe can prove decisive for Les Bleus in winning their coveted World Cup-Euros double. And the prospect of losing again, on the biggest stage of all? That’s just unthinkable.
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