Kylian Mbappé is already established as one of the greatest forwards in the world. He became Monaco’s youngest ever player, and soon after their youngest ever goalscorer, during the 2015/16 season. Since then, and following a €180m transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 at only 18 years of age, Mbappé has won four Ligue 1 titles, two cup competitions and the World Cup in four full seasons as a professional. Few players reach the heights he has in an entire career: Mbappé isn’t a superstar in the making – he is already right at the very top of the game.
Paris Saint-Germain, 2017–
On a rudimentary level, Mbappé is such a fearsome striker because of his searing pace and lethal finishing – a combination that will remain, no matter how football evolves, of huge value. Those raw aspects of his game were the reason he broke through at Monaco aged just 16, breaking Thierry Henry’s record as the youngest player in their history in the process.
The comparisons with Henry don’t end there. In his first full season, Mbappé scored many of his goals following a turnover and a straight ball behind the opposition’s back line for him to run on to. Though he played largely as a centre-forward, his inclination – much like Henry’s – was to pull to the left, cut in and finish across the goalkeeper with his right foot (below).
Though this has never been the extent of his talents, it does give an indication of the type of player he is. He likes to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and give them a constant worry about him getting in behind – perhaps inevitably, as a result only two players were caught offside more times per game in the 2019/20 Ligue 1 season than Mbappé. Defenders are terrified of stepping up too high, because there is no player on the planet capable of catching him.
He has also become one of the world’s most composed finishers, offering an array of tricks when he gets one-on-one with a goalkeeper. If he is under pressure from a chasing defender, Mbappé elongates his stride before executing his finish, giving him more time to assess the goalkeeper’s position. If he has more time, he will shorten his stride so that his shot is taken more quickly and is therefore harder for the goalkeeper to read. He also has the skill to feint a shot and dribble around the goalkeeper in a similar manner to that of another World Cup winner – the great Brazilian, Ronaldo.
Mbappé is also such an adept dribbler that it is almost as risky to drop off and allow him space to receive the ball to feet and turn. There are few players in world football more frightening in a one-on-one situation. If he has space to run into, a simple push-and-run will likely leave his opponent for dead; when he has less space, he can change direction quickly. Only two players averaged more successful dribbles per game in Ligue 1 in 2019/20 than Mbappé – club teammate Neymar and Dijon’s Mounir Chouiar, who between them scored fewer than Mbappé’s 18 goals. He is so much more than just a finisher.
Role at Paris Saint-Germain
Mbappé tends to play as the furthest player forward in whatever formation PSG manager Thomas Tuchel opts for. He generally shifts between a 4-2-2-2 shape, with Mbappé up front alongside Mauro Icardi, and a 4-3-3 formation in which Mbappé usually plays through the middle, although he has also started wide on the left. He is more comfortable on the left side of the attack to the point that, even when he plays as a central striker, he tends to drift out to that flank in search of space.
Mbappé is not only lightning quick across the ground, he also shows more speed of thought than most defenders. He spots opportunities before his opponents sense danger, and strikes before they have a chance to react. Take his goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League round of 16 in February 2019 (above). As soon as Juan Bernat played to Ángel Di María on the left, Mbappé spotted his chance and set off. In the blink of an eye, he motored past central defenders Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf to reach the end of Di María’s cross to score from close range.
As teams have become wiser to his significant threats, and his pace alone has become easier to predict, Mbappé has also added guile to his repertoire. Sharp bursts and changes of direction increasingly play a crucial part in what makes him so lethal in the penalty area. He has built a brilliant understanding with PSG’s main creators, Neymar and Di María, and knows precisely when to make his move when they are on the ball. Both Neymar and Di María created six goals for Mbappé in Ligue 1 in 2019/20 – double that of any other assist-goalscorer combination.
In their French Cup semi final away at Lyon at the beginning of March, PSG comfortably won 5-1. Mbappé had already scored a tap-in from a corner and a second where he beat a defender before finishing when he completed his hat-trick in the final minute with a simple finish after a devastating move in Lyon’s penalty area. At the moment Marco Verratti slipped Neymar in on the left, Mbappé, still a few yards the wrong side of the last line of defence, set off (above). He ghosted around Rafael and into the space right in front of goal to meet Neymar’s square pass.
That curving of his run around the back – and out of the line of sight – of a defender is typical of Mbappé. The pace, the intelligence and the ultimate ease of finish all combine to emphasise how the young French striker is already a truly world-class footballer. The worrying thing for defenders across France, Europe and the world is just how much better he may yet become.