Le50 2017 – Kylian Mbappé

Mbappe ASM

The idea of Le50 was always meant to be to introduce the world to little known up-and-coming youngsters who were about to break into the big time. Perhaps even a 17- or 18-year-old starlet who, though far too young to be able to say for sure, might with a good headwind make it as an international. It was not meant to be to write about arguably the most in-demand footballer in the world right now. Kylian Mbappe continues to rip up the rulebook.

Born in Paris in December 1998, Mbappe had sport in his genes, his dad being a football coach and his mum a handball player. Quickly talent-spotted and brought into France’s renowned Clairefontaine academy, word of Mbappe’s potential spread far enough that he was invited, aged 11, to play in an academy match for Chelsea against Charlton. Three years later, aged just 14, Chelsea showed fleeting interest again and Real Madrid made their first concerted effort to sign him. But it was Monaco who had already convinced the phenomenon to come down south and remain in the French system.

The buzz around him was such that when he made his first professional appearance for Monaco – a two-minute run-out against Caen a week before his 17th birthday – he was already a familiar name to many. That appearance broke the record for youngest Monaco debutant, bettering a mark held by Thierry Henry – hardly the last time the two would be compared. Just a week later, he made his first European appearance, setting up a consolation goal for Stephan El Shaarawy in a 4-1 defeat at Tottenham. When, in February 2016, Mbappe scored his first professional goal against Troyes, it was Henry’s record for youngest scorer that had been broken.

In March he signed his first professional contract and, after finishing the season with a total of 14 appearances for only 500 minutes, one goal and two assists, he set off to Germany with the France under-19 squad for the European Championships.

Three weeks later and Mbappe’s renown had been ratcheted up a notch. Forming a lethal partnership with 6-goal top scorer Jean-Kevin Augustin, Mbappe – playing two age groups above his level – scored five goals as France won the title, romping home in the final with a 4-0 victory over Italy. Although Mbappe didn’t score (he had hit a match-winning brace and set up the other in France’s 3-1 semi-final win), he provided the moment of the final, his audacious sombrero move over his marker from tight on the touchline, followed by a perfect second touch to kill the ball and then a devilish cross, leading to France’s fourth.

The 2016/17 season began with Falcao and Valère Germain set to be Monaco’s regular starting strikers and rumours that Mbappe’s family were unhappy at the prospect of limited playing time. They needn’t have worried.

The first half of the season was, in view of what was to come, relatively quiet. Three short substitute appearances in the Champions League group stages. Eleven Ligue 1 appearances: 3 goals and an impressive six assists. And one Coupe de la Ligue appearance – and the first hat-trick of his career, in a 7-0 win over Rennes.

Then 2017 happened.

At this point it might be easier just to list stats.

Ligue 1: 18 appearances: 12 goals (including another hat-trick, against Metz); 5 assists (including one for Bernardo Silva against Lille after turning Franck Béria inside out – Béria’s retirement at the end of the season may not be unconnected).

Champions League: 6 appearances (against Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus): 6 goals. The first player to score in his first four Champions League knock-out matches. The youngest player to score five Champions League goals. A goal against (and a friendly pat on the head from) Gianluigi Buffon.

Already ahead of Antoine Griezmann and only two behind Zinedine Zidane in the list of best French goalscorers in Champions League knock-out stages.

Coupe de France: 3 appearances: 2 goals, 3 assists.

At one point at the end of April he had scored 18 goals in 18 appearances for the calendar year.

2016/2017 Young Player of the Year.

2016/2017 Ligue 1 champion.

His career total stands at 27 goals and 16 assists in 58 club matches, meaning that he is directly involved in a goal every 72 minutes. He is 18. EIGHTEEN.

Internationally he has unsurprisingly totally bypassed France’s U20s and U21s, jumping straight into the full squad, his debut against Luxembourg making him the second youngest France international in history. His four caps, two as starter, have like everything else been taken in his stride, and in his most recent appearance he and Ousmane Dembele terrorised England’s defence all match before combining for the Dortmund man to score the winner late on.

It is hard to pinpoint a strength (or more to the point a weakness) in Mbappe’s game. He has everything. Strength and speed. All the tricks, used to effect rather than just for show. Stunning close control and dribbling ability. Confidence. A powerful shot from either foot. Accurate shooting and calmness in front of goal. An excellent sense of positioning – not only his own but also an awareness of his teammates’. Hard working and willing to track back to help his team when not in possession. His running off the ball is far more advanced than can be reasonably expected for one so young.

And perhaps most important is that – so far – he has managed to keep his feet on the ground. Always willing to stop in the mixed zone for a short post-match interview, his ability calmly and eruditely to analyse the match in its immediate aftermath, whether after a victory or a defeat, would make Rudyard Kipling beam.

If one had to find weaknesses, he could perhaps learn to use his body strength more (Thiago Silva bullied him in the Coupe de la Ligue final) and maybe – like Henry – he could be more clinical in the air.

Mbappe already seems to be the full package, the only unknown being how he will react to adversity, if it ever comes. He hasn’t yet experienced a goal drought. He hasn’t yet had to contend with media criticism, intrusion into his private life or jealous teammates (although there are rumours that the Monaco squad has been a little unsettled by the transfer rumours surrounding him). Indeed, this summer’s transfer saga, with Arsenal, Liverpool and particularly Real Madrid and PSG making a big play for him, may well affect his thus far carefree attitude, wherever he ends up – and with a World Cup coming up it will be important that he feels comfortable and settled wherever that may be. To date, at any rate, he has passed every test that has come his way with flying colours.

All football fans have been privileged to see Mbappe appear on the scene over the last twelve months. If he continues to progress at his current rate, we could look back on the past year as the early days of one of the greatest of all time.

Jeremy Smith

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