Adam White

Running The Show

Adam White
Running The Show

This article also featured in the 2018 GFFN 100

1998 was a triumphant year for French football. In July, Amie Jacquet’s team united a fractious nation in winning their home World Cup with a typical panache and sparked wild celebrations on the Champs Elysees. Five months later Paris witnessed another potentially momentous event, although unheralded at the time. Kylian Mbappe Lottin was born. This summer divisions were again briefly eased as Les Bleus became World Champions for the second time, instigating similar scenes of joy. This time, however, Kylian Mbappe was at their centre, still just 19. Trophy in hand.

While Les Bleus World Cup triumph remains an overtly collective success; the harmony bred by Deschamps, the defensive solidity, each star forward producing when needed all being crucial, but there remains a sense that Russia 2018 was Mbappe's tournament. Although Luka Modric took the Golden Ball, it's the teenage Frenchman's contributions that will be replayed over the decades ahead.

Mbappe often proved decisive. Pivotally so to win an entropic second round tie with Argentina - perhaps the only occasion when Deschamps stoic back five couldn't be relied upon as a primary or secondary means of success; Benjamin Pavard’s goal aside. Mbappe's chest-out, freighttrain of a run to win an early penalty, his loping gazelle-like stride blurred, remains perhaps the enduring image of Russia 2018. A clever nutmeg and arrowed shot under Franco Armani and a confident finish to an exacting team move was enough to quash a late Argentine stirring.

Despite flashes of his illusive best, the narrow semi final defeat of Belgium hinted at what has become an increasingly evident trend this year as the happy-go-lucky and boyish grin of the teenage Mbappe at Monaco morphed into the superstar celebrity brand, albeit not deliberately on his part,  he is today as petty late gamesmanship brought a needless booking. A minor incident, but a jarring departure nonetheless. Fortunately, there was no need for Gazza-esque crocodile tears.

Another emphatic finish in the Moscow rain to effectively seal French victory a few days later, Mbappe's fourth goal of the tournament - only Golden Boot winner Harry Kane more prolific, drew parallels with Brazil’s Pele lead victory at Sweden 58, remarkably just 17 at the time; two year's Mbappe's junior. At first glance, likening Mbappe's achievements to Pele's may seem hyperbolic, however it’s likely that as the 2018 World Cup recedes into memory, Mbappe’s tournament will stand alongside other greats in the context of the world game.

While many emerging talents suffer through the ‘new-(insert past national great here)’ prefix, such declarations have been less of an issue with Mbappe. Although comparisons with Thierry Henry's pace, deft touch and flare are clear, as are the (potentially) unerring finishing and alarming change of the direction of a young Ronaldo Nazario, Mbappe's talent is such, his ceiling so high, that he has the potential to set himself apart from fellow footballing greats. Maybe he already has.

Having won the tournament's best young player and emerged as Russia’s headline act, the experience has had a noticeable effect on Mbappe. Although already the world's second most expensive player with a glittering career stretching out before him, since the summer there has been a sense that Mbappe has embraced his status and future in the game. Although the fearlessness of youth has perpetually been an ally until this point, the joyous World Cup win and his performances in doing so has nudged the Frenchman’s displays on even further. Mbappe recognises his responsibility for club, country and perhaps even beyond, and has welcomed it.

Nevertheless, the blossoming of his talent hasn’t been quite as simple as a 180m euro transfer and World Cup winners medal would suggest. Although the previous domestic season under Unai Emery, his first in Paris, was successful on the whole, there remained a feeling that, partly due to such lofty expectations, Mbappe had at best plateaued, even regressed somewhat. Although there remained a handful of memorable performances, a Champions League dismantling of Bayern Munich’s David Alaba at the Parc des Princes being one, rhythm and verve weren't always evident.

Thirteen league goals remains respectable but considering ubiquitous nature of Parisien dominance, the vision of those in support, Angel Di Maria, Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti loading the chamber, and that this tally only matched Moussa Konate of a defensive Amiens while falling two short of the perennially wayward Nolan Roux from bottom side Metz, the shine diminishes a little.

Clear goal scoring chances were regularly missed, occasionally woefully, alongside the unerringly emphatic strikes reminiscent of his previous league winning campaign at Monaco. While such devastating form was always going to be difficult to maintain, the slight drop off was surprising if not alarming. To say his confidence was affected or that he was overawed having been thrust into the midst of a collection of superstars he grew up watching would be a stretch but an adaptation period was understandably required.

Last term an obvious deference to Neymar, admittedly from the entire PSG squad save Edinson Cavani, became a little suffocating. Mbappe being the main culprit of passing up his own chance to shoot or a simple ball to a better placed teammate (usually Cavani) to play a lower percentage pass to the Brazilian. As Mbappe told L'equipe in the summer: "Neymar is our leader, we try to help him.”

After Russia, all that changed. Mbappe has never been slight but he returned border and more powerful, seemingly eager to embrace the more physical side of Ligue 1 football. After the World Cup Final, Mbappe had to with until the trip to Guingamp in mid August for his next outing. A goal down, and lucky not to be further behind, Thomas Tuchel threw Mbappe on at half time, an exuberant brace from the 19 year old won the game late on after Neymar’s penalty had equalized. A neat side foot finish for the first followed by lightning acceleration to beat Christophe Kerbrat and nonchalantly dink the ball over Karl-Johan Johnsson for the second carried a feeling of the unstoppable.

Not for the first time this season Mbappe appeared to be comfortably superior to everyone else on the pitch, including his expensively assembled teammates. As Eden Hazard said he “has continued to walk on water” since Russia. Even his ‘Neymar is our leader’ rhetoric softened, telling BeIN in October this was a club edict. "The club has chosen its leader, that's Neymar. For the moment, at PSG, it’s not in the question that I should be the leader. The club has chosen." Before later stating: "A great team needs leaders, I can fulfil that role."

Mbappe’s impressive volley from a Di Maria cross had punctuated a home win over Angers before PSG travelled to a free-wheeling promoted Nimes. A rumbustious encounter underlined the effervescent ability of the young Frenchman but also a more petulant side seen against Belgium.

When breaking through at Monaco Mbappe was, aside from his explosive performances, correctly portrayed as down to earth, just a grounded kid enjoying his football. His father remains integral to the managing of his career while his folded arms celebration comes from younger brother Ethan who beats Kylian at FIFA. Despite the praise Mbappe the individual and Mbappe the footballer received, the move to Paris was potentially problematic for a young man of just 18.

A sense of entitlement has become ingrained at PSG since their QSI instigated dominance began in 2011. Initially perpetuated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s unique brand of self-confidence, a cliquey squad has become accustomed to having it their way. Guingamp’s Coupe de France triumph of May 2014 was the last time anyone, other than Monaco’s Mbappe inspired 2016/17 Ligue 1 title, stopped the Capital Club from winning any of the three domestic trophies.

Over-confidence has bred, on occasion, a sneering arrogance. As underlined by Dani Alves’ comment that he “couldn’t tell you a name of a single Marseille player” before Le Classique last season and Adrien Rabiot’s toy-throwing over not being included in Deschamps World Cup. “I am part of the French culture” he insisted in a statement despite just 6 underwhelming senior caps.

Perpetual Parisien entitlement added to Neymar’s partying image, the pair becoming fast friends, has had an affect on Mbappe. Aside from the pair seemingly isolating Cavani, in November Neymar and Mbappe exchanged 22 passes on average per game compared just 3 with Cavani, instances of arguments with opposition and referees have increased as has showboating while Mbappe was benched by Thomas Tuchel ahead of Le Classique for arriving late to a team meeting. This attitude was underlined as the teenager raced away from Nimes midfielder Teji Savanier at Stade de la Costieres.

Having already made sure of three Paris points, Mbappe’s impeccable chest control and rasping finish had halted a spirited Nimes fightback, Savanier tripped Mbappe to halt a dangerous counter. Seemingly a fairly innocuous and common incident, Savanier expecting the obligatory yellow card, Mbappe angrily shoved Savanier to the floor and was promptly dismissed, receiving a three game suspension. Bewilderingly, despite admitting he would have to “be above it”, Mbappe complained in the aftermath that he “cannot tolerate” such treatment, that he does “not regret” his action and would “do it again.”

Savanier, ludicrously sent off himself and unfathomable given a 5 game ban - likely as a direct result of the ensuing furore, pointed out that “if he continues like this, he’s going to see a lot of red cards this season.” This incident, paired with Mbappe’s first Paris red in a cup tie with Rennes, where he scraped his studs down Ismailia Sarr’s calf and left the field complaining the he had received similar treatment that had gone unpunished, underline a more sullen and irascible side to Mbappe which has emerged since joining PSG. Although this remains of lesser concern for now, how the joyful Monaco Mbappe develops as an individual, lest we forget his age, be crucial factor as his career develops.

It seems almost farcical that Kylian Mbappe only turned 20 in mid December but his senior career to date reads 150 games, 73 goals and 40 assists having won every French domestic honour and a World Cup winners medal. Having won the Trophée Kopa in December, the Ballon d’Or’s young player award, placing fourth for the main award, Mbappe said: “This is award just makes me hungrier to go on and achieve more. My next aim is to lift absolutely every trophy.” While further trophies, notably the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or, are yet to be captured, the Mbappe’s career goals are perhaps less tangible.

Assuming he can avoid the disastrous injuries of Ronaldo Nazario, what will ultimately shape the Frenchman’s career will be adding to a burgeoning list of defining moments. His barrelling run against Argentina may soon sit alongside images of Diego Maradona surrounded by Belgians at Mexico 1986, Pele’s volley in the 1958 final and Johan Cruyff’s 1974 turn against Sweden. While there remains many barriers to the success Mbappe is capable off - injury, attitude, form - what he could win is perhaps immaterial, even inevitable, rather it’s what he could do that may come to define him. The Champs Elysee won’t be quiet for long.

by Adam White