Twenty minutes into France’s 4–3 victory over Argentina in the World Cup round of 16, Paul Pogba restarted play with a long ball from deep in his own half. He hit the ball with so much venom, and it flew so high, that I didn’t think it had an intended recipient. Who could possibly run that far that quickly to reach the pass?
And then, out of the corner of my television screen, Kylian Mbappé appeared. The 19-year-old Frenchman outpaced Argentina’s entire back line, snatched the ball out of the air with his right boot, and won France a tasty free-kick.
I should’ve known. Just minutes before, he had switched on the afterburners to beat five Argentina defenders and earn a penalty, which Antoine Griezmann coolly converted. It was stunning, and it was only the beginning of an unforgettable two-goal performance from Paris Saint-Germain’s wunderkind. It showcased all Mbappé’s skills. Each mazy run, every delicate touch, and the two assured finishes provided an outline of how the youngster plays and what makes him so special.
Mbappé was born to play football, and he’d be electric in any era. But he is also the perfect forward for the modern game. Strong, jet-heeled and tireless, he’s a willing presser and a counter-attack unto himself. And with the continued rise of lone strikers who drop deep to facilitate play, teams need fast, intelligent runners to attack space in behind.
But Mbappé isn’t just a runner. He combines raw athleticism with Clairefontaine technicality and elite footballing instincts. Like LeBron James in basketball or Connor McDavid in hockey, it’s not the speed alone which sets him apart – it’s the fact he can do things at speed that other players can’t. His take of Pogba’s long ball was ethereal. Every touch on his 70-yard run to draw the penalty was surgically precise.
While some have asked questions about Mbappé, they’ve mainly wondered what his long-term position is. At times he’d looked uncomfortable as a centre-forward both at club level and with France, but it feels like a waste of his goalscoring chops to shun him out to the wing. This World Cup has, in emphatic fashion, assuaged those concerns.
Perhaps as a reward for his diligence tracking back on the right flank, Didier Deschamps has freed Mbappé to wander away from the touchline when France are in possession. His signature run is the diagonal sprint in behind, but he’ll often start more centrally to combine with Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. He’s not a bulky, back-to-goal centre-forward right now, though his strength is deceptive. He’s also not a traditional winger. He’s a sort of long-legged, mercurial inside forward who can fracture an opponent’s defensive shape — something like the lovechild of Usain Bolt and Germany’s Thomas Müller. Perhaps the new-age Thierry Henry.
Mbappé shredded Argentina from that inside right position. On several occasions, he collected the ball just inside La Albiceleste’s half and surged toward the box, leaving the midfield tandem of Javier Mascherano and Éver Banega in his wake.
Those runs are critical for France. Les Bleus sometimes lack connectivity between defence and attack, instead relying on dribblers like Mbappé and Pogba to bypass stubborn midfields. The teenager’s pace in behind will always be a menace for defenders, but at his best, Mbappé can also drag France into dangerous central positions with the ball at his feet. He had seven successful take-ons on Saturday, four more than any other player.
And make no mistake, even if he isn’t a pure striker, Mbappé is still a goalscorer. He’s bagged 46 goals in 100 matches over the last two club seasons – an enviable record for any player, let alone a teenaged non-striker. The Bondy native has, to be fair, fluffed some chances in Ligue 1 and the Champions League over the last year, but his poise in front of goal usually belies his youth. And it will only get better.
His first goal on Saturday came after a Lucas Hernández cross caused a scrum in the middle of the box. Presented with a bouncing ball and facing goal, most young players would lash their foot at it and see their shot blocked. But Mbappé was the most composed man in the penalty area. He caressed the ball away from traffic and buried a strike with his weaker left foot. Four minutes later, he effectively ended the match with a cool, predatory finish into the bottom corner.
The two-goal masterclass reminded many, including myself, of Gareth Bale’s star-making performance against Inter Milan in the 2010/11 Champions League — all pace, power, and peerless potential. It’s not a textbook comparison. The World Cup is, of course, a much bigger stage, and Mbappé is both younger and more established than Bale was in 2010, but it’s the coming of the favourite son.
The Frenchman has spearheaded two Ligue 1 title campaigns in a row. His Champions League run with Monaco in 2017 and the subsequent €180 million move to PSG last summer catapulted him to fame. But the messages from Bale then and Mbappé yesterday were exactly the same: “Now you know.” If the teenager’s club-level exploits had tipped him for a bright future, his star turn against Argentina made clear the future is now. He’s not Les Bleus’ prodigy – he’s their talisman.
Before the Argentina match, most conversant football fans would have listed Mbappé among the best young players in the world. It’s time to drop the “young”.
By Nate Wolf @NateWolfNBA