Kylian Mbappe is treading a path familiar to many young French footballers. From a beginning as a player at AS Bondy, also his hometown, to the Champions League with AS Monaco with a spell at the prestigious Clairefontaine academy thrown in for good measure. The young forward has been equipped with the tools to succeed from an early age.
Monaco are of course no strangers to fleet footed wide players having been the club that launched the career of Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry. As with Mbappe the young Henry started his career as a wide player with the capacity to cut inside towards goal. Henry would of course go on to spend the bulk of his career as a central forward with the freedom to operate from the left hands side and drift in. Mbappe has all of the pre requisite tools to do the same.
He made his professional debut in December 2015 and became the youngest player ever to play for Monaco, eclipsing the record set by? That’s right, Thierry Henry.
Mbappe is yet to establish himself as a regular first team player and is instead gaining minutes as a substitute where he can use his electric pace to threaten tired defenders. It is surely though only a matter of time before he is a regular part of the first team.
With Manchester United having fairly recently paid Monaco upwards of £30M to secure the signature of Anthony Martial (another quick left footed attacker) it comes as no surprise that Mbappe is being monitored by a number of Premier League sides including Chelsea and Arsenal. He certainly has the attributes required to thrive in English football, raw pace coupled with the capacity to attack a defender on the inside or outside and a sound knowledge of how to create and exploit space.
There are however still raw edges including his ability to link in with other players and his composure when through on the goalkeeper but these are natural weaknesses that we often see in a player so young.
Intelligence on the ball
The aforementioned Clairefontaine academy was for a long time thought to be responsible for the high numbers of French footballers that went on to become valued professionals with their clubs. There is a certain degree of merit in that but credit must also go to the cultural environment in which many young French players still grow.
The art of street football, and be clear on this it is an art, has all but died out in many Western European countries with the distractions of technology and the rise of heavily controlled indoor football there are less youngsters out on the street trying to deal with the challenges that football on the streets presents.
In France however that is not wholly the case. Street football still exists in many French cities and towns and is fiercely competitive. It is from this environment that the latest line of skilful young French footballers have emerged. Kinglsey Coman and Ousmane Dembele are impressing in Germany with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund respectively and Kylian Mbappe may well be the next off of the production line.
Here Mbappe is in action against the Netherlands for the French youth side. He has held the width of the field and effectively isolated his opposing full back in a one on one situation. It is in these situations that Mbappe excels. He has the capability to attack either side of the isolated defender at speed to go down the touchline where he will usually narrow off the angle and cut back from the corner of the penalty area or to drive infield in to the central areas forcing the defensive block to adjust and counter his threat.
Players that have no specifically defined tendencies in these situations are extremely difficult for the opposition to prepare for.
The full back advancing from the deeper position will purely be used as a decoy by Mbappe as he rarely uses the overlap to play through the wide areas. This lack of team play is something that should be rectified in the short term to force the opposition players to account for three specific threats when he has the ball in the wide areas.
Here Mbappe has picked up possession in a more narrow area of the pitch with the left full back again offering width on the left hand side. Instead of playing wide and in to the area already occupied Mbappe attacks the immediate defender down the right hands side and drives centrally with the ball.
He does not stop there and engages the covering defender and also beats him in the same movement. In a matter of seconds Mbappe has taken three defensive players out of the game and has given his side a significant advantage whilst offering them an advanced platform from which to attack.
Understanding of movement and space
One of the key characteristics necessary for a young player to play in a modern forward line at the top level is the ability to identify and exploit space.
Static attacking players no longer have as much success against defences that are more nuanced in their approach to the defensive phase of the game. The capacity to move in and out of space and to use movement to create space for other players around you is incredibly important today.
Kylian Mbappe has shown in flashes during his albeit brief professional career that he understands space and that he enjoys moving from the wide areas to receive the ball centrally with the greater range of movement options open to him.
Here we see Mbappe playing in the Champions League this season. With the attacking phase of possession progressing centrally he has identified the need to provide an advanced option in a central area for the ball to be played to.
Crucially he is also aware of the movements of the defensive line around him and as the ball is progressed forward he times a curved run perfectly to stay onside and be in a position to attack and capitalise on the space in behind the defensive line.
Many young players in this position would either allow themselves to be caught offside or be attracted towards the ball narrowing the field and making it easier for the opposition to defend.
This time an example of Mbappe playing as a central striker against the Italian youth team. He has again been tactically intelligent enough to recognise that there is space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition and to position himself to take advantage of that.
As he takes possession in space his first thought is not to link backwards to a player moving from deep and instead he turns and drives with the ball towards the penalty area. As the left winger cuts inside Mbappe recognises that and drives towards the right sided centre back who is now at risk of being overloaded.
Pace, power and perception are three key attributes of a generic mobile forward. Mbappe possesses them all in abundance.
An improving sense of when to connect with team mates
It may seem somewhat contradictory to have already spoken above about Mbappe not having a developed understanding of team interplay and how to access advanced areas by passing and moving. This is however a side of the game that we are seeing improve rapidly as Mbappe receives move playing time and it is one of the key building blocks that we need to see in his game.
A player with the attributes of Mbappe should attract increasing amounts of attention of opposition defensive schemes with double teams and covering players likely to be utilised. This should allow Mbappe to play the ball in to free team mates in supporting areas and open up space for his team mates.
The unpredictable nature of his movement when facing a single defender in the wide area will naturally force the opposition to commit extra defenders in to his space to prevent the cut back on to his right foot or the dribble horizontally. This naturally opens up space elsewhere.
Here Mbappe has attracted three defenders towards his side of the pitch and he is able to time the cut back correctly to play in the central player who goes on to score with an unopposed shot.
Here again Mbappe recognises that the correct action is to play the ball to the advanced area on the left hand side where for once he is not the most advanced player. As he plays the ball he then recognises that there is space to exploit between the right back and right sided centre back. This movement is largely a selfless act designed to allow his team mate in possession the chance to isolate and attack the fullback.
Whilst this is an aspect of his game that is not yet fully developed it is encouraging that he is showing progress and a willingness to adapt his game. The speed at which this aspect is improving is surprising for such a young player.
The model at Monaco dictates that the club will develop young players to a point before selling them at a profit and then reinvesting that profit in to the next batch of young players either via internal development or external recruitment.
It seems increasingly likely that Kylian Mbappe will be one of the next players to depart for a large fee. If however he does go on to develop to his full potential then Monaco may well end up regretting letting him leave at such a young age.
He fits the profile of a modern, mobile centre forward. That is likely to be where we seem him play in the next few years, whether that is in the English Premier League remains to be seen.