It’s sometimes easy to forget that this time last year Kylian Mbappé was a relatively unknown AS Monaco youth product, forcing his way into what would later become a Ligue 1 Championship winning team. Mbappé made his first team debut at AS Monaco in late 2015, and scored his first goal for the principality side two months later in a victory over Troyes. But it was in December 2016 when the eyes of the footballing world began to sit up and take notice when a 17-year-old Mbappé scored his first hat-trick in a Coupe de la Ligue tie at home to Rennes.
The young striker then went on to help AS Monaco reach the semi-final of the Champions League as well as claiming a first Ligue 1 title in 17 years. Mbappé forged a deadly strike partnership with Radamel Falcao that some of the meanest defences domestically and in Europe could not cope with. What was most striking was the consistency Mbappé played with; week in, week out, the same remarkable level of performance displaying a level of maturity beyond his tender years.
His touch, speed and finishing as well as his decision making at key moments in big games earned plaudits world-wide. It was like he was playing street football; enjoying himself, having fun and playing without any fear or pressure despite the huge stage he was now plying his talents on.
Mbappé’s exploits earned him a move to boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain this summer with the intention of forming a phenomenal front three combination alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. Mbappé was signed by PSG with the intention of playing the young prodigy on the right side of Cavani; a slightly different role to what was occupied at AS Monaco but he could also fill in for Cavani through the middle when needed. Mbappé was no stranger to playing in a slightly wider position he regularly found himself using the width of the channels to inflict his damage in the principality.
The boy from Paris had an encouraging start and scored on his debut against Metz in September and then again 4 days later in the Champions League at Celtic in a 5-0 rout.
But it was following the win at Celtic in September – which was arguably PSG and Mbappe’s best display so far this season, where for the first time there were sightings of some blemishes creeping into Mbappe’s game that were not so evident previously.
Whilst Mbappé’s energy and self-assurance continued into October’s fixtures, his decision making in the final third was showing signs of fading as apparent in the Ligue 1 encounters at Montpellier and Dijon. Moreover, Mbappé was wasteful in front of goal missing a hatful of straight forward chances; ones that he was effortlessly finishing during his time in Monaco.
Mbappé’s performance improved in the 4-0 Champions League win in Anderlecht where he opened the scoring but extraordinarily began laughing when he missed a straightforward second half chance to kill the game off. A behaviour we have not been accustomed to seeing from him which led to some sections of media brandishing him as “arrogant”.
One week later Mbappé had arguably his poorest game in a PSG shirt in ‘Le Classique’ at Marseille. The ex-Monaco man was once again wasteful, displayed poor decision making and ball retention throughout the game and was rightly replaced late on by Angel Di Maria.
It would be fair to say that it’s been a tough period for Mbappé; probably the first period of prolonged unsatisfactory form so far in his short career. So what has changed?
In short, very little from a playing perspective. Mbappé still receives the ball quickly during transitions where he will either combine in tight spaces with Neymar or take up a wide position and create a scenario where he is one-on-one bearing down on goal; arguably his most dangerous weapon.
Granted he doesn’t take up a natural central position in the first phase of play but he continually finds dangerous positions in the penalty area, as he did for his goal at Celtic, and makes intelligent runs. However, it seems that so many of the attributes he displayed at Monaco and at the very start of his PSG career seem to have disappeared.
Interestingly, Mbappé’s below-par performances have, more often than not, occurred in Ligue 1, where in contrast, his Champions League performances have been very good thus far.
The problem seems to be stemming from a discrepancy in motivation, preparation and performance between the two competitions; something that has been spreading through the squad for a number of seasons.
The fact that this has seemingly already spread to a player that only arrived at the end of August poses a problem that could have implications not just in Ligue 1 but also in the Champions’ League.
But maybe the responsibility for this doesn’t solely fall on the shoulders of Mbappe?
It’s no secret that PSG’s priority is to win the Champions League in response to the huge investment made in within squad. Of course, this will be used a unique selling point to all potential high profile signings but what needs to be communicated is the importance of domestic success and maintaining a set standard that represents the badge and the shirt in every game.
Presently, Mbappé and his team mates can play at 60% in Ligue 1 and still scrape through games but when you don’t have to fight week in, week out and when performance levels fluctuate, this can create a problem in the bigger games particularly in the latter stages of the Champions League where PSG have continually failed to get beyond the quarter-finals. Granted, PSG are unbeaten and four points clear at the top of Ligue 1 but continuing to operate in the same inconsistent fashion will inevitably bring self-enforced difficulties as seen against Marseille recently.
Mbappé will know this better than anyone, as his Monaco team of last season was able to sustain their insatiable level of performance both domestically and in Europe and the he was a key part of that success.
To see him already adopting PSG’s varying way of functioning is disappointing. His influence of last season would have had a much more positive impact on the PSG squad than what seems to be occurring at present.
Therefore, what can Mbappé do to find his feet again?
To put things into perspective, Mbappé isn’t struggling, he’s just playing below the standard he has set himself and he’s unable to break out of it. It’s a simple case of going back to basics and starting to do the things that that made him so revered last season. Mbappé needs to be himself and not try to imitate Neymar or any other player. He needs to show composure in front of goal which is something he has lost and avoid taking too many touches in key areas. He needs big back to back performances, something he has failed to do since September.
Unai Emery also has a big part to play with Mbappé in regards to fine tuning some of the flaws he’s started to develop recently. The fact that Mbappé is 18 needs to be taken into consideration as it’s easy to forget how inexperienced he is. So far his career has been a success with a Ligue 1 title and a Golden Boy award to his name but it will be interesting to see how the player reacts and how the club help him through his first ‘roadblock’. With Di Maria and Draxler waiting in the wings, maybe Mbappé being reminded of this wouldn’t be a bad thing?
Mbappé has far too much ability to be stuck in this rut for long, but maybe an adjustment in his mental preparation would provide a solution for his performances in rouge et bleu.