As football fans, we often – if not always – tend to remember the greatest stars of the sport in their prime. In their finest moments, at their brightest, with the entire world of football bowing before them, their followers blinded with awe and swearing allegiance to their new kings. We rarely remember Zidane at Bordeaux, Ronaldo at PSV Eindhoven, Messi’s first tentative steps in the Barcelona strip, the over-indulgent step-overs of a young Cristiano Ronaldo as he made his debut in front of the Old Trafford faithful.
And yet, those moments are the most precious. For they hold inside them the magic and wonder of something new. A brilliant new find, a raw diamond with a blurry gleam, a young player as yet mostly unknown, with the promise of a brilliant career lying at his feet. Sure, a great player at his imperious best, a world class athlete in full control of his powers is a sight to behold, but can you really say it compares, to that sudden flash of skill, to that out-of-nowhere moment of magic that makes you breathe in sharply, grab the sides of your chair and mouth “WHO. IS. THAT?”
I would surely answer a resounding “no”. Because hopefully, 10 years from now, when Kylian Mbappe, the quite brilliant French attacker, who is captivating fans the world over with his skill is at the top of the world, I’ll be able to say “you should have seen him when he was 18”.
To watch the AS Monaco marksman is a footballing luxury. Not even out of his teens yet, Mbappe has so far taken the age old cliché that says that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”, draped it across his shoulders like a cape and is racing to the Champions League Final faster than a speeding bullet. Yes, it’s a Superman reference. I’m actually not as embarrassed as I should be.
Part of a young and vibrant team that has been built around Renaissance man Falcao and driven forward by the managerial nous of Leonard Jardim, Mbappe is clearly the side’s breakaway star. Described by none other than Arsene Wenger as a player who could be “another Thierry Henry”, the youngster is only in his second season as a professional footballer and yet displays a footballing brain that many players don’t develop until deep into their 20s.
Operating at first as a left –sided attacker, but blooming brilliantly as an out-and-out striker (just like Henry), Mbappe was given a select few opportunities to shine last season, but was fully unleashed by Jardim at the beginning of the 2016/2017 campaign. Plundering 21 goals in 34 appearances so far, the 18-year-old is a near-constant threat to any and all opposition, buzz-sawing through defences and speeding ominously across the Monaco frontline, while developing his partnership with a rejuvenated Falcao, who has truly left his Premier League nightmare at Manchester United and Chelsea behind him.
Providing more agile, rapier-like play, compared to Falcao’s rather more blunt, broadsword-ish presence, Mbappe was once again on song on Wednesday night, during the first leg of Monaco’s Champions League quarter final at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park.
While his first goal was a question of right-place-right-time instincts, showing up where he needed to be in order to bounce Thomas Lemar’s wicked low cross off his thigh and past the flailing Roman Buerki, his second goal of the night was a thing of predatory beauty.
Anticipating the intention of Dortmund’s left-back Lukasz Piszczek to pass square to Socratis Papastathopoulos, Mbappe pounced onto the bobbling ball and before the German backline knew too much about it, he was barreling down Buerki’s goal. Taking two looks at the goalkeeper’s position, the Frenchman steadied himself from just outside the box and curled a quite magnificent, side-footed curling finish past Buerki’s oustretched hands. It was accomplished, it was perfect but what made it even more breathtaking, was that it was EXPECTED.
This is what we have come to EXPECT from this young man, in a very small period of time. In all my years of watching football, I cannot recall any player that has seemed so grounded, so complete and so focused at his age. At just 18 years of age, he ALREADY seems very close to being the perfect forward, which makes it doubly exciting to think that we have TEN years in front of us to see him mature further, to see him reach his footballing prime.
Already rumoured to be one of the players that will drive the transfer market in the summer, with Monaco expecting the bidding war to start at well over 70 million pounds, Mbappe gives you a reason to tune in to any match he participates in. His goals, his pace, his direct style of play, make people feel good about watching football and make those that don’t quite get it, sit up and take notice.
Oh. And about those Henry comparisons?
On the 2nd of December 2015, Kylian Mbappe broke Thierry Henry’s record as Monaco’s youngest ever senior team player at 16 years 347 days, when he appeared as a late substitute in a 1-1 home draw to Caen. He had just broken a 21-year-old record.
He also broke Thierry Henry’s record as Monaco’s youngest ever senior goalscorer when he scored in the 3-1 victory over Troyes in 2016. He was 17 years and 62 days old.
He may not be quite like Thierry yet, but he’s on the hunt.