The forward-thinking ambitions and acceptance of a newly inherited leadership role have rescued Paris from additional disgrace in 2022-23.
Kylian Mbappe was never going to be without the spot-kick. The France striker took four anticipatory steps before lashing his shot into the bottom corner, after staring down a hesitant Strasbourg goalie. He careened out into the Paris night after scoring a 96th-minute goal to lift Paris Saint-Germain to victory.
The assured performance came for a struggling PSG side that had seen Neymar sent off and was without Lionel Messi, who was still on an Argentine beach celebrating a World Cup victory. It’s the kind of high-pressure situation Mbappe has had to deal with all season, a virtuoso moment amid an altruistic year for France’s new captain.
Mbappe isn’t one to keep quiet, even though Neymar and Messi outshine him in terms of controversy and internet traffic. Despite his teammates’ proclivity for late-night fast food runs and travels to Saudi Arabia, he has managed to maintain a veneer of professionalism.
And, with manager Christophe Galtier on the verge of being fired, football advisor Luis Camps openly clashing with the club, and supporters cursing star players, Mbappe has been the lone bright light. He may not have brought the European triumph he has often promised to bring to Parc des Princes, but PSG needed him now more than ever.
His objectives, passion for the team, and improbable leadership have restored stability to a club that was otherwise losing control, and have been critical in securing a Ligue 1 title that had appeared to be slipping away at times. All that remains is for them to keep him.
Mbappe’s job is to score goals. He has demonstrated for France, Monaco, and PSG that he is one of the top goal-scorers in the world. He set admittedly lofty goals for himself at the age of 17 when he scored 15 goals and assisted on seven others for a Monaco team that won Ligue 1. But he’s improved with each season, all the way to a historic hat trick in the 2022 World Cup final.
Nonetheless, a study of the data suggests that Mbappe is having his worst attacking season since 2020. The winger has been challenged for the Ligue 1 Golden Boot by Florian Balogun, Jonathan David, and Alexandre Lacazette, the latter of whom is currently level with him as the season nears its end.
The underlying statistics support this. Though Mbappe’s 26 goals and four helpers in 31 games are impressive, his per-90-minute figures are the lowest they’ve been since 2018, when the Frenchman inexcusably fell short of averaging a goal or assist every game.
These are minor complaints, but they may indicate that the player is still not at his best. Injuries have undoubtedly played a factor, with a hamstring issue affecting him for a few weeks in February. There’s also something to be said about the psychological impact of losing a World Cup final on penalties despite being the best player on the field for most of the game.
Given the circumstances, perhaps his 30 goals in Ligue 1 and 10 in the Champions League are even more spectacular. It would be unjust to demand unequivocal improvement of already lofty standards in such a tumultuous atmosphere. It is an enormous accomplishment that he has even come close to them.
The goals have also come with a pleasant rhythm. Mbappe hasn’t gone more than three Ligue 1 starts without scoring this season, and all but four of PSG’s 23 victories have come in games in which he has scored. This isn’t Mbappe’s most prolific season, but it could be his most dependable.
Galtier unexpectedly announced in January that Mbappe would be PSG’s vice-captain moving forward. Presnel Kimpbembe, the former holder of that post, stated that he had not been informed by his manager that Mbappe would be the second in line for the armband.
Nonetheless, Mbappe took the role and has captained the club a few times while typical skipper Marquinhos was either rested or sidelined. And in those games, Mbappe has emerged as a surprising leader, often seen rallying a sluggish side.
The cynical perspective is that Mbappe is the project’s face and has a huge ego that demands the armband based on aura rather than merit. After all, a fluorescent bicep strap might sell a few more shirts, and “Captain Mbappe” looks better in social media visuals.
However, there are some more sensible points. Mbappe has been named France’s captain, beating out several older, more experienced players, including Antoine Griezmann. His performances in major games for club and country, such as the World Cup final or his brace against Juventus to open the Champions League group stages, undoubtedly inspire. He is also a player with a strong bond with the club.
Despite having played for Monaco and aspiring to play for Real Madrid, Mbappe is a Parisian who attended France’s renowned Clairefontaine Academy. He is familiar with the city and surely understands what it means to play for the club — and the nation with which it is so inextricably linked. These are overdone words and football cliches, but they might be comforting to a squad whose identity is being controlled by a nation-state thousands of miles away. Symbolism, it turns out, maybe pretty potent.
Nonetheless, Mbappe’s performances will always be influenced by Real Madrid’s presence. It’s no secret that he’d like to play in the Spanish capital one day, and Madrid wouldn’t exactly turn him down.
Mbappe, on the other hand, has been careful to emphasize that he has no plans to leave the team – at least not right away. In an April interview, he reassured fans in no uncertain terms: “I’m a Parisian and under contract.” So PSG it is.”
That was a major statement in the context of a season filled with distractions, a singular pledge that temporarily eased anxieties in Paris. It also spared Mbappe from the wrath of PSG fans, who had turned against the team following a string of dismal performances.
This assertion, however, is predicated on several assumptions. PSG has accepted that Messi will leave after the season, and they are open to bids for Neymar. If both of those players leave, Mbappe will be the undisputed star of a team that still hopes to contend in the Champions League. After a setback against Benfica, this team does not have the patience to thank the fans for their loyal support.
Mbappe may expect that his teammates back up his commitment. In recent weeks, PSG has been connected with his international teammates Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram, while Victor Osimhen and Bernardo Silva have also been suggested as prospective attacking acquisitions. Campos is also said to be looking for a new midfielder and a center-back.
Mbappe has done his part; now it is up to PSG to do theirs.
The near future
That investment, if it comes, may not be sufficient. Despite Mbappe’s assurances to PSG fans, Real Madrid links continue to surface. It was recently revealed that Madrid values Vinicius Jr more than Mbappe, and while this may be the case this summer, especially given that Los Blancos still need to finalize a new contract with their current star left-winger. However, when Mbappe is anticipated to be able to leave PSG for free in 2025, Madrid will be among the leading competitors, if not overwhelming favorites, to sign him.
They were close to signing him last summer, with Mbappe holding preliminary conversations with Los Blancos before shocking them by accepting a larger financial deal from the Parisians. It was a move that looked to have little impact on Madrid’s typically humble hierarchy, which handled Europe’s hottest commodity quite well, turning them down. So much so that, less than a month after signing a new contract, Madrid president Florentino Perez slammed Mbappe in the press, alleging that “this Mbappe is not the Mbappe I wanted.”
It remains to be seen whether Madrid can swallow their wounded pride. Meanwhile, the notion that they prefer Vinicius over Mbappe appears to be a petty ploy rather than an exact truth. Vinicius is a fantastic footballer, but Mbappe is simply superior. Madrid is probably aware of this.
After all, this is a player who scored three goals in the World Cup final, averages nearly a goal per game in his career, and led a notoriously dysfunctional team to a surprisingly difficult Ligue 1 triumph. It is only a “farmer’s league” if your team is capable of proving it.
Mbappe may have saved PSG this season, but it’s difficult not to envisage him eventually making Santiago Bernabeu his home.