When a player breaks a record set by Thierry Henry, you sit up and take notice. That's exactly what happened when Kylian Mbappe made his Monaco debut back in December 2015 against SM Caen, becoming the youngest player ever to represent the club.
Twelve months later, Bleacer Report's Dean Jones revealed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is tracking the teenage talent. While a move this early in his career was always going to be unlikely, it's a marker of just how far Mbappe has come that in approximately one year, he has become a productive forward in a good side who is attracting adoring glances from a man who knows a thing or two about skilful French youngsters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mbappe has earned the moniker "the new Henry"—a product of them both starting out at the same club, playing the same position and breaching the first-team picture in rapid fashion. But while there are echoes of the Arsenal legend in Mbappe's style, he also boasts a peculiar combination of size, speed and skill. Finding an accurate player comparison is tough.
The most notable thing about Mbappe is his somatotype. He's lean and tall, clearly still growing, with some of the longest legs you'll see in football. It makes for an odd sight as he bounds around the pitch and tears forward with the ball; a whirlwind of limbs that doesn't always seem to be in control but consistently produces the goods regardless.
His rapier-like speed becomes immediately apparent when he turns and spins in behind the defensive line. It's his favourite move, and he's already adept at timing his darts and curving his runs in order to stay onside. If the ball is right—and it often is, given the quality of his team-mates—he's away, and there's nothing you can do to stop him.
The breakaway speed he showed against Montpellier on Tuesday was nothing short of eye-popping; you just don't expect a player with Mbappe's size and frame to be able to leave his opponents in the dust and maintain his speed, but he does. He doesn't seem to slow down while dribbling, either—an issue many players, even the best, battle with consistently.
It's that long stride that keeps him ahead of his man, but if he is caught in a shoulder-to-shoulder battle, he often emerges the winner. That strange frame of his also includes a broad chest, and he's muscular from the neck down. His combative nature means he's happy to duel for the ball.
Mbappe's a remarkable dribbler, with his rare combination of size, power and speed making for quite the sight when he decides to spear forward. His performance in the cup last week against Chambly bordered on a one-man dribbling show as he swerved around players at will. He can be so penetrative with the ball at his feet, driving his team up the pitch and creating attacking transitions in seconds.
He's played most of his football from the left striker's position in Monaco's 4-4-2 this season, and it seems to be a system that suits him and that he's bought into. He links well with his left-back (usually Benjamin Mendy) and his left-winger (Thomas Lemar), while the rest of Leonardo Jardim's striking corps work extremely well with him, too.
Monaco's front pairing is quite classical in its movements: One runs off the shoulder or splits wide, while the other secures the middle and drops in to link with midfield. While the roles are not as restrictive as "you do only that; I'll do only this," the split is clear, and both Valere Germain and Radamel Falcao are happy for Mbappe to run off the shoulder of the defence as often as possible.
When required to drop in himself or split wide, Mbappe does a good job, too. He, Mendy and Lemar understand each other's games, and that leads to strong combination play down the left side. Mbappe's quick and tidy feet mean that if he does drift out into tight situations, he's comfortable and willing to chisel his way back out. There's work still to be done in this area—he sometimes takes far too many touches and ends up burying himself in a corner—but it's a minor knock.
One of Mbappe's most impressive traits is his defensive work rate; he never stops running and chasing to regain possession. It's hardly a surprise when a player moulded by Jardim (a coach who, up until this season, was about as defensive as you can get) does this, and there must also be an element of Mbappe trying to earn further minutes on the pitch.
If he loses the ball, he chases after it relentlessly. If he spies an opportunity to drop in and create a turnover, he'll try his luck. A perfect example of that came in the midweek match against Montpellier, where he tore back to try to dispossess right-back Nordi Mukiele from a throw-in deep into Monaco's territory. He ended up at the corner flag (in his half), tackled Ryad Boudebouz and calmly passed out of danger to start an attack.
It's fair to say that, so far, the Frenchman has used the minutes he's been given superbly. Already an explosive, talented attacking player with a willingness to muck in and defend from the front, he's edging further and further toward an even bigger role at Monaco.
The issue Jardim has is how long he'll be able to keep him, as while Mbappe is both ideally suited to his 4-4-2 and progressing fast, he still doesn't feature in the club's best XI—Germain and Falcao take the striker slots in this scenario.
|Monaco's Striking Options|
It might just lead to a strange situation in which Monaco sell Mbappe for a lot of money despite him not being a first-team player. His 609 Ligue 1 minutes this season put him in the "prospect" category along with Almamy Toure, Adama Traore and Boschilia. Compare that total to Germain's 1,456 minutes or Falcao's 1,127, and the pecking order is compounded.
Projecting success for Mbappe is easy, but projecting where that might come is a slightly tougher task. There aren't many teams at the top level that play with two strikers, so Mbappe might have some refining of his game to do.
Early signs suggest he can play up top on his own (should his drop-in play and decision-making improve) or play as a slightly oversized wide forward—a player type that is starting to emerge as a real threat (see: Ivory Coast forward Jonathan Kodjia).
One thing that could hold potential suitors back is the fact that he is still developing and that he is such a strange...shape. There are some questions regarding his somatotype that can only be answered in a few years when he's finished growing, and many might be tempted to wait and see how he develops before they can decide how they'd use him.
All statistics via WhoScored.com unless otherwise noted