The Kylian Mbappé Mailbag

Whether Madrid should've waited, which position Mbappé should play, the ins and outs of his creative game, and more.

After five painstaking summers of endless rumors, flirtations, and bold statements from club leaders, Kylian Mbappé is finally set to arrive at his dream club, Real Madrid, thanks to a spectacular €180 million outlay (that total may increase soon) that Florentino Pérez has been building towards for awhile.

The prospect of Mbappé playing out the rest of his prime years at the Bernabéu has driven Madridistas past the point of delirium and fostered an unwavering sense of certainty that success is on the horizon.

Indeed, signing a top three player is as good a guarantor of wins and trophies as there will ever be, but there are still many questions that need to be answered if Carlo Ancelotti and Madrid are to maximize the most valuable individual in the game.

In fact, there are probably too many questions that need answering over the next couple of days and weeks, which is why I asked you all to help me out and direct my attention to the most important ones.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into your queries.

This is probably the topic that will generate the most debate over the coming months. Those in favor of signing Mbappé now will argue that it’s simply too big of a risk to wait another year. By capturing Messi, Achraf Hakimi, Donnarumma, Ramos, etc., PSG might well win the Champions League in 2022, which could, in turn, convince Mbappé to stay.

Even worse, his status as a free agent next summer would attract the Manchester clubs and others, giving them a chance to dangle tasty salary packages and sell him on their sporting projects. Currently, City have been too busy with Jack Grealish, Kane, and Ronaldo, while United have splurged big on Sancho and Varane and Chelsea have done the same with Lukaku. When a transfer fee is cut out of the equation next summer, Mbappé suddenly becomes a lot more affordable for a lot more suitors. Real Madrid are taking advantage of a less competitive market.

Or so the argument goes. I’m not fully convinced.

Mbappé has had plenty of chances to renew his PSG contract and, yet, has chosen to run it down. Since 2018, he has spoken of Madrid and Madrid only as his preferred destination. Not a single other name has popped up. If seeing Messi wear the #30 on posters and promotional material (Messi should absolutely change to #7 by the way) wasn’t enough to change Mbappé’s mind, I’m not sure that anything that occurs a year from now will.

Of course, trying to predict the future is a risky game, but there’s a palpable sense that Mbappé’s desire to don the All White rises above things like money and a shot at immediate success. As arrogant as it might sound, the allure of Real Madrid is irresistible, especially for an avowed Ronaldo fanboy (that should answer this question). The chance to be the guy at the biggest club in history is something that Mbappé does not want to pass up — easily explaining why playing second fiddle to Messi holds little appeal for him — and I’m not sure why one more season would alter his entire outlook when he’s been waiting for so many more.

€180 million is a lot of damn money that could’ve been partially forfeited to entice Varane to stay (there’s decent reporting on the fact that he was miffed by earning less than Alaba and felt that he was undervalued) and used to chase the likes of Joules Koundé and Camavinga. Even with Mbappé, Real Madrid still lack the kind of rounded squad that would make them proper Champions League contenders and there would be significant work to do in 2022 and 2023 to get them there.

But more money is on the way for Los Blancos, no matter what Florentino Pérez might tell you about needing the Super League to survive. A newly-renovated stadium is set to bring in gobs of cash just as the world finally escapes the dredges of the pandemic (hopefully). Furthermore, Madrid will be able to use their star acquisition as a strong selling point for why those less enamored with the aura of Real, such as Paul Pogba and Erling Haaland, should ply their trade in an arena that will have a 360-degree screen and a retractable roof.

Building a great team is probably more complicated than that. Varane’s don’t grow on trees and great fullbacks barely exist. Though selling Achraf might have been crucial in raising money for Mbappé, Madrid might never get a shot at someone of his quality for a very long time. On the flip side, there’s clearly a universe where Madrid keep Hakimi and nab Kylian in 2022.

Nevertheless, either way you put it, Madrid are marching into the future from a strong position. How much does €180 million ultimately matter when you’re going to be rich again? Going for Mbappé now might not be the most optimal decision, but it still makes Los Merengues better.

This has all been said without mentioning the political motivations behind the move. Florentino’s image has taken a beating the last three years. Fans were unhappy with the departure of Ronaldo, the Hazard flop, and the lack of recent transfers, and the Super League mess didn’t help him.

It is not personal, it is political,” says another source. “Florentino is not so fascinated with Mbappé as a player. But he needs something to show to the socios that he is not paralyzed by the rumors, and evidence, of financial and sporting decline.”

- Dermot Corrigan via The Athletic

Delivering Mbappé in 2021, after all the talk about a weak financial situation and the (relative) drudgery of seasons past, makes Florentino look like a mastermind and immediately satiates the fanbase’s rabid desire for blockbuster moves. The promise of getting Mbappé on a free simply doesn’t hold the same sex appeal (not after the titillation of “tic-tac” and “tranquilo,” anyway) and does nothing to calm down a group of supporters that always want everything yesterday.

Alaba — if Mbappé plays on the left (we’ll get to that next). I can already see David’s eyes lighting up as he sees Mbappé spinning in behind, prompting the Austrian to loop a perfect ball into space. Add in the 22-year-old’s ability to combine and propensity to roam inwards and Alaba should have a field day feeding the Frenchman and capitalizing on his gravity.

So, all of these are some variation of: “how does Mbappé fit in at Madrid and who should play next to him and where?”

It’s a surprisingly tricky question.

Mbappé has steadily drifted towards the left over the years, where his two-way dribbling and ability to receive between the lines have been enhanced. It’s in this area of the pitch where you’ll probably see the absolute best of his game.

However, that is also the area of the pitch where you’ve traditionally seen the best of Eden Hazard and Vinícius Júnior. At this point, how all of this affects the latter is of a larger concern than whatever happens to the former. Assuming Hazard stays fully fit for a season (I wouldn’t bet on it), he’s still nowhere the player he used to be. Almost all of his current value comes as a receiver; his technical quality and intelligent positioning facilitates passing into blocks and allows for quick combinations. It’s a limited style of play that doesn’t hold a candle to what Mbappé offers and Hazard can just as easily provide all of that from a #10 role.

Vinícius has a lot more to offer if his start to the season holds up. One could make the case that he simply has to adapt or die. As high as his potential is projected, it’s nonsense to push the best player out of his best position. Though Vinícius has struggled out on the right due to how it has affected his dribbling and movement, the optimistic outlook would bank on his rapidly improving off-ball instincts to sustain his impact on that flank.

However, this is the beauty of having a superstar like Mbappé. While it may be true that the left is where he’s best, I doubt you lose that much by deploying him on the opposite side. His propensity to dart off-the-shoulder into either channel and comfort shooting with both feet means that the bulk of his value sustains no matter where he starts across the front line.

As much as I rate Mbappé as an all-round threat, the above comp shows just how many of his goals come from getting in behind defenders, which is largely independent of lateral pitch location. And it’s not like his dribbling ability magically disappears if he’s stationed on the right.

For what it’s worth, transfermarkt’s positional data shows similar levels of production whether he’s a left-winger, right-winger, or striker.

Oh, that’s right, he can also be a center forward!

That gives Ancelotti the interesting option of rolling out a 4-4-2, which could keep Vinícius or Hazard (and Rodrygo or Gareth Bale) in the side. The one limiting factor could be the amount of playmaking load this puts on the undroppable Casemiro, which has its drawbacks.

What @socrateznutz (interesting username) raises is the bigger concern (alongside whether Mbappé has a particular demand about where he wants to play).

Carlo Ancelotti has quickly drawn up a system that has taken Madrid’s historical left-sided bias to another extreme. Almost all of the possession has flown through Isco-Alaba-Hazard-Benzema over the last few games and the nominal right winger, Gareth Bale, has been relegated to a largely passive role.

The Welshman barely registered a statistical footprint vs. Levante when looking at touches and passes, providing most of his value through occupation of the defensive line and various runs.

The notion of such a role is not completely alien to Mbappé. He is not an excessively ball-dominant player; registering in the 61st percentile for total touches is rather remarkable for the kind of talent he possesses and given the dominant team environments he’s been in. Mbappé also isn’t obsessed with getting possession outside the attacking third.

Nonetheless, Bale’s degree of isolation just won’t do. Mbappé can add so much receiving to feet that you simply must find a way to get him more involved, regardless of whether he is capable of deciding a game solely through his movement.

Ancelotti could design a more balanced offensive structure, but the positioning of Isco, Kroos (when he returns), Alaba, and Hazard/Vinícius on the left, in addition to Benzema’s preference for that side of the field, might dictate where the ball goes above all else. One must also consider that the likes of Lucas Vázquez, Fede Valverde, and Militão will be less skilled at feeding Kylian than the aforementioned players.

For this reason, Ancelotti might simply dodge the headache of it all and station Mbappé on the left — Vinícius’ growth and Hazard’s attempted remontada be damned.

  • Shirt pulling is an awfully popular way to try to stop an attacker, but tradition isn’t infallible. The potential for a successful foul is equal to or less than the chance that your sweaty hands loose their grasp. Go for it if you want to, but don’t come crying back to me if you can’t hold on and Kylian Mbappé zooms off, making you look like a complete idiot.

  • I don’t mind the leaping slap to the face, although it gives me style over substance vibes. We rate effectiveness over aesthetic here at Tactical Rant.

  • Look, Wile E. Coyote’s schemes always seem great until you remember that they implode in the most hilarious ways possible every single time.

  • Now that’s what I’m talking about. Take him out before he gets by you and take all of him out.

I like his ability to receive between the lines quite a bit.

He scans before dropping in step with a carrier’s orientation towards play and has an arsenal of flicks and one-touch passes that evade pressure, move the sequence along quickly, and help exploit any space left behind from a defender stepping up. This, in conjunction with his quality first touch and naturally high-tempo style, means that he can be used to play wall passes, help nudge defensive structures around, and manufacture third man runs (although I do think that he can get a bit careless and lose concentration with some of his layoffs). His quick feet also enables him to retain possession should there be no option to progress.

When allowed to turn, Mbappé can become scary. Thanks to his above average scanning, he’s generally aware of his options and loves to fire forward passes to preserve the momentum of the attack. Alternatively, he can simply charge at you off-the-dribble and completely disorganize lines of defense.

Where I think he falls short of the truly elite is in his back-to-goal play. He can be unsettled if physical defenders bang into him; Mbappé prefers to go to ground or plead for foul calls in these instances. His relative lack of core strength and iffy stationary balance means that he can be dispossessed or prevented from spinning off his man cleanly. This sets a ceiling on the value he brings between the lines and keeps him behind the likes of Neymar and Messi when it comes to creative receptions and a Lukaku in regard to hold up play.

All-in-all, I think Mbappé adds significant value to his game as a secondary or tertiary options between the lines, but he doesn’t make his living as a needle player.

Very highly: he has averaged a healthy 1.82 key passes, 0.29 xA, and 2.9 SCA (shot-creating actions) from live passes across his Ligue 1 career with PSG [fbref]. Though he’s known as an elite goal scorer, he’s guaranteed to gift his teammates quite a few assists as an added bonus.

I think he’s underrated at zipping balls into the penalty area from more central zones and is sharp at feeding runners thanks to his recognition and speed of execution (discussed with his receiving between the lines). While these creative numbers are impressive and the eye-test rates him, he falls short of the very best in the game in this department. His passing technique can be inconsistent at times and he has limited playmaking diversity when compared to the greats.

So many of his assists come from wide areas, where he beats a defender off-the-dribble and fires in a cutback or a cross. It’s a testament to how good he is at this and the diversity of his deliveries (all angles, both feet, from awkward body positions) that he still racks up the figures that he does. He also picks up ample assists in transition, where his final passes are extremely high value but rather simple to execute.

This, I suspect, is what powered him to an insane 0.51 xA p90 in 2019/20 [fbref], which is an outlier for his career.

I don’t think the 19/20 xA is necessarily deceiving of the impact he provided that season — just that said impact was actually coming from his off-ball movement (and from Tuchel’s optimization of him) more than his actual passing.

As a result, Mbappé can be an assist monster in the right environment but his more middling playmaking diversity makes him a less resilient creator than the usual suspects. This might be a significant weakness if that was the center of his game, but it’s not a massive deal in light of his scoring exploits.

I think this criticism is slightly exaggerated. His 1v1 ability, ability to initiate combinations in tight areas, and creation package (see previous question) threatens set defenses in a way that can’t be scoffed at. No doubt, a huge bulk of Mbappé’s worth appears in transition and semi-transition, but you’d be surprised at how good he can be at finding ways to run in behind even when defenses sit back (I refer you back to the “All Goals” video).

The caveat is that this is only partially possible thanks to some truly ingenious passing, vision, and processing speeds from Neymar and Di María. Moreover, La Liga has rightly garnered a reputation for possessing some of the most unforgiving deep block sides in Europe.

No matter what, Mbappé is going to find less space in Spain and will (in the immediate term, at least) play with teammates less capable of feeding him through the tightest of windows.

Continuing to refine his playmaking is a path towards marginal gains, although his scoring is what’s really under threat here. Mbappé isn’t a slouch in the box and uses his generational explosiveness to create separation from markers at either post. He has good box instincts (right place; right time) and theoretically sound positioning, but he does not often display a ton of deception with his movement — he’s fast and to the point. And, while his heading is quite good, he’s not dominant enough in that category to be a Ronaldo or Lewandowski 2.0 — players who can live off of cross after cross.

Mbappé has limitations against deep blocks that will probably always be there. Even so, being an all-timer in counter-attacking efficiency and at generating transition tends to cover a lot of that up. It doesn’t matter how organized a defense is: they’re going to concede space in behind at some point.

The “details” are that his defensive work-rate is essentially non-existent.

It isn’t “absolutely necessary” for him to have this at Madrid because he’s so good offensively. Mbappé is acutely aware of this, which is precisely why he doesn’t work hard against the ball.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences, though. Only Ronaldo and Messi look as bad as him when it comes to activity (even Neymar is significantly better) and this makes it difficult to press. It isn’t a coincidence that CR7’s departure correlated with Madrid’s improved defensive solidity and you can see how Mbappé’s laziness affected PSG in their Champions League tie vs. Barcelona. Yes, I know that Mbappé scored a hat-trick, but PSG’s press was porous and La Blaugrana had their chances.

And that’s my point. Mbappé will transform Madrid’s attack while hindering the construction of the types of defensive units that powered Zidane’s success in 2019/20 and title contention in 2020/21. In the long run, with more talented personnel around him, it’s easily worth it. In the short term, it could contribute to bigger tradeoffs than people expect, particularly when combined with Ancelotti’s weaknesses as a pressing coach and the thinning out of the defensive line.