Kylian Mbappe is running out of time and must answer one question to fulfil his talent

It was a notable little record that was naturally lost on the big night, partly because Kylian Mbappe didn’t get the victory he so desired.

In what was maybe the most exhilarating moment of the 2022 World Cup final, the French star scored the most powerfully-struck goal of the entire tournament at 123.34km/h. No finish was faster. The volley on the spin, as exquisite as it was explosive, seemed symbolic of how there was no stopping Mbappe at that time. Even in defeat, he was much more than a mere support act. Mbappe’s willingness to take centre stage only enriched Lionel Messi’s great story, both players hitting the heights of their ability by reaching toward the depths of their resolve.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward may not have succeeded Pele in winning two World Cups in a row but he seemed perfectly set to succeed Messi as the next best player in the world. Mbappe’s whole campaign in Qatar had been that captivating, the hat-trick in the final to become top scorer only capping it.

He seemed set to make the best of all that talent… only to do very little since. Mbappe has significantly slowed since that strike.

What has he actually done of significance since?

There’s been a spectacular goal from distance against Gibraltar, and that’s pretty much it on the pitch. Mbappe’s career since the World Cup has otherwise been characterised by a series of off-pitch controversies, most of all his stand-off with PSG about his refusal to sign a new contract last summer. There’s certainly been nothing in the Champions League and, worse, little is expected this season.

It says much that two of Mbappe’s juniors, Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham, drive most of the discussion there. They’re in a much better position to have more impact in the biggest club competition of all and that already fosters the belief they might overtake him at the top, rather than merely joining him there.

Mbappe at an NBA match between the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers in Paris (Getty)
Mbappe at an NBA match between the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers in Paris (Getty)

This might well be the true price of signing so many massive contracts for a sportswashing project whose financial strength has rendered the French league irrelevant. Except, Mbappe is now expected to leave PSG. The question is no longer just where.

It’s whether Mbappe is actually in danger of wasting his immense talent.

That might sound outlandish for someone who has illuminated two World Cups, and two finals at that, but his ability demands so much more. There’s also the reality that the centre of football’s gravity has shifted to the club game, which is where impact is now most lasting. He has instead spent his entire career so far in the least-watched major league. It’s one reason he’s not talked about as much as Haaland or Bellingham.

The fact that Mbappe has recently created the most headlines for potential transfers almost sums it up. It is like he has been distracted by all the talk rather than actually performing on the pitch. The hierarchy at PSG have understandably become frustrated that the usual saga now comes “every six months rather than just every year”. Mbappe might see that as part of the game and the necessary media buzz around him, but it is a problem for his legacy. That view is now shared in France – and it shouldn’t be overlooked how deeply he is personally concerned with that. It was why he was said to be crestfallen after losing that World Cup final and the chance to emulate Pele.

Better to be creating that media buzz for his performances. He’s instead only in the wider football consciousness a handful of times a year.

The striker has been linked with a move to Real Madrid over the last few years (AP)
The striker has been linked with a move to Real Madrid over the last few years (AP)

Another question, then, is why he isn’t doing everything to ensure nothing is left on the pitch; that there are no regrets about his time in the game. It feels like there’s already been so much drift.

The increasing feeling is that Mbappe is badly advised, and has allowed too much noise to guide his career.

PSG executives expect him to go to Real Madrid but that is no longer seen as so certain. There’s an offer on the table but the wages aren’t yet anywhere near as big as Mbappe expected. Florentino Perez has become just as frustrated with the 25-year-old, especially given how he went out of his way to counsel the player after the disappointment of Euro 2020. The Madrid president felt he had done enough to convince Mbappe to join for 2022, only to be shocked when the French international signed a new deal at PSG. It might have been one of those turning points in a career that only becomes truly apparent later, all the more so since the Qatari-owned club began to regret the amount of power they’d afforded the player.

For Mbappe’s part, he has gradually come to the realisation that he should have left years ago. That version of PSG was never going to allow him to fulfil his talent. His camp would also insist that the Qatari project made repeated promises in that regard, that were not fulfilled. There is an argument that at least part of his drop-off in the last year is down to what PSG have been. It has not exactly been an environment, in the words of one former coach there, that encourages excellence.

The repeat Ligue 1 champions still endured what they felt was a lack of loyalty when Mbappe’s wider circle reached out to Liverpool last year, but there was no offer from the Anfield hierarchy. They just didn’t want him that badly to break their entire financial strategy. It’s similar with Arsenal, who Mbappe would willingly join. That is in part a question of legacy, too, since it appeals to the player to follow Thierry Henry. This appreciation for history and legends had been the sort of thinking that once guided his career plan.

Now, for a player who clearly thinks on that kind of grand scale, Mbappe’s options are oddly limited. It is a contradiction of such ability, but also a consequence of the modern game.

Given up the fight: it feels as though Mbappe should have left PSG a while ago (Getty)
Given up the fight: it feels as though Mbappe should have left PSG a while ago (Getty)

So much money and talent has become concentrated at the very top of football that only a handful of clubs can pay the fair market rate for the wages of such stars. The other side of that is that clubs have belatedly realised the logic of not paying so much for players in their prime. The entire market has shifted, so even the biggest clubs now want to pay the most money for younger talent.

That is for two main reasons. One is obviously economics. Two is tactics.

The modern game has become so systemised and based on frenetic pressing that it is weighted towards energetic youth. This is another area where Mbappe is now being accused of wasting that talent. He’s been so indulged that he’s become too much of an individualist. He doesn’t necessarily submit to the system in the way the modern game demands, which has fostered that drift.

The great irony is that it’s the two clubs who have been battling over his future the most, Madrid and PSG, that have now fully adopted this tactical approach.

Perez, influenced by Brazilian guru Juni Calafat, realised five years ago the need to change strategy in the face of the state-owned clubs. It is how, almost by stealth, they have built the best young squad in the game. Mbappe was long intended to be the face of that, driving it with his pace, but the emphasis has just as quickly moved on to Bellingham. It remains to be seen how big Madrid go this summer.

Often referred to as the best player in the world, the Frenchman’s future remains unclear (Getty)
Often referred to as the best player in the world, the Frenchman’s future remains unclear (Getty)

PSG meanwhile long thought of Mbappe as the face of their project but they are now also considering life without him. It’s just another irony that, in moving Mbappe on, they may finally create the sort of team he long wanted. All of the other highly-paid stars have gone.

There is now a modern focus on youth, and a new will to maximise the abundant talent of Paris. The French capital is one of the three most fertile areas for footballers in the world along with south London and Sao Paulo, which should have been an obvious advantage in terms of building the club’s identity. They are finally making good on that. PSG already have the fourth youngest squad in this season’s Champions League. Luis Enrique has been given licence to develop them to fit a modern tactical system.

This was what Mbappe long wanted, although his camp would say, somewhat fairly, that he was promised it much earlier – which was why he renewed.

The flip side, for the moment, is that they just don’t have the same aura about them going into the latter stages. A tie against Real Sociedad is hugely awkward.

PSG and Mbappe will face Real Sociedad in the Champions League round of 16 (AP)
PSG and Mbappe will face Real Sociedad in the Champions League round of 16 (AP)

A certain double standard should be admitted here. PSG were rightly criticised for their indulgent “vanity project” for so long, but the very fact they had such celebrity players fostered the sense they might just be able to turn it on in any given game for a knock-out. They did almost pull it off in 2019-20.

Now, they’re putting together something different. It just makes it less likely that Mbappe will fulfil his Champions League ambition there any time soon. It’s a longer-term project, when he needs to start picking up speed again.

Another question is in what direction. Mbappe needs some long-awaited signature performances in the Champions League now, if as much for his own future.

A player who has twice been exceptional in the biggest football fixture of all needs to remind people of his generational quality.