Generational Talent’; it is a phrase which you will see and hear often. Yet, it seems like many people don’t quite grasp the meaning of it.
The definition? It is a phrase to describe a once in a generation talent. A player so exceptional that, from a footballing perspective, they will be heads and shoulders above every player in their class. So far ahead, they have no peers of that generation, but people still force incorrect comparisons involving them.
It defines as the best of a generation, to put it simply. Think Lionel Messi, think Ronaldo Nazário, think Diego Maradona. These players, whether as teenagers or in their pomp, were so far clear of any other player on the planet, it was absurd to enter into a comparative debate. Yes, in my opinion, it’s ridiculous to compare Cristiano Ronaldo to Lionel Messi.
If aliens were to come down and point a death beam at Earth, and they said ‘take us to your best footballer immediately’, we would immediately book a flight to Barcelona, take them to the Camp Nou, and make them watch Lionel Messi. If they had said ‘take us to the generational footballing talent’ in 2006 or so, the same would happen. That’s not conjecture, that’s fact (kind of).
But this is not yet another Messi vs Ronaldo piece.
This is regarding the sheer disrespect to the only generational talent in football today. People throw the phrase around far too lightly, when as I said earlier, it is a title for the best of a generation. People throw names in the mix like Joao Felix, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz, Vinicius, Rodrygo, Kubo, Saka, any young player who has a few impressive games. Any player under the age of 21 who strings together a run of form.
Now, of course, players like Felix, Sancho and Havertz have been wowing onlookers for around 18 months, but they are still not on that level. Absolutely not, nowhere near the level we are discussing here.
The real generational talent, the standard-setter for this generation, is one Kylian Mbappé-Lottin. He is the one—the only true generational talent in football.
At the age of 18, having started the season aged 17, he had established himself as the number one player in a Monaco team midway through the season. No minnows, this was a team chock full of talent, and one which had just finished third in the league before Mbappé came along as the missing main piece of the Monaco puzzle. What happened to Monaco with a now established Mbappé, you ask?
The Star Boy
Monaco won the Ligue 1 title and reached at least the semi-final in every cup competition they participated. It was in large part down to the brilliance of the French teen. Twenty-six goals and 14 assists in his debut season. 6 Champions League knockout stage goals, including goals at the Etihad Stadium of Manchester City, in Turin at the home of Juventus, and the Signal Iduna Park of Borussia Dortmund, as he made a mockery of comparisons to fellow French starlet Ousmane Dembele in the process.
It wasn’t solely the fact he was involved directly in 40 goals this season, or that he was the talisman of a title-winning team. It was how he was doing it, and the stages he was doing it on. With the maturity of a man several years his senior, he was making football at an elite level, out to be a breeze.
Mbappé was often deployed in a front two with marksman Radamel Falcao, with the Frenchman in a free role of sorts, being allowed to roam and play off of the Colombian to a degree. It worked; he was causing havoc across the country.
Whether it was him running into the channels, picking up the ball and running at two or three defenders to take them out of the game. Whether he linked the play with Falcao so they could play off each other, peeling into the wings to isolate poor defenders to rinse them 1v1, or showing the composure and calmness of a veteran to finish his array of chances.
Whatever it was, Mbappé was doing it. Football hadn’t seen this combination of speed, power, dribbling, and directness in a player since Ronaldo Nazário (who I wrote about not so long ago). It was remarkable. Mbappé had everything.
He was going to the homes of formidable opponents and making fools of David Luiz, Thiago Silva, and Manchester City’s defence, for example, with his wicked trickery. Mbappé, at age 18, was remarkable. He scored goals, terrorised defenders, and from early, he had the big game intangible; that killer will. He had that Michael Jordan Esque clutch gene to seal off the big plays in the most significant of fixtures.
Who was the star boy for Monaco? It was Kylian Mbappé. Just ask the teams they played, Dortmund especially. The Germans felt the wrath of him across two legs.
April 2017, Mbappé’s ruthless streak reared its head. He was picking the ball up deeper in the second phase, helping advance the ball, winning free-kicks, running the channels to open up space for others, picking up the ball and driving at the Dortmund defence, picking off passes, and ripping finishes into the top corner. His all-roundedness was on show on the big stage. Nonetheless, there were a few moments which stood out.
The first came quite early; Mbappé made a signature sharp run in behind into the right channel with defenders chasing him. The same area from which he scored against Manchester City. They had a choice, try and tackle the speedster, or let him shoot. They chose the former and failed. His genius-level intellect off the ball allowed him to win a penalty which was duly converted.
The second leg, in the first half, again prompted his brilliant off the ball running. There was a clear lane down the left to allow Mbappé to run into for Bernardo play him in. But what did he do? He ran down the right channel, and opened up a considerable alley of space down the left for the Portuguese playmaker to play in Benjamin Mendy. Due to the initial sharp movement by Mbappé, he was in the perfect position to finish off the cross from the left-back. A simple yet smart and intelligent play.
The third is where I was reminded of a certain Brazillian centre-forward. Kylian picked up the ball in the left channel, surrounded by a few defenders. He exploded into life. He took the ball straight by the first defender as if he wasn’t there, jinked inside the second, and took another touch outside of a third Dortmund man, before he was cynically fouled. A sharp, explosive passage of play, reminiscent of a teenage Fenomeno. A sign of things to come? You better believe it.
the beginning In Paris
Mbappé and his rampage across the continent did not go unnoticed. Like Ronaldo, he had a vast array of clubs in pursuit. Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and of course, Paris Saint-Germain, were all interested and linked at one point or another. He declined all advances, explaining to ex Monaco Vice-President, Vadim Vasilyev that, ‘Real Madrid will wait for me.’
Can you believe it? An 18-year-old telling the biggest club in the world to ‘wait for him’. Absurd confidence, and I must say, it has been justified.
Mbappé decided on a switch to the French capital, opting to continue his development in Ligue 1, and linking up with other superstars like the arriving Neymar. The players who he made to look rather foolish multiple times in the previous season would now also be classed as teammates. It is safe to say that the defenders preferred to go against him in training, then in a game.
Now, of course, correlation is not always causation, but there’s a case that this year it was. There was a 21 point swing at the top of Ligue 1 this year, and I have every reason to believe that had Mbappé stayed at Monaco, they could well have won the title again. Of course, this is assuming all else equal. If Neymar got injured, as he did in reality, there is every chance that the Parisiens lose their title to a teenager for the second straight season. This was the threat level Mbappé carried, and it was beautiful. Onto the fit.
With the addition of not one, but two star forwards in Neymar and Mbappé, with Edinson Cavani coming off the best goalscoring season of his career, scoring 49 goals in 50 games, the pieces were there. It was up to coach Unai Emery to put them together correctly. His solution was to put Neymar in his favoured left-wing spot, Cavani central, leaving the righthand side for the teenage terror.
It was a less favourable role for his offensive output in theory, but it was a brilliant spot for him. While his finishing was slightly worse, missing plenty of chances throughout the season, his overall play and creativity improved exponentially. Mbappé off the right was ripping up the book.
In the majority, the inside-forward will be a lefty on the right, or vice versa. Mbappé was playing there as a right-footer off the right. He made incisive runs at the defence from out to in, stretching the field for Neymar and company to create. Mbappé’s presence was invaluable on and off the ball. In possession, it was carnage. There has not been a teenage winger as direct, as single-minded, as savage as Mbappé, in a long time.
He would pick up the ball anywhere on the field, it could be right on the touchline, in the half-space, in the centre of the field, it wouldn’t matter. He would pick the ball up and drive with complete disregard for the opposition. Give him a little piece of separation to run into, and he would riot.
It was remarkable from the 18-year-old and how he terrorised defenders—no player, not Messi, not Cristiano, and not Neymar. Not any young player was like this at 18, other than Ronaldo; it was scary.
There was one showing that stood above everything, even his cup final performances, and even his rampage against Caen and Rennes. One game against Bayern in September 2017 where he was utterly rampant. Neymar was unreal, Verratti was his typical metronomic self, Cavani ruthless, but Mbappé was next level.
It was the first real test for the new look Parisiens. Would a Neymar masterclass be in store? Yes. Neymar was, in terms of a pure footballing display, probably ahead of Mbappé on this day. Nevertheless, Mbappé destabilised the Bayern defence over and over again, leaving them disorganised and scrambling. The way he enthralled viewers young and old, it was magical. No-one has thrilled PSG fans like the Frenchman did that day, and it was truly magnificent. I was falling out of my chair at what was unfolding in front of my eyes on my screen.
Mbappé picked the ball up against Niklas Sule off the right, and just with a simple shift, away he went. Leaving a defender like Sule in the dust is no mean feat. He was pulling Bayern apart again and disorganising them. Inside the ball was fed, Neymar flicked it to Cavani, who hit the ball straight at the keeper. But it was all to do with the explosion and dynamism. The burst of Mbappé was frightening.
He was running upfield on a counter-attack, for the umpteenth time, and he was fed in behind. He tore away and got the ball, and across came two defenders. He could have easily burst away with his speed and cut the ball back, but with the maturity of a veteran, he waited for his partner Cavani, and turned and fed him to wrap the ball into the top corner. All created by the intelligence, the speed, skill and patience of Mbappé. A marvel at his finest.
Mbappé had been embarrassing David Alaba and Sule all night already. Speeding away from them, drawing fouls, and leaving them confused where the ball had gone. This one instance, he was fed the ball in the box, and went towards Alaba, who looked to close the space between them. Mbappé had everyone thinking he was going to shoot, or he was going to drop his shoulder and get to the byline to cross the ball. Instead, he faked the shot, dragged the ball over with his studs, and left Alaba in a state of confusion.
What had just happened? A little touch and a ball across followed, which was stabbed home by Neymar. His entire game against Bayern was stunning. The moments mentioned earlier are the same.
It was a special performance, from a special player. It was only his second season as a regular first-team player. This was Mbappé, and this was the next greatest player in world football.
Mbappé’s final season to end his teenage years was fantastic. Three trophies and impressive performances in Europe and France alike. He was well and truly a top player by this point. His exploits this season wasn’t to be a scratch on what followed in the summer.
The Torch Passed
What followed the 2017/18 season was a marvel. When you recognise a player playing for their country, and they elevate their level from domestic form, that’s when you know they are extraordinary, when they are genuinely great. Like with Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, or Zidane; epitomes of success within the footballing realm.
All of these players were special for their country. They would enthral in unrivalled ways. Well, that is what Kylian Mbappé did in the 2018 World Cup.
Coming into the tournament, France, while not an afterthought, weren’t favoured. The machine of the Germans, the samba of the Brazilians, and the methodology of the Spanish were fancied. France were seen as a bunch of talented individuals who were unlikely to win, and the same was said of Mbappé. People who followed football knew just how excellent Mbappé was at the time. But the rest of the world didn’t fully understand, and the casual fan didn’t think about him as one of the best arriving in Russia.
Mbappé, on the whole, was not at the forefront of people’s minds. His Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Neymar, was the talk of the build-up leading up to the tournament. It was valid, and had Neymar avoided injury with Paris, and there is every chance Brazil would have won the competition.
Mbappé took the opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. He was relatively quiet in the group stages, only scoring once, a winner against Peru. The elimination stage of the tournament was a stark contrast for the teenager.
France faced Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the last-16. The consensus best player on the planet and a lot of people’s greatest of all time. It looked to be Messi’s last chance at a World Cup in what was viewed as his prime. He was coming off yet another 40+ goal season; scoring 45 this time—a monster.
What did Mbappé see in his sights? A 5” 7 leader who was an obstacle in his way to World Cup success. The Argentine defence could not deal with the relentless running of the French speedster.
The first instance was very early. It was a stray pass from a failed set-play. Mbappé picked up the ball, and he went on a tear. Think Ronaldo against the Netherlands in 1998. Mbappé beat the defender to the ball, and off he went, he flew. He was blazing a trail past multiple defenders, and they couldn’t get near him. One, two, three defenders tried and failed to tackle him.
Marcos Rojo tried to foul him outside of the box, but Mbappé was too fast. Into the box he went, Rojo fouled him, penalty for France and tucked away by Antoine Griezmann. Mbappé had single-handedly blown the game wide open with his treacherous pace; it was a sight to behold.
Mbappé was a threat for the entire first half, but in the second, he exploded into life. It was 2-2 and perfectly balanced. It was a set-play, and the ball was bouncing around. It fell to Mbappé with no space to shoot and composed as you like, with one touch to trap the ball and one shift out of his feet, and he let rip with a rasping left-footed drive to tuck the ball away.
Mbappé, in the blink of an eye, showed the world there was a new number 10 in town. The touch, the shift, the finish, it was fantastic. He had arrived.
Was he here to stay? Of course, he was. It was a counter-attack; the French were looking to create separation space. Blaise Matuidi picked up the ball and fed Giroud. Mbappé was some distance behind the play when he got on his bike. Away he went, down the righthand side. Giroud played a ball into the winger’s path, and with his right foot, he pushed the ball into the net. With that, Mbappé had killed Messi’s World Cup dream. He had slaughtered it and made the stage his. The world was his, and he had stamped his place in World Cup history.
It’s arguable Argentina wasn’t even his best game at the tournament. The semi-final against Belgium waited who had just knocked out tournament favourites Brazil, thanks to a stunning last-minute save from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, denying Neymar from glory. Eden Hazard lead a merry dance, Kevin De Bruyne had scored one of the goals of the tournament, and they established themselves as favourites to win the World Cup.
Mbappé didn’t score nor assist against Hazard’s compatriots. But boy, did he put on a show. Right from the off, he went on down Belgium’s left, rinsing the defence for pace, and playing in Giroud with a perfect cross. The big target man failed to make a clean connection and away the chance went.
The second such chance came later in the half. Mbappé came inside into the half-space, and was waiting for options to appear; right-back Benjamin Pavard answered. The forward wonderfully disguised a pass to slip in the defender, but alas Pavard failed to apply the finishing touch.
A third instance in the first half was a nice dinked ball over the top of the defence. Mbappé, as per usual, timed his run to absolute perfection, and laid a wonderfully delicate pass to Griezmann, who made an awful connection with the shot.
In the second half, with France in-front thanks to Samuel Umtiti, Mbappé was more of a counter-attacking threat. Mbappé tore down the left, discombobulated the Belgians, displayed excellent time-wasting skills in stoppage time, and left Kevin De Bruyne on his backside after making a futile attempt to tackle the Frenchman. A complete performance, but there was one more moment. If Argentina was his coming out party, then Belgium was him marking his territory on the world stage.
The final from Mbappé was reasonably quiet. He was still going on the occasional run down the right, making Croatian defenders look silly from time to time, but it wasn’t quite the rampages he put on display against Argentina and Belgium. Nonetheless, his link-up play, tears off the wings, and runs in behind were always a threat to the defence. Of course, he had a role in the goals. He won the corner which lead to the penalty. He was the one who stretched the Croatian defence which led to Paul Pogba’s goal with brilliant wing play.
Twenty-five yards out, and he was fed the ball in the left half-space. Nothing was on, so all he does is drill the ball hard and low at a remarkable pace to nestle in the bottom corner; the punctuation on a perfect tournament for Kylian Mbappé. He had announced himself and marked his territory as the next best player in the world.
The Torch was passed to Kylian Mbappé. World class talent; Kylian Mbappé. Generational; Kylian Mbappé. The next GOAT was announced as a teen.
While Mbappé is one of the very best players on the planet in 2020, at the age of just 21, it’s essential not to forget the levels he was showing at the tender ages of 18 and 19. He was already truly world-class with big performances on the biggest of stages. This type of dynamism and performance when it mattered had not been showcased since Ronaldo in the late 90s for Barcelona, Inter and Brazil.
Mbappé is emulating one of the best strikers to ever live with his skillset, his mentality, and his performances. This is not a pie in the sky, what Mbappe showed at the age of 18 and 19 was generational. It wasn’t just stringing a few games and a run of form together. It was consistent world-class performance, week in, week out. Ripping up the script and showing higher levels at this age than the best players in the world did.
So when you want to call someone generational, just stop and think. Judge their performance level, skillset, consistency and whether their intangibles can even tie the boot-laces of his peers at the same age.
Kylian Mbappé-Lottin; for he towers above all others, resetting the expectation for all young players. He is the bar, and he is the standard. He is generational.
Written by Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10
Graphics: Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_