When Kylian Mbappé completes a move to Paris Saint‑Germain which values him as the second most expensive player ever, he will return to the city where it all began. Just over a dozen years ago a young Mbappé begged his father to sign him up at the local club of the suburb where they lived in the French capital.
The team was non-league AS Bondy, where Wilfried Mbappé, a former player, was the coach. Wilfried was reluctant to bring his son under his wing there, fearing he would not be objective. Yet such was Kylian’s persistence that Wilfried gave in to the five-year-old and the boy made such a first impression that he was promoted to play above his age group. When the elite academy INF Clairefontaine offered Kylian a scholarship a few years later he was again pushed up, this time among the best prospects of his generation.
Single-mindedness as well as talent has put Mbappé on the path which leaves him poised to join PSG on loan from Monaco with an agreement to make that a permanent deal worth up to €180m (£167m) next summer. At Clairefontaine Mbappé sometimes felt the training had not been enough and he would secretly practise behind the dormitories, deep into the night, phone in hand to light his trail. Even his free time there was filled with football. He was known to watch four games in a row, often featuring Real Madrid, who around that time invited him to Spain and asked Zinedine Zidane to give him a tour of their facilities.
Although the adolescent Mbappé hid the extra training from his supervisors, he could do nothing to prevent scouts from across Europe spotting his ability. There was the speed at which he glided past opponents, the ease with which he cut inside from the left wing and scored from anywhere in the box. There was also, his coach at the time recalls, a signature move that could one day define his spontaneity in the way Zidane’s turn defined his genius.
“His dummies,” says Jean-Claude Lafargue, academy director at INF Clairefontaine. “With both feet. They’re the same now as when he was 12. He seems to go one way and hop, suddenly he’s accelerated the other.”
Mbappé’s family, cautious about an early move abroad, refused all advances from clubs and agents, letting the prospect hone the skills that last season made him the youngest ever scorer in a Champions League semi-final. Mbappé turned down offers from Real Madrid and PSG and settled on joining Monaco in July 2013, where he stole Thierry Henry’s records as the club’s youngest player to appear and score in Ligue 1.
Many clubs felt wrongfooted on Sunday evening when reports of a transfer to PSG filtered through, having thought they were leading the chase. Mbappé had not explicitly requested a transfer, training and communicating as usual while his club negotiated his sale. Once he and his entourage, who felt let down at the start of last season after they believed Monaco’s board had indicated Mbappé would consistently start matches, realised the club had decided to sell him, they unequivocally voiced their preference for PSG.
Money must have been part of the thinking but that would be out of line with how Mbappé has handled his career, having snubbed much more lucrative moves to stay at Clairefontaine and then join Monaco. The chance to stay in Ligue 1 and return to his region of birth have played a significant role in the 18-year-old choosing PSG. Four years ago Mbappé’s parents refused a transfer to Madrid because they did not want to risk their son feeling homesick, and this summer offers from foreign clubs were ranked below PSG’s for the same reason.
Yet PSG was also a choice rooted in a desire to challenge himself in a more competitive environment, with better players than Monaco have been left with following the sales of Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Tiémoué Bakayoko and others on the back of last season’s remarkable title triumph.
Mbappé’s ambition is identical to his prospective new club’s, namely to win the Champions League, and after PSG apparently found a way around article 72 of financial fair-play regulations to land Neymar for £198m and now Mbappé it looks a realistic prospect. Only twice have the world’s two most expensive signings been paired at the same club, each time at Real Madrid, when Zidane joined Luís Figo in 2001 and Gareth Bale was introduced to Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013. On both occasions Madrid won the Champions League the following year.
The switch to Paris will significantly accelerate Mbappé’s development, according to Lafargue. “He can win two years by moving to PSG,” is how his former academy director puts it. “It is a step higher because the environment is more competitive, but he knows some of the players from playing in the national team and will adapt easily.”
Mbappé’s hopes of securing a spot in Didier Deschamps’ France team at next year’s World Cup can arguably be strengthened at PSG. He will be surrounded by talented attackers from Neymar to Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Ángel Di María, Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani.
Although leaving Monaco was not Mbappé’s priority this summer, he and his father made plans and have thought about how a partnership with Neymar may work. Both players are primarily deployed from the left flank but the 18-year-old Mbappé finished last season at Monaco as a second striker alongside Falcao, and wants to be more a central striker than a winger.
That transition, also undergone by Henry, appears to be the next step in Mbappé’s development. “Players like Kylian always want to be in the heart of the action,” Lafargue says. “At academy level he only wanted to play on the wing so as to initiate attacks with the ball in his feet. When he turned professional he gradually understood the importance of off-the-ball runs and spatial awareness. Now, even after one full season in Ligue 1, he has realised he can be in the thick of things if playing as centre-forward, getting himself in more dangerous positions thanks to his positioning without the ball. This is the area where has improved the most since he left us.”
Whereas highlight reels focus on Mbappé’s finishing and dribbling, what he does in between these snippets may be his biggest asset, in the timing of his runs and intelligence off the ball. Wilfried Mbappé, not one to lavish his son with praise, acknowledged Kylian spots pockets of space one does not even see from the stands.
This skill contributed to Monaco boasting one of Europe’s most prolific attacks last season and could greatly benefit Neymar and allow Mbappé to succeed as a centre-forward. In that role Mbappé would offer mobility across the front three in a mould similar to what the Brazilian enjoyed at Barcelona.
The greater spotlight and pressure may be on Neymar but Mbappé faces expectations as never before. He deserves reasonable patience but it would seem unwise to bet against him stepping up to the challenge, as he has done ever since that first practice session at AS Bondy.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010