The Absurd Talent of Kylian Mbappé

The French star player has already proved that he’s one of the best in the history of the game.

Kylian Mbappé during the round of 16 match between France and Poland
Kylian Mbappé during the round-of-16 match between France and Poland (Jean Catuffe / Getty Images)

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There is no player in the world right now like Kylian Mbappé.

In the 2018 World Cup four years ago, Mbappé burst onto the international stage as a 19-year-old, scoring four times in the tournament, including a breathtaking goal in the final. France won the World Cup, and Mbappé, still a teenager, had already achieved what has eluded some of the greatest players of all time.

Four years later, Mbappé is the top talent on an immensely talented French team looking to defend its World Cup title. But having watched him play over the past two weeks, I’ve realized that Mbappé is not just another elite player, or even world-class player; he is becoming one of the best to have ever played the game.

To some, this might sound like hyperbole, given that we’re talking about a 23-year-old. You might be rolling your eyes as you read this. You might be saying to yourself, Calm down, Clint; turn off the TV and go take a walk. I admit, when I first typed this, I had to delete it and rewrite it a few times just to be sure that I meant it. But it’s true. We are watching a player whose talent is on par with the greatest to have ever stepped on the field.

Of course, he is still young. Of course, there is more for him to achieve and prove. Of course, the measure of a player’s career is usually determined, in part, by its longevity and not just by a few years of brilliance (especially in this era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, athletes who have played at an elite level for 20 years). But if we are talking simply about some of the best players to have ever touched the pitch, this World Cup, Mbappé has further proved that his name should be on that list.

If you watch Mbappé play, you know that so much of his quality as a player lies beyond the realm of that which can be measured empirically. He is almost always the fastest player on the field, a fact that animates the micro-decisions every player on the opposition team makes any time France gets the ball. It’s how his movement off the ball is akin to a dragonfly, leaving defenders running forwards, backwards, and often spinning around in confusion. It is how opposing coaches will draft up entire game plans meant to stop him, forcing their teams to play in ways that they are not accustomed to and diminish their own strengths. It is how, when the ball comes to him, he draws in multiple defenders—as they know no single person could handle him alone—to open up space for his other teammates, much like the NBA superstar Steph Curry, whose most valuable quality, I would argue, is not necessarily his majestic jump shot but how the prospect of the aforementioned jump shot opens space for his teammates when he gets the ball.

But if we were to look at empirics—specifically in the context of the World Cup—one remarkable data point is that Mbappé has already scored five goals in four games for the French team, bringing his World Cup total to nine goals over the span of two tournaments. As the Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano has pointed out, he has more goals than Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Luis Suárez, Zinedine Zidane, Neymar, Thierry Henry, and countless other legends of the game. He has one less goal than Lionel Messi, but Messi is playing in his fifth World Cup; again, Mbappé is playing in his second.

I just have to pause for a second to say that this is absurd.

In France’s most recent round-of-16 game, against Poland, Mbappé’s skills were on full display. So much so that the FIFA YouTube channel made a video featuring highlights of the game simply entitled “The Mbappe Show.”

Mbappé provided an assist to Olivier Giroud on France’s first goal of the game, a goal that made Giroud the all-time leading scorer in French history, passing my all-time favorite player, Thierry Henry, with 52 goals. The irony of Mbappé providing Giroud with the assist to break the record is that—if he remains healthy—Mbappé will almost certainly break that record. Giroud has scored his 52 goals in 117 competitive appearances; Mbappé has already scored 33 goals with potentially another decade or more to play.

But it was Mbappé’s first goal of the match (he scored twice, because of course he did) that was emblematic of the multiple dimensions of his game, and the sheer fear he instills in opponents.

In the 74th minute, the French winger Ousmane Dembélé cut across the pitch from the right-hand side. He passed it through a group of Polish defenders to an open Mbappé, who collected the ball at the top of the box. What happened next was probably bizarre to the casual viewer. As Mbappé got the ball, the two Polish defenders in front of him seemed to approach him in slow motion, then stood almost still in front of him, like a pair of deer standing in the middle of the highway watching an oncoming Ferrari. It was strange to see defenders give Mbappé so much space, but they had clearly backed so far away from him because they knew that if they got too close, Mbappé would simply blow past them. So they stayed back, and Mbappé made them pay. Mbappé took three small touches, collected himself as if he had enough time to pack a carry-on bag for his flight back to Paris, then sent a shot from 16 yards out exploding into the back of the net.

Not since the original Ronaldo—the Brazilian striker who, in the 1996–97 season, scored 47 goals in 49 games—have I seen a player whose combination of speed, technical ability, and fearlessness are similar to what we’re seeing from Mbappé now.

Messi, Mbappé’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, is, to my mind, the very best player in the history of the game. Watching him play in this—likely his final—World Cup has been an extraordinary joy, in part because he has proved that he is still an unmatched talent, even at the age of 35. However, as dynamic as Messi can still be, at this stage of his career, what he instills in opposing players is more akin to reverence than sheer fear. After Argentina defeated Australia in the round of 16, a group of Australian players waited outside Argentina’s locker room so that they could take pictures with him.

The only player in the world at the moment who might instill as much fear in his opponents as Mbappé is Erling Haaland, the 22-year-old Norwegian wunderkind who plays for the English powerhouse Manchester City. But even Haaland, whose national team did not qualify for the World Cup, is not as dynamic a player as Mbappé, who is able to create opportunities for himself seemingly out of nothing.

France will play England in the quarterfinals of the World Cup this afternoon, when Mbappé has the opportunity to build on a legacy that, in many ways, is still in its early days. It’s remarkable to think that we are witnessing a player who is already the best in the world, who likely is not at the height of his talents. Sometimes, fans and commentators can get so caught up in questions of where a player will end up at the end of their career, that we fail to fully appreciate what is in front of us. Even if Mbappé never played another game, he is already a wonder.