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Kylian Mbappé Is Taking The Champions League One On One

Kylian Mbappe of PSG in action during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 round of 16 second leg match between Real Sociedad and Paris Saint-Germain at Reale Arena, Estadio de Anoeta on March 5, 2024 in San Sebastian, Spain.
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

If we are to believe the news, Kylian Mbappé is finally (and for real this time! No seriously! Well... maybe) going to leave Paris Saint-Germain. There is reason to believe this time really is different. The biggest indication of this came over the weekend, when PSG manager Luis Enrique subbed off Mbappé at halftime of an away match against Monaco—a naked provocation. Mbappé responded by coming out of the dressing room after halftime and waltzing around the pitch's perimeter, waving at fans and posing for selfies, as if blithely oblivious to the significant match the team he captains was in the midst of. After making the rounds, Mbappé declined to watch the rest of the match from the bench with the team and instead went up into the VIP box to sit next to his momager. Luis Enrique and Mbappé have since insisted that there are no ill feelings, that the manager is simply using the remaining matches of a league the club already has in the bag to prepare for Life After Kylian, and that in the games that matter, Mbappé's place on the pitch will be assured.

The games that matter are, of course, the ones in the Champions League. Even with the growing clarity that all involved see the PSG-Mbappé relationship as one nearing its expiration, the club and the player both still share an obsession with club soccer's most hallowed tournament. PSG and Mbappé both need the prestige and validation that come with winning the trophy with the big ears. For PSG, winning the Champions League would be the long-awaited culmination of a process that started back in 2011, when Qatar first purchased the club and with it sought to ascend into the soccer's (and geopolitical society's) aristocracy, and would at last shut the mouths of all those who've laughed and laughed at the parvenu's vulgar and consistently, humiliatingly failed attempts at seeking a place above its station. For Mbappé, the Champions League is the only club tournament that offers him an audience commensurate with his talent, in front of which he might earn the adulation, glory, and status that would surely already be his if not for the fact that he plays in a team and league hardly anyone watches or respects.

So here we have a club and a player that seem to be mostly fed up with one another. Both know the end is near, but nevertheless both have a vested interest in putting aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. It makes what's left of the season a sort of last dance between two parties who eagerly await the arrival of their next partners. The thing about Mbappé, though, is he doesn't really need much from his partners. If there's one player capable of going it alone, it's him—a lesson Real Sociedad learned first-hand.

Tuesday saw Mbappé's PSG travel to Basque Country for the second leg of its round of 16 Champions League tie against la Real. The first leg—played just a day before news broke that Mbappé had informed PSG of his decision to leave at season's end—ended in a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Parisians that set them up well for a spot in the quarterfinals. But with the turmoil stemming from Mbappé's impending exit, and especially in light of the incident over the weekend, there did seem to be a chance that Real Sociedad might exploit the tension in Paris and pull off an upset.

Mbappé did not allow this to happen. The French forward scored the match's opening goal just 15 minutes in, which by itself greatly deflated la Real's hopes. He added another in the 56th minute, giving PSG a practically insurmountable 4-0 aggregate lead. Real Sociedad midfielder Mikel Merino was able to get one back on the cusp of stoppage time, but it made no difference. PSG had dominated the match from start to finish, aided by a clever tactical wrinkle from Luis Enrique that saw the away team overwhelm the Spaniards' midfield by positioning Ousmane Dembélé centrally rather than in his customary spot out on the wing. But the man who sentenced the match was Mbappé, and he did so by taking matters into his own feet.

I'm hard pressed to think of a more terrifying sight for a defender than for one to look up, notice Mbappé bearing down on them, and to see that they are all alone. What's more, Mbappé is an expert at creating those exact scenarios. His unparalleled combination of speed, positioning, timing, and technique make it inevitable that he will find himself with several one-on-one situations every match. Both of his goals on Tuesday came from such one-on-ones. On the first, Mbappé placed himself squarely in that vulnerable gap between a full back and a center half, and sprinted straight into it. Dembélé played a pass through that very gap into la Real's penalty box, which Mbappé caught up with before it rolled out of bounds. By the time the Frenchman retrieved the ball, he had defender Igor Zubeldia right where he wanted him: all alone.

You normally think of Mbappé's one-on-one prowess as mostly a factor of his top-end speed, but his repertoire is much deeper than just that, as the moves he put on Zubeldia demonstrate. From a standing position, Mbappé took one explosive first step and had already left the defender for dead. He followed that up with an arguably even more jarring deceleration move that doubled as a shot-fake. By the time Zubeldia recognized that Mbappé had come to a stop, moved to shoot, feinted out of his shot, and thus needed to be closed down again, Mbappé had taken another explosive first step that got him even further away from Zubeldia, who at that point looked like he'd just stepped off a whirling merry-go-round. From an inauspicious angle, Mbappé drove his foot through the ball and smashed it into the side netting, the force literally tearing some strands of it off of the goalpost.

For his next act, Mbappé would resort to maybe his most quintessential play. Lurking along Real Sociedad's back line, the forward waited for a teammate to launch a pass in behind the defense, after which he was off to the races. From the moment Mbappé started to accelerate after Lee Kang-in's lob, it was evident that no one was going to catch him. This meant Mbappé would soon be one-on-one with the keeper, where he was again ruthless.

This technique of shaping up as if he's going curl one into the far post, only to close his hips at the last moment and slap a shot at the near post, is the definitive Mbappé finish. It's almost the reverse of Thierry Henry's signature finish, and as such, it's great to hear Henry himself break down what makes his countryman's technique so difficult and so effective:

Despite the solid performances team-wide across the two legs of this round, it's not clear just how serious PSG are as contenders to win the tournament. PSG is running away with the Ligue 1 title this year, but it's always hard to translate its domestic form, where it enjoys an overwhelming talent advantage, into what might happen on the continental stage, where its rivals are just as good and often more cohesive and battle-tested. Real Sociedad is a good team, but it's struggled with form and injuries in recent months; much sterner tests await PSG in the rounds ahead.

Mbappé is at present the single most destabilizing force in soccer, and he's shown once again that he's capable of taking on and beating entire teams by himself, but that too has been the case for years now, and he's not yet come particularly close to lifting the trophy. For as undeniably formidable as Mbappé is, I can't help but feel his game hasn't developed and expanded as much as it could have by now. The 25-year-old has been running through back lines, dribbling past defenders, and booting in goals for nine whole years now. He's still not as consistent a contributor to how the team plays outside of the attacking phase, and it's illimitable, pitch-spanning dominance that marks the greatest talents the sport has seen, which is the category Mbappé can and should strive to meet. Watching him, I get the sense that Mbappé can do anything he wants when he's doing it by himself, but he's not yet at the level to use his skills to lift his entire team to similar heights.

Maybe this is the year everything clicks. Maybe Mbappé learns how to tap into the kind of player he was during the second half and extra time of the 2022 World Cup final, and maintains that altitude for several entire matches. Maybe he doesn't need to do that and instead just one-v-ones his way to the UCL title this year anyway, in year without many truly, comprehensively great teams. But maybe what has stunted Mbappé's growth as a player is endemic to his comfortable position in Paris, and he will not become the player he can be until he leaves PSG. Either way, the journey to where Mbappé wants to be starts now, and if he, his teammates, and Luis Enrique can come together and achieve what they have a real chance to achieve, Mbappé could get there before he even goes anywhere.

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