If in a year’s time Kylian Mbappé finds himself suiting up for the other side in a hypothetical rematch of yesterday’s game between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, it will surprise exactly no one. His intention to swap Paris for Madrid has been a poorly kept secret for years now, and was finally said aloud when he asked PSG to let him go last summer. Similarly, the reasons he’d likely give to explain his desire to leave aren’t hard to figure out: He wants to play for his favorite club from childhood, in the same kit as his idol Cristiano Ronaldo, away from the twin shadows cast by PSG teammates Neymar and Lionel Messi, in search of a spot to display and develop his talents with the full focus of the sun’s illuminating and nurturing rays shining directly on his face. All of those, and especially the last one, are cognizable, even commendable aspirations. The surest proof that Mbappé would be able to find that prominence and preeminence in Madrid is that he’s already managed to acquire it in Paris.
Yesterday’s match may have been decided by only a single goal, but the balance of play was heavily slanted in PSG’s favor. It was Mbappé who applied most of that weight. Ever since his breakout season with Monaco as a 17-year-old, Mbappé’s speed and threat into open space has been so powerful as to totally condition how and where the other team defends. Still only 23 years of age now, his speed is every bit as backline-warping as it ever was. But it’s what he’s added to his game over the years that makes him who he is now, at the moment the very best player in the world.
No longer just a threat sprinting into big spaces, he’s added a chisel to his mallet with his growing comfort when dropping, dribbling, and associating in small spaces. While in prior seasons with PSG he’s had a tendency to play a secondary role, leaving the game-building and -managing to Marco Verratti and Neymar, Mbappé now knows how to listen to what the match is asking of him and supply that right away rather than waiting for a Neymar pass to lead him there. As they say in Spanish, it’s the difference between making plays and making play; the Frenchman has always thrived in the individual moments, but now he has learned how to contribute to all the interstitial aspects between big plays that make up the bulk of the game. In doing so, he is becoming what everyone has long thought he could be.
For perhaps the first time in a big Champions League match, Mbappé was both why PSG won and why they dominated. The mere implication of his speed pushed the Madrid defense back a dozen or so yards whenever he was on the front line, which gave oxygen to Verratti’s and Messi’s jaunts between the lines. Mbappé immediately recognized that the “person” in the Dani Carvajal jersey was in reality a well-disguised training cone, and so he at once set out gashing the “defender” down the left wing. However, it soon became clear that blowing by Carvajal still left Madrid’s defensive diamond—the quartet of Casemiro, David Alaba, Éder Militão, and Thibaut Courtois, all of whom were fantastic yesterday—unharmed. In response, Mbappé left the wide areas of the left flank to Nuno Mendes, and focused his own efforts on attacking the interval between Carvajal, Militão, and Casemiro, in doing so weakening that diamond’s integrity and allowing himself, Messi, and Verratti to take more swings at it.
His sprints behind the Madrid defense consistently kept the backline disjointed and off balance. His receptions in the pockets of space in front of the defense, from which he combined expertly with Messi with little wall passes and first-time touches, added more cracks to the opponent’s deep block. His willingness to press the ball after PSG lost possession prevented Madrid’s usually world-class buildup from taking root, which meant Madrid never took advantage of PSG’s infamously weak transition defense. Almost every single thing PSG did well in the match bore Mbappé’s fingerprints. And that’s before he sealed the well-deserved win with an unbelievable jink and finish to kill the match in stoppage time.
The odds that Mbappé makes his anticipated move from Paris to Madrid in the summer are high. (For Madridista tealeaf-readers, the pain of watching Mbappé murder their team in the match’s final moments may have quickly given way to hope and excitement when he unveiled his remarkably proficient Spanish language skills in a postgame interview.) As long as he shares a pitch with Messi and Neymar, he will never be the biggest name on his own team. At Real, he would be that singular star, and every move the club made would be centered on empowering him first and foremost.
Having that status is as much a responsibility as it is a luxury, which is why the desire and ambition the mooted move reveals speaks as well of Mbappé as it did of Neymar when the latter left Messi in Barcelona to pave his own path. But make no mistake: When it comes to being the most important player at a club with continent-conquering aspirations, the one who stands above the other 21 players on the pitch as the match’s protagonist, the one who gets the ball at the biggest moment and does the thing that makes the whole world’s eyes turn to him, Mbappé showed yesterday that he’s’s already capable of getting that right where he is.