Will Kylian Mbappé’s PSG Have Enough Time?
2:14 PM EST on December 15, 2023
After six years, multiple threats to leave, many promises made and broken and eventually kept, several superstars acquired and jettisoned, and hundreds upon hundreds of millions of Euros spent, Kylian Mbappé finally has what he's been after: a Paris Saint-Germain team all his own. He takes the pitch surrounded by friends and compatriots, in a team structured expressly for and by him, with total license to play where and how he wants, without a single rival for the spotlight. All the torquing of his considerable leverage over the years has led him and PSG here. But as the old saying warns, Mbappé needs to be careful what he wishes for.
PSG's group stage–closing match against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday was a prime example of the benefits and drawbacks of the fate Mbappé has designed for himself. You could see in his personal performance the fruits of his efforts. Freed from the shadow cast by his long-time former teammate Neymar, Mbappé is at last PSG's undisputed attacking fulcrum. Where before he had to sublimate his game to fit it beside the more expansive talents of Neymar (and, to a lesser extent, Lionel Messi), Mbappé is now the one around whom everyone and everything revolves. And Mbappé is one hell of a sun to build a solar system around.
The Frenchman was sensational against Dortmund. More so than any other player on the pitch (and aided by both teams' total disinterest in defensive prudence and midfield control), it was Mbappé who dictated the match's terms. He took advantage of his free role in PSG's setup to wander the field wherever he pleased. He came short to welcome the ball into his feet and organize PSG's possessions with his passing, and he also flexed his world-famous, defense-deforming speed by barreling into space when the moment called for it. Wherever his team was most in need of help, and wherever Dortmund was most vulnerable, there you would find Mbappé. That he didn't help put at least three goals on the scoreboard from either his shots or passes is a minor miracle or travesty, depending on your rooting interest.
What made Mbappé's outing against BVB so remarkable was its range and maturity. The 24-year-old forward has been one of the sport's most destabilizing forces for the better part of a decade already. But the one criticism you might have had for him, the thing keeping him from that most rarefied stratosphere of inter-generational greatness, is that he's often played more for himself than for his team. This is a common affliction for young players, and it's hardly a sin when playing for himself has gotten Mbappé close to a goal-per-game average for going on six straight seasons now. Nevertheless, it's the ability to read, affect, and dominate matches both inside and outside of the penalty box, to not just do the flashy thing to win games but to bend the whole proceedings to your will, that marks players of the very highest caliber.
For a long time, Mbappé wasn't that guy, at least not regularly. In part that was because the player in Paris whose game more readily assumed that position of global influence was Neymar. Mbappé's wish to rid his PSG of the Brazilian had to have been at least partially inspired by his desire to claim that role for himself, and in doing so seek to realize the full height of his nearly limitless talent. (Oh, the irony; Neymar leaves Barcelona for Paris so that he can finally be The Guy, only to be forced out of Paris years later because the player he joined with now wants to be The Guy.) The Dortmund game—and Mbappé's movement, creativity, stunning array of passes, irrepressible dribbling, patient yet aggressive decision-making, etc. therein—was proof of concept, and evidence that he really is getting there.
But what the Dortmund game and PSG's overall performance in this Champions League group stage also show is that Mbappé's PSG isn't all that great. Remember, PSG qualified for the knockout round only by the skin of its teeth. The Parisians were favorites to win this admittedly difficult group, and yet they wound up squeaking through in second place. A single Dortmund goal on Wednesday would've sent them crashing into Europa League humiliation. Not only that, but PSG wouldn't have even been in position to qualify if not for a dubious penalty in stoppage time of the previous matchday, which allowed them to escape with a critical point against Newcastle United. Even in inspired form (by at least one metric he was the most effective attacker in the whole group stage), Mbappé alone is not enough to bring PSG where the club expects to be.
Hence the tradeoff of this new-look PSG. Mbappé no longer has to fight with Neymar or Messi for prominence, which has unlocked new levels of the Frenchman's game. On the flip side, Mbappé can no longer rely on talents of the same quality as his to help him carry PSG to where it needs to go. There's a difference when the player trying to curl one in from the top of the box is Bradley Barcola instead of Messi, or when the player racing clean through on goal after a brilliant through ball is Randal Kolo Muani instead of Mbappé himself. Granted, it's not like the previous PSG teams were European juggernauts (this is the third-consecutive season in which the Frenchies finished second in their group), but the team only ever appeared truly capable of challenging for the Champions League trophy when it united Mbappé with a fully healthy Neymar—and it was the latter who almost always ran the show.
In most ways it would appear that time is on PSG's side. Mbappé turns 25 next week, which should mean that his best years lie ahead of him. Similarly, though at present they're no Neymar or Messi or Ángel Di María or Marco Verratti, you don't have to squint when you look at Kolo Muani and Barcola and Gonçalo Ramos and Warren Zaïre-Emery (especially him) to see greatness on the horizons. This is but the beginning of the new, purportedly holistic and intentional rather than glamor-focused squad assembly philosophy PSG has decided to implement. Given room to grow, and further reinforced with smart, complimentary additions, there's no reason why PSG's young core can't develop into a team worthy of the star at the center of it all.
But the future is never set in stone, not in soccer and especially not with Mbappé. Though player and club eventually reached a detente (timed not coincidentally with Neymar's official exit) over the summer, Mbappé never did extend his contract. That means starting in January he can negotiate with other clubs about potentially joining them on a free (though "free" is a funny word to apply to a deal that would surely include a signing bonus of at least €100 million) transfer next summer. It's hardly a guarantee that Mbappé will be in Paris next year, not when there are several other clubs that can offer him a better supporting cast, a better track record of achieving success, and a more prominent team and league for the striker to bask in all the attention and adoration his play deserves. And though Mbappé reaching his full potential—winning European Cups and Golden Boots and Ballons d'Or as the inarguable best player world—feels close to a virtual certainty, he need only look to Neymar to see how even the brightest, surest of talents can go under-decorated when hitched to the wrong wagon.
So time may be on Mbappé's side, but it's also running out. He doesn't have forever to wait around for PSG to finally become the kind of place that can help him be who he can be and win what he can win. And it's possible that the overhaul he himself instigated has gotten the club further from that goal. Mbappé to an extent must be pleased that his version of PSG allows him to express the breadth of his game, as shown on Wednesday, and that, plus what is likely a much more relaxed and congenial locker room surrounded by friends and Frenchman, could very well encourage him that he is doing the right things to make Paris the right place for him. Just the same, it has to be profoundly discouraging to see that even that isn't enough at the moment.
There's about half a season left for PSG to prove to Mbappé that he does not have to leave home to have everything he wants. That also gives Mbappé about five months to decide whether staying in Paris, where he is essentially the club's star and decision maker on and off the pitch, is the best option for him going forward. One thing's for certain: The money will be there in Paris, as will the power. Previously, Mbappé has chosen those above all other considerations, surely with the belief that with his influence, he could get the rest of it, too. Ultimately, it'll be up to him to decide where he'd rather be: at his PSG or someone else's elsewhere.