We have not exactly heard how he felt on Saturday night because Kylian Mbappe didn’t speak after PSG’s 1-0 win at Angers on Saturday. He didn’t even post on social media, though he didn’t need to; PSG fans could tell he was clearly unhappy on the bench.
Was it because he was subbed off in the 79th minute by Jesus Perez, Mauricio Pochettino’s assistant, who took charge of the team because the manager tested positive for COVID-19? Was it because 2021 has been a pretty rotten year for him so far, even by his own lofty standards? Was it for both these reasons, or something else?
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Mbappe has not been playing like Mbappe for a while now. In his last 13 games in all competitions, he has scored five goals, including just two in his last eight appearances. Before this mini-slump, he got visibly frustrated with the focus on his goal “drought” in the Champions League, sources told ESPN. Until the final game of the group stage at the Parc des Princes against Istanbul Basaksehir in December, where he got a brace in a 5-1 victory, he hadn’t found the back of the net in the competition in all of 2020.
The truth is that the French prodigy, still only 22, has been disappointing since football returned in France last year after the coronavirus led to the premature end of the 2019-20 Ligue 1 season. His stats in 2020-21 campaign are certainly lower than in previous seasons. though not in terms of goals or assists; with 12 (including 4 penalties) and 4 in 12 starts (16 appearances in total), he is doing pretty well. It’s more in the content of his performances that there is a problem, as his contributions to PSG’s attacking play are down quite significantly for a player of his calibre and talent.
Mbappe’s non-penalty expected goals per game (excluding penalties) and expected assists per game are lower (1.45 last season, compared to 0.86 this season, in all competitions). He shoots less often (down 1.2 shots per game in 2020-21) and less often on target (by almost 1 full shot), and he loses the ball more than last year despite still having the same percentage of successful dribbles (around 50%).
In recent games against Saint-Etienne, Marseille and Angers, when Neymar was not in the starting XI, Mbappe seemingly struggled to be the main guy. He tried too hard on his own to make things happen and lost the ball repeatedly. He only succeeded in 25% of his dribbles against Angers, and didn’t carry once the ball in the opposition’s penalty box! It’s so unusual to see from a player from whom we’re used to seeing impact and productivity around goal.
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Despite having abundant talent around him, Mbappe’s main flaw is arguably that he tends to try to do everything on his own, often via individual runs in possession, which are not working at the moment. Not having Neymar next to him every week, due to the Brazilian’s myriad absences and injuries, has made things difficult too, as Mbappe has a strong rapport with the PSG’s No. 10 and is maybe a bit lost when Ney is not there.
The fact that the Frenchman has struggled to be fully fit for most of the season has also been a problem. Despite being so young, the 2018 World Cup champion has played an enormous amount of games since he was 17.
The numbers are staggering: 202 matches (155 starts), 14,116 minutes played at club level along with 37 caps and 2,533 minutes for France. That’s an incredible 16,649 minutes of football at just 22, and with a style of play based on speed and energy. Mbappe is such an explosive player, both on and off the ball, that he needs to be 100% in order to realise his potential, and such momentum has been hard to find. There have been injuries, the break due to the pandemic, him testing positive for COVID-19 as well.
Because PSG were still in the Champions League, Mbappé and his teammates never actually properly stopped. He always felt like he never stopped playing between last season and this current one, like he told the club’s website back in September. “I don’t feel that we have played our 9th game of the season but our 69th! Usually after playing a Champions League final, you have a proper break, you forget about football. We didn’t. We never stopped and it is hard to deal with it, mentally and physically” he said.
There are some off-field issues impacting his performances on the pitch, but arguably the biggest source of stress right now is his contract situation.
On Tuesday in an interview with France Football, Leonardo, PSG’s sporting director, mentioned again the negotiations with his No. 7, whose contract expires in June 2022, the same timeline as Neymar’s existing deal.
“I hope they are convinced that PSG is a good place to be right now for a very high-level, ambitious player,” said Leonardo. “We just have to find an agreement with their desires, their demands, our expectations and our possibilities. We are not begging them to ‘please, stay.’ It is more detailed than this. The ones who really want to stay will stay. We exchange regularly and I have good vibes regarding both those [players].”
Sources have told ESPN that Mbappe is very much pondering his future, specifically whether he stays or leaves Paris. His dream is, and has always been, to play for Real Madrid, but he knows that the Spanish champions, like all top European clubs, has been hit really hard by the pandemic and that they cannot afford him right now. The financial strain rings even more true for Liverpool, where the Frenchman would be keen to play as well. But Mbappe knows that extending his contract at PSG is probably the best option right now, though the whole situation is clearly weighing on his mind. The more he delays making a decision — and he could well wait until the summer to do so — the more it could disturb him on the pitch.
When he came in as PSG manager at the start of January, Mauricio Pochettino said that he wanted to help the French forward express every bit of his huge potential. He probably didn’t think at the time that the task would be that big. Pochettino knows that PSG can only perform to their collective best if Mbappe is at his individual best, so he needs to get him back there rather sooner than later. Their first interactions between the pair have been great, sources told ESPN, and Mbappe was relaxed and happy at training this week, a welcome sign.
On Friday, Mbappe will of course start against Montpellier at the Parc des Princes, and every little sign of progress or improvement will be scrutinised.