How good is Kylian Mbappe? The teenager just spent 180 minutes torching the best defense in the world
What is Kylian Mbappe's ceiling? Right now it's looking to be somewhere between Thierry Henry and the Archangel Michael, but honestly there's no telling just how good this kid can be.
We're fresh off seeing an 18-year-old manchild terrorize one of the best defenses in European history. For 180 minutes, Mbappe put the fear of god into the Juventus back line, culminating in the goal that ended Juve's historic scoreless streak. The Bianconeri had stood firm for 690 minutes, seeing off the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, and they'd even made it look easy.
Until they met Kylian Mbappe.
Monaco's crown jewel was a problem for the Bianconeri from start to finish, with the wiry attacker showcasing every single tool in his extensive kit. It wasn't just his eye-popping pace to get in behind, or his mesmerizing skill with the ball at his feet that gave the Juventus defense fits, but his understanding of the ebbs and flows of the game, and ability to consistently find pockets of space in dangerous areas made life hell for the Bianconeri. There was no hyperbole about it. He was a monster, and it went well beyond just physical skills.
Over two legs, Mbappe was the most constant and terrifying threat Juventus have seen this year.
Juventus' defense were well aware of Mbappe's danger before the match, and legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon gave him high praise before their first meeting, calling him an "incredible talent" and a "good kid."
"Of course, the characteristics are similar [between he and Thierry Henry] - he plays for Monaco early in his career, the very slender and elegant running style," Buffon told UEFA's website.
"Probably, at this age, he is even better in front of goal than Henry was."
Thierry Henry comparisons have become standard for Mbappe, and his ability to somehow exceed those expectations has become even more standard. Buffon was right to be wary, and the Frenchman gave the goalkeeper plenty of problems. He tested him a number of times in the first leg, bringing the very best out of the old man in the Old Lady's goal, and was finally able to put one past the 39-year-old Italy legend with a nice finish in the 69th minute of the second match. It wasn't enough to help Monaco progress past Juventus, but it was more than deserved for the effort he put in over two legs.
Mbappe's goal was well earned, and it was the perfect showcase of just how diverse his talent is. Throughout the tie, and throughout this entire season, he's shown his physical capabilities: There aren't many athletes in the game who can keep up with him in a footrace. He's showed off his silky smooth dribbling skills time and time again, twisting and turning defenders inside and out all through the season. He even managed to put Juventus' best one-on-one defender Andrea Barzagli in a blender, joining an extremely exclusive list of Very Saucy Individuals.
But it wasn't his athleticism or dribbling ability that got him on the scoresheet, it was his preternatural off-the-ball movement and timing inside the box. It was his understanding of where to be, and the determination to shrug off the attentions of Alex Sandro so he could ghost in and side-foot home Monaco's only goal.
At basically a standstill, in tight quarters with the best defenders in the world looking for him, Mbappe still managed to get free. That has nothing to do with athleticism -- it's all instinct, intelligence and perfect timing. Whereas some youngsters can shine early on because of their physical gifts, Mbappe is well beyond that. And he has those physical gifts.
Barzagli himself was effusive in his praise for the young Frenchman after the first leg matchup, raving about the completeness of his game.
“We studied Mbappe, he is a devastating player," said Barzagli. I’ve met some over the years, but at his age with that technique, physical strength pace, and above all his movements, because he changes things up and makes excellent movements off the ball. I’ve not seen someone like him."
Ostensibly a central striker, Mbappe has drawn comparisons to Henry mainly because of that movement. Tall, with a string bean figure, Mbappe isn't physically strong enough yet to regularly throw bodies around with burly center backs, but his sweeping runs through the center out to the wings cause devastation because of the way he's able to pull central players wide, creating space for himself and his teammates. While Henry often favored drifting to the left wing in order to cut inside and have a shot on his stronger right foot, so far Mbappe's shown he's equally comfortable taking on players down the right wing as he is mirroring his predecessor down the left. A consummate team player, the teenager is just as likely to beat his defender to the end line and put in a tantalizing cross as he is to skate past his marker and force a shot on goal.
Even though he prefers drifting wide, part of Mbappe's terrifying versatility is his efficacy through the middle, too. He's more than capable of holding the ball up in the middle if necessary, joining in combination play with his strike partner Falcao, and working intricate one-twos with the creative midfielders behind him, or checking in deep only to spin and get in behind into the space he's just created for himself. Despite his young age, he already seems to have the full bag of striker's tricks, and it looks like he's adding more to his repertoire with every match.
Wonderkids come along every single year, and the vast majority of them flame out rather than becoming legitimate stars. Every once in a while a player shows up who looks almost predestined for greatness though, and that aura is shining all over Mbappe.
It's too early to call him a superstar yet, but there's no doubting the fact that if he had a walk-up song, it'd be Lil Wayne's "No Ceilings."