Kylian Mbappé: View: Kylian Mbappé, constant muscle memory


One way to examine Kylian Mbappé is to take another look at his second goal – France’s third – against Poland on Sunday, but this time in reverse. Instead of from when the ball was sent from the French forward’s right boot into space, follow the ball’s trajectory from when it pings into the top left hand underside of keeper Wojciech Szczesny’s already breached and much-bombarded box and then track it back to that right foot.

It doesn’t make any sense.

Neither in reverse: How the ball almost levels with the ground as it ‘comes out’ of the goal net, suddenly dips, as if missing two steps in a staircase, inclines and crashes ‘back’ to its origin.

If you think playing the scene in its natural order and time stamp makes things easier, it doesn’t. The sheer power in Mbappé’s shot is one thing. But with a swivel that was Bolshoi after receiving a sliding pass from Marcus Thuram from the left, there was momentum and torque and something else in the midstream dropshot. We don’t know what that was yet – perhaps the same force that makes ships disappear into the Bermuda Triangle.
Mbappé took a bit of time to Mbappé up. But that is what hyper-expectations have made us do – make 11 minutes into a World Cup knock-out round game seem ‘a bit of time’. That surge down the left flank, past winger Przemyslaw Frankowski left standing like the boy on the burning deck, was breathsucking to behold.

This was very heavy shades of Ronaldo – Ronaldo of Brazil and his turf-ploughing runs — for the 21st century. For empiricists, Doha’s Al Thumama stadium screen showed that Mbappé had ran and ran and ran at 35 kph in that burst. Usain Bolt’s top recorded speed is 43.99 kph. But the runner didn’t have the ball tied by invisible superyarn to his feet. And that was just one time that Poland was caught in the 23-year-old’s slipstream. Through the game, Mbappé dropped the shoulder, went short and then long, the ball – a little world — at his feet all the while.

France’s key weapon is this World Cup’s most complete footballer. Armed with Mbappé’s skill, strength, speed and sense of space, he can be criminally indefensible when Les Bleus are in play. In 2018, during the World Cup in Russia, the-then 19-year-old trailed only Ronaldo – the one you have to add ‘Brazil’ in Google searches so that the other one doesn’t pop up – in a Financial Times’ goalscoring rate list by players under 20. At 19, Mbappé had scored 52 club goals (Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain); Messi at Barcelona had scored 25.

While these numbers do mean squat, they don’t help fathom the young man’s earthly powers. A clue can be found in an interview he gave Le Monde some years back in which he sounds like he was channeling another Brazilian great, Socrates: ‘There is no guarantee that if you are good, you will succeed, because you need more than that…. You need a strong mind before you’re a good player, because everything can crumble overnight. And you have to be ready, because you can climb so high and come down so fast. And that, for some, is difficult to live with. It’s a daily preparation. It’s education, learning: how to memorise and execute everything you’ve learned. How to react when you’re facing problems. It takes more than just playing football.’

So, the closest one can explain this extraordinary player is, by his own reckoning: Kylian Mbappé is muscle memory remembered over 90-plus minutes of game, 6-second bull runs, non-reversible timelined midstream dropshots… muscle memory made and recollected with variations over and over again.

The chances of him making things even more memorable for all of us on December 18, two days before his 24th birthday France makes it to the final, is exceedingly high – with no signs of exceedingly odd plateauing or dipping showing.

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