As Kylian Mbappe left the pitch at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday night after a disappointing and underwhelming 1-1 draw with Benfica, he knew the cameras were all focused on him. The world was watching, and to be fair, they had been since he got off the Paris Saint-Germain team bus with Achraf Hakimi, his friend and teammate, almost four hours earlier.
All day on Tuesday, the world of football belonged to Mbappe, which is maybe what he wanted. He monopolised all the attention. He was the focus of all the pregame talk, all the TV shows, all the radio shows and all the newspaper columns, and he was a major topic on social media. When news broke early afternoon, European time, of his intention to leave PSG, all hell broke loose!
Exactly 143 days after signing a three-year deal (two years, with an option for a third) with the club, the 23-year-old has now decided to leave in January, as sources told ESPN. He feels betrayed by all the promises made, but not kept, by PSG when he extended his contract. He feels that above all else, he has been let down by the club. He was supposed to be the heart of the project, though he doesn’t believe that reflects the present reality at the club.
At 23, he made a huge call by staying in the French capital last summer and by pledging his future (albeit in the short-term) there instead of going to Real Madrid. Now, he regrets his choice and believes it was a mistake, sources told ESPN. It is mostly because of the football, but as Mbappe’s entourage puts it, the issues go well beyond that.
Despite being top of the table in Ligue 1 and in their Champions League group, despite the 15-game unbeaten run so far this season, despite his 12 goals in all competitions already this campaign, he is not happy and PSG’s results are not a fair reflection of the reality. The team are not playing well. There are issues everywhere, whether it’s the perceived lack of ideas and tactical knowledge of manager Christophe Galtier, the injury to Lionel Messi or even the deficit of collective effort from the whole squad — PSG are covering the least distance of any team in the Champions League group stage so far this season — or the absence of work and intensity at training, there are reasons to be concerned. And in Mbappe’s case, reasons to be disappointed.
The Frenchman is also playing a position — lone striker — that he doesn’t like. He wants to be paired with a second striker, to have more freedom by playing off a more conventional No. 9. PSG promised they’d acquire one in the summer, but only 19-year-old Hugo Ekitike — he’s talented, but still too young and not ready — arrived. They tried for Robert Lewandowski (who joined Barcelona instead), Gianluca Scamacca (who joined West Ham) and even Marcus Rashford, but failed every time. As a result, Mbappe is still playing on his own up front while Neymar and Messi are shining in those playmaking roles behind him.
Speaking of Neymar, the cohabitation with the Brazil international is complicated as well. They used to be friends, but their contrasting trajectories — Mbappe is very much on the rise given his profile, while Neymar is winding down and arguably entering the final years of his career — mean they have grown apart. Neymar also doesn’t understand why PSG gave Mbappe such a big contract, while Mbappe feels his teammate is getting away with too much ill discipline. Mbappe was told that Neymar would be sold in the summer, yet he is still there and thriving in the position Mbappe thought would be his own.
Defensively, things are tough, too. Another of the promises made to Mbappe was the arrival of a world-class centre-back to help cement their push for a Champions League title. Milan Skriniar was the target all summer, but he never came, and now PSG are arguably weak in the heart of defense following the injury to Presnel Kimpembe and the red card to Sergio Ramos last weekend at Reims. It was the 28th sending-off of Ramos’ career and as a result, he’ll miss Le Classique against Lyon on Sunday evening. The lack of depth at the back is a worry.
Overall, Galtier’s PSG are still way too dependent on moments of brilliance from one of their star players. They still don’t press or counter-press well enough to cause problems against strong opponents; with the ball, there is not much improvement week on week after a good start. Mbappe knows all of this. He sees it at training and in matches, and he doesn’t believe a quick fix is possible. He was told that PSG were building a great team capable of winning the Champions League around him, and he doesn’t see it so far.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)
After three draws in a row with very average performances, the clock is already ticking for Galtier, and some of the question marks around his appointment are still there. Against Benfica, we saw some of the limitations of his PSG team, especially in defensive transitions. Messi and Nuno Mendes are now out injured and without them, it felt like there was no game plan and certainly no patterns of play in Tuesday’s Champions League game.
It won’t be easy to fix all the problems, and Mbappe knows it. Mentally, he has already moved into a different place anyway. Those around him know he is very stubborn and when he has an idea in his head, that’s it. For their part, PSG don’t want to sell him in January and they could well force him to stay, but that could prove counterproductive because as we have seen very often already this season, he is indispensable to this team.
Nevertheless, he has mentally checked out. He is still decisive on the pitch, as we saw with his penalty scored against Benfica, but in his mind, a new chapter of his life will start soon and will start somewhere else. Time will tell just how quickly this will play out.