t’s important to be clear about one thing: other sides will not give Kylian Mbappé as much space as Argentina gave him. He may never again find himself in a major game romping through such vacant pastures.
There will be cones in training sessions who give him more of a race than Argentina’s defence did on Saturday, although they probably won’t kick him quite so hard or spend quite so much time grabbing at his shoulders. This was the perfect game for Mbappé. But he took full and ruthless advantage.
Much was made of the fact that, at 19, Mbappé became the first teenager to score two goals in a World Cup knockout match since Pelé in 1958, but one 19 is not the same as another 19. By 19, Wayne Rooney was a fully developed player (and, given Euro 2004 was his peak, arguably already past his best as an England player). Mbappé, physically imposing as he is, has started only 44 league games.
His career consists of half a season at Monaco when he seemed suddenly to emerge, fully formed, as a terrifyingly effective forward in the Champions League, followed by a season on loan in Neymar’s shadow at Paris St-Germain pending a £166m transfer this summer.
For a player so untested, that figure seemed extraordinary when it was agreed, but it is increasingly coming to look like a bargain. There is still a question of where he fits in a team dominated by the look-at-me self-indulgence of the Brazilian, but even in classes dominated by the greatest attention-seeking show-off, the other kids can still learn. Getting to France, and playing alongside somebody as comparatively selfless as Olivier Giroud, who laid on his second goal with a deftly weighted pass, must seem a tremendous relief.
Although Didier Deschamps, putting aside for a moment the grumpiness that has characterised his World Cup, was moved to indulge a comparison to the Brazilian striker Ronaldo, it was another star of the 1998 World Cup Mbappé more obviously evoked. Twenty years to the day after Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina, Mbappé produced a remarkable tribute to win the penalty that gave France their 13th-minute lead. It would be another five and a half months before Mbappé was born. There was, perhaps, less technical ability required for him than Owen – there was no feather touch with the heel to pull the ball into his stride, no sudden cut inside to go past the final defenders – but the sense of awe at the sheer pace of it felt familiar.
The running styles are different as well: Owen a blur of roadrunner legs, Mbappé an astonishingly smooth and graceful acceleration, broad chest cruising through the open space of midfield as Éver Banega and Javier Mascherano gave hopeless pursuit before the surge right past a panicked Marcos Rojo, who denied him his Owen finish by pulling him down. In truth, by then Mbappé may have overrun it, but it didn’t matter; he had induced sufficient fear to draw the mistake.
His goals, though, would come. His first showed remarkable awareness to know where the space was in the box, and technical ability to move across a thicket of players to find it. Franco Armani, perhaps, might have done a little better, seemingly caught between trying to save with foot or body, but credit is due Mbappé for striking the shot early enough that the keeper couldn’t get himself set into a more balanced position. The second was perhaps easier, a low shot past an exposed keeper, but it followed the sort of breakaway that his pace should means over the years becomes a trademark.
That’s three goals now for Mbappé at this World Cup (Owen was the last teenager to score two at a tournament), but just as important is the sense of balance he has given France. “In such an important match, he’s shown all his talent,” said Deschamps. “And even if he was supposed to defend, he still did attacks, and very good ones.” That criticism was presumably at least in part a joke – they seem not to come naturally, but he did seem to signal he wasn’t being entirely serious by bearing his teeth for a moment as he waited for the next question – but the point of the system he has instilled is that it is necessary for Mbappé to play on the front foot.
With Blaise Matuidi a more defensive presence operating on the left, if Mbappé does not get forward, France’s shape, as it often did in the group stage, becomes a narrow 4-4-1-1. Mbappé breaking forward, going beyond Giroud, is as essential to their balance as Matuidi tucking in on the other side is. Matuidi will miss the quarter-final against Uruguay through suspension; Deschamps’s task is to retain a balance that allows Mbappé his freedom without compromising the stability of the midfield.
Uruguay would have provided a very different threat anyway. Deschamps suggested that Mbappé needs more space than Ronaldo, and Óscar Tabárez’s team will not give him anywhere near as much of that as Argentina did. The quarter-final will be a different test and a different magnitude of test, but Mbappé is on the sort of upward trajectory that, within the confines of a tournament, makes anything seem possible.