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Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him

Kylian Mbappé is one, if not the most talented player of his generation. He revealed himself to the world at a very early age during the 2016/17 season with Monaco, where his club won Ligue 1 ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. He joined PSG the following year for the crazy amount of 180 million euros (loan with a purchase obligation) and became the second-biggest transfer in the history of football behind Neymar’s. In the same year, he won the World Cup in Russia with the French national team and shone with his exploits, like those against Argentina. The 21-year-old prodigy scored a goal in the final against Croatia, becoming the second-youngest goalscorer in a World Cup final behind Pele.

Many defenders have bad memories of the matches against Mbappé, as the young PSG player can be a real poison for the defences. He combines both exceptional abilities to eliminate his opponent and an ability to be clinical in front of goal. In addition to his outstanding Ligue 1 stats since his debut in 2015/16 (80 goals or one goal every 103 minutes), he is the top scorer under 21 in UEFA Champions League history with 19 goals. After all that, it clearly seems difficult to stop the young French striker, or at least defend on him. This article will obviously not present a miracle solution for defending on Mbappé, but rather some ideas on how to limit his impact and influence in the game. In this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, we will focus on the contribution of Mbappé in the last 30 meters and how to reduce his field of expression on a football pitch as much as possible. Because before thinking about how to defend against him, you need to understand him and know his strengths.

Style of play

Mbappé is a player with great explosiveness and an outstanding pace. The quality of his support allows him to have a very good acceleration on the first meters. We regularly see the young PSG striker nearly full stop and then making a sudden acceleration that leaves the defenders in the dust. He has perfect control of his body and his changes of pace are fatal for his opponents. The PSG striker also has a great balance, which allows him to be very effective on fake shots and changes of direction. In addition to being an incredible athlete, Mbappé has a good technique and has a large skillset.  He is not an excellent passer, but the quality of his runs and off the ball movements puts him in a good position to make assists (22 assists in Ligue 1 since his transfer to PSG).

Mbappé has a rather peculiar dribbling technique, but it proves to be very effective. His dribbles are generally long, with ample gestures. If you compare him to Jadon Sancho, another great talent, there are some differences Sancho will tend to make short dribbles, keeping the ball very close to his foot, while Mbappé is rather the opposite. Even in small spaces, Mbappé can allow himself dribbles or ball controls that are longer as his explosiveness coupled with very good supports still allow him to be first on the ball. But it’s in the big spaces that Mbappé is the most efficient.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

In the picture above, you can notice the speed of execution of Mbappé which very easily eliminates Marcelo of Lyon. He attracts the Brazilian defender inwards and eliminated him with a fake shot to get to the goal. Everything is done with such speed that it is very complicated for the Lyon player to defend because the athletic gap between the two players is big.

There’s also the mental part, which is not to be overlooked when we talk about this phenomenon. Mbappé has the soul of a winner. He detects opponents’ weak points and always has this will to take the best on them. During 90 minutes, he will solicit his direct opponent and will do everything to take the psychological ascendancy on him. The former Monaco player has a rage to win and an unfailing determination. His incredible ambition off the pitch is evident when he plays football. When you defend against Mbappé, you have to be psychologically ready and focus all time.

Role and offensive pattern

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

Mbappé has mainly played in two different positions in PSG’s tactics this season, as a left-winger and a centre forward in the second half of the season. Whatever his position, The 21-year-old wonderkid is very mobile and roams from his position.  As you can see on the heatmap, Mbappé loves to start from an off-centre position and cuts inside, especially in the left half-space. He is excellent in large spaces and the fact that he starts from a more off-centre position allows him to free himself from the opposing axial density.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

As you can see on the graph on the left above, Mbappé improves his team’s game more by running than by passing. We notice in particular this tendency to make its offensive actions in the left half-space. Mbappé is able to penetrate in this area with the ball at his feet just as well as he could if he was to run there without the ball. He completes 4.84 progressive runs per 90 minutes and is one of the best in this area in Ligue 1. The former Monaco forward is also the player who tries the most dribbles with 9.29 per 90 and has a 54.49% success rate.

The graph on the right shows what Mbappé does after his dribbles. Being naturally attracted by the opponent’s goal, the 21-year-old wonderkid always tries to get into a striking position. He is very good at it and has good speed on the dribbling and shooting sequence. This season, only 14% of the French international’s strikes were out of the box. He will always try to get into the penalty area to increase his chances of scoring (0.19 of npxG per shot this season, one of the best in Ligue 1).

It remains obvious that there is no exact science to stop Mbappé and that it is very difficult to contain him as a defender. Because in addition to all the qualities mentioned above, the former Monaco player is very intelligent and is able to vary his game or adapt his positioning to place the opposing team in total uncertainty. However, certain behaviours, initiatives and types of defence can limit Mbappé’s impact within a match.

Man marking

The most difficult and important thing for a defender against Mbappé is to manage his distance from him. The 2018 World Champion must be given very little space and he must never be able to turn around or be able to accelerate. You must not be too far away from him to be able to intervene if he receives the ball, nor too close so as not to be caught in the depth or on his first touch. This “good” distance offers the defender several possibilities until the last moment. If Mbappé receives the ball back to goal, for example, the defender is close enough to him to intervene on the passing time. If, on the other hand, the young forward makes a movement in-depth, the defender might be able to compete on the run as he starts with a bit of a head start.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

In the above action, Axel Disasi is at a good distance from Mbappé, as he is able to intervene if the latter receives the ball in the feet, but is also able to contain him in the depths. Note the interesting orientation of Disasi’s body, especially his shoulders, which are oriented in the direction of the young PSG player to anticipate a possible run in-depth. It’s very important that Disasi keeps this safe distance as he is part of the last line in Reims defence and therefore has space in his back. Defending on Mbappé also means adapting this distance according to the game action. If Mbappé drops deep to participate in the build-up play, the defender who marks him can be very close to him as the depth would be covered by his teammates.

Individual marking seems to be a good solution against the 21-year-old player, provided that the player who has the task of defending on him is good at anticipating and reading the game. Thiago Silva’s match against Mbappé in the 2017 League Cup final is an excellent example of how it is possible to manage Mbappé. Obviously, the young PSG striker has developed a lot since 2017, both athletically and mentally. But the way Silva left him very little space to express himself throughout the match was remarkable. It was an important psychological factor that day, as Silva had put a lot of physical commitment and pressure on Mbappé, showing great dominance.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

The above action takes place during the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie between Dortmund and PSG. The German team plays with a three-man defence consisting of Łukasz Piszczek, Dan-Axel Zagadou and Mats Hummels. During this phase of PSG’s possession, Mbappé is dropping deep to get out of Dortmund’s axial density and help his partners in the build-up. But being covered in depth by Hummels, Piszczek can follow Mbappé by being very close to him. If Mbappé receives the ball in the feet, Piszczek can intervene directly on the passing time. If Mbappé suddenly makes a deep run, he is managed by Hummels. With so little space, it is complicated for Mbappé to use his qualities with the ball.

The 21-year-old Frenchman does not excel at playing back to goal or in duels, and if he roams from his position, it is mainly to destabilize the opposing defence and attack other spaces. A man oriented-defence (each player controls the space in front of him and marks very closely any player who enters his zone) can allow to always have a player at a good distance from Mbappé and to avoid creating holes inside the block as a strict individual marking could do.  But in order for this to work, the space that the defender who follows Mbappé leaves has to be covered by another player because if the young PSG attacker gets free of the marking with his speed (or fake runs), it could have big consequences. For that, defenders must be able to anticipate and have a good reading of the game.

Reduce space

As a defender, you will sometimes have no choice but to defend on Mbappé over a large space, where he is the most efficient. You remember the penalty he got against Argentina in the Round of 16 at the World Cup, where he runs all the way up the pitch on a counter-attack. As Mbappé has a highly developed ability to analyse the situation, the defender must be able to keep his intentions hidden. As far as possible, he should force Mbappé to move to an area where he will be less effective and dangerous.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

On the above action, Virgil Van Dijk will contain and control Mbappé very well. In a counter-attack situation, the former Monaco player is in a one vs one with the Liverpool defender. Van Dijk defends by backing away with the will to open a little space for Mbappé to close a bigger one. The Dutch defender directs his body and adapts his distance to Mbappé to close off the centre of the pitch. Moreover, by staying on feet, he saves time and forces Mbappé to make a decision because two Dutch players make their return in defence.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

Mbappé is then in a situation where he can only continue his run straight ahead. Van Dijk gave him a little space, but above all, he was able to control all the space that was in his back. The Liverpool defender showed a lot of patience, calm, and did not rush to optimize time and space. When Mbappé has to make a decision, space is already very narrow.

Kylian Mbappé: How to defend against him - tactical analysis tactics

Mbappé will still be able to get into striking position thanks to his speed, but Van Dijk’s anticipation and reading of the game allows him to tackle at the right time. When you know that Mbappé is so good in the big spaces, it’s important to know how to reduce his spaces as much as possible. Van Dijk’s ability to leave no clue as to his intentions put a lot of pressure on Mbappé. He made him move where he wanted him to move.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen in this analysis, the defender’s athletic quality is very important to limit Mbappé’s impact and to be able to defend against him. Faced with the 21-year-old phenomenon, an agile defender with good support and good acceleration will make the task more complicated for him. But there’s another thing that comes into play for the defender in this duel, which is not to suffer and to be able to trap Mbappé by placing him in conditions where he will be less effective.

But Mbappé has already demonstrated during his career that he has an incredible capacity for adaptation, which very often allows him to find a way to be effective. As Thierry Henry once said in an interview, in addition to being an incredible forward, Mbappé is a very thoughtful player, and that’s what makes him so strong.