The ‘New Maradona’ was a millstone around the neck of any small-of-stature and outrageously-gifted No10 to have emerged from Argentinean football post-1986.
The lesser-known Diego Latorre was the first and many followed in his wake to varying degrees of success: Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Andres D’Alessandro, Pablo Aimar etc. And it wasn’t until Lionel Messi came along to take ownership of ‘The New…’ moniker and already several apparent imitators have been labelled as the heir to his throne of being a) Argentine b) good and c) small.
Indeed, the trend has reached saturation point in recent years and gotten considerably lazier with ‘The New…’ attached to seemingly any promising talent from a country who have been blessed with an iconic player. Last month, coverage of Alexander Isak’s move from AIK to Borussia Dortmund was instantly branded with the label the ‘New Ibrahimovic’ despite anyone with a pair of eyes seeing they are very different players.
However, when it comes to Kylian Mbappe, describing him as the ‘New Henry’ goes beyond the obvious, although, if anything, it could be downplaying his ability.
“He is a mixture of Henry and Neymar,” his former coach at Clairefontaine Jean-Claude Lafargue states emphatically, of the 18-year-old Monaco starlet who will line-up for the Principality club against Manchester City tomorrow night in the Champions League last 16.
Such a fantasy combination sounds too good to be true, yet it echoes reports from scouts across the continent who have monitored Mbappe’s stellar rise to prominence. From breaking Henry’s record as Monaco’s youngest-ever scorer to becoming one of the most-sought after prospects in Europe – it has been a rapid ascent and one perennially aligned with arguably the club’s greatest-ever player.
Mbappe made his Monaco debut aged just 16 years and 347 days in 2015, beating the record set by Henry, who was 17 years and 14 days when he first turned out for the club in 1994.
Physically, Mbappe mirrors Henry’s slim build, married with such explosive pace and acceleration while his incredible technical skill and ability to score with both feet are uncannily similar to those of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winner.
“He always had something different,” Lafargue adds. “The way he sets himself up to score from almost any position in the box is reminiscent of Henry, but the way he glides past players is what really brings Neymar to mind.”
Lafargue reveals that Mbappe has always wanted to play on the left wing, even as a 12-year-old at Clairefontaine, honing his signature move of cutting inside. He resented playing as a centre-forward as defenders facing him would often outplay him physically.
He says: “Kylian was physiologically a little bit behind when he joined us aged 12, smaller and thinner than the average. At this level, where we gather the best talents in the country from the same age, it makes a difference. He had to come up with new tricks and improve his balance and stamina to compete.”
Kylian Mbappé has now scored two senior career hat-tricks for Monaco.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 11, 2017
⚽️⚽️⚽️ vs. Metz
⚽️⚽️⚽️ vs. Rennes
He's only 18-years-old. pic.twitter.com/ZsRsRma78E
One of Arsene Wenger’s greatest gifts to Arsenal was signing the then-22-year-old Henry in 1999, rescuing him from limbo at Juventus as his big-money move to Serie A turned sour. The Frenchman also then moved Henry inside to make use of his pace, touch and finishing; attributes that were being wasted as he was stationed out wide.
Mbappe has so far been most efficient on the left, cutting inside like he did back at Clairefontaine to set himself up or open space for talented full-back Benjamin Mendy, with whom he has a great understanding.
He still has several years to develop physically and Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim has used him sparingly this season: just eight of his 25 appearances have been starts and he averages 39 minutes per game in Ligue 1, as his Portuguese boss has flirted between using him as a wide forward or playing off the main frontman.
As Mbappe told UEFA.com in 2016: “I’m the type of player who likes dribbling, but I think I can still develop my game. My main quality is my speed. I still have problems with defending and I need to be more consistent even though I have improved a bit since the beginning of the season.”
Monaco will ultimately use him as a striker, the position into which Henry eventually settled. The feeling among Jardim’s technical staff is that he has now made the grade physically and is able to withstand the challenges he once struggled with at Clairefontaine.
Lafargue feels his former charge will be up to the challenge, saying: “He is equally at ease with both feet and would possibly have even more of an impact with the attacking play built around him.”
Hattrick for Mbappé last night. What a talent the Monaco forward is. Still just 18-years old. pic.twitter.com/NgBn8t0fA6— Sam (@samuelJayC) February 12, 2017
Yes, he already had the natural ability and pleasure to play and dribble past opponents. But what we taught him was efficiency in his moves and to sharpen his decision-making.”
Like Henry, Mbappe was born and raised in a Parisian suburb, first making a name for himself with local club AS Bondy, where father Wilfried was the coach.
His athleticism is born out of strong sporting genes as mother Fayza is a former handball player while his half-brother is Al Nasr forward Jires Kembo Ekoko.
After impressing for Bondy he earned a place at the Clairefontaine academy, the prolific production line providing so much of French football’s most talented since it was established in 1988.
Despite attention from a host of French clubs, Mbappe’s settled on Monaco due to their proud history of giving young players a chance and providing them with the necessary tools and mentality to progress beyond the Stade Louis II.
Mbappe’s career is less than two seasons old but he has already been the subject of frenzied transfer activity. Tuesday’s opponents City were among those clubs rejected by Monaco, despite tabling a hefty offer to secure his signature last summer. Barcelona and Arsenal have also made him a top target but the player himself has stated that he dreams of playing for Real Madrid one day.
Wenger on Kylian Mbappé: "He's not exactly Thierry Henry but it's true that he has similar qualities and the future and talent is similar." pic.twitter.com/zTm75GN2Zv— ㅤ (@WengerTactic) February 11, 2017
While Mbappe’s meteoric rise has taken most by surprise, Monaco’s ability to churn out talents on a regular basis should come as no shock. He was spotted at Clairefontaine by one of the numerous Monaco scouts scouring the Paris area. The other two geographic areas of focus are Lyon, from where they bought Anthony Martial for €5 million in 2014, and Marseille – where they identified vice-captain Valere Germain.
Monaco skipper Radamel Falcao has had an incredible season, stunning many onlookers after struggling so badly in the Premier League after his ACL injury. But it appears the Colombian will make way for Monaco’s newest prodigy this summer, a development that would be in line with the club’s strategy.
“Our objective here is to blend our academy products with more experienced players; think Falcao, Glik, Moutinho, Subasic, Raggi, Dirar or De Sanctis,” says sporting director Antonio Cordon.”
“These veterans mould them, bring them their knowledge and help them grow. Young players at Monaco know they will get their chance eventually.”
City will have to be on red alert. But such is Mbappe’s talent, they know that already.