Yet another incredible football season has reached its conclusion. The beautiful game has not failed to disappoint, providing the fans with some jaw dropping – as well as heartbreaking – moments over the last nine months.
We have witnessed some brilliant one-off individual displays and a few consistent performers. We’ve had breakout players, impressing at a young age and veterans proving that age is just a number.
As part of our end-of-the-season awards for Europe’s top-five leagues, we’re honouring the Player of the Year and Breakthrough Player of the Year (stars aged 23 and under who made significant strides in 2018/19).
Here, we look at the winners from Ligue 1.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain, 20 years old
It had to be him. Mbappe has been a clear tier above any other player from Ligue 1 this season. With Neymar missing a big part of the campaign through injury, the 20-year-old filled the gap and led from the front. Only two players have reached the 30-goal mark from Europe’s top-five leagues this season – Mbappe and Lionel Messi. That’s genuinely the company he keeps now because Mbappe is football’s next superstar, if he isn’t already. The most interesting aspect of Mbappe is just how well he’s taken to a more central role. Indeed, last season and in the beginning of this term, Mbappe was used almost exclusively on the right of a front three. When Edinson Cavani and Neymar both dropped out through injury, he meshed so well with the No9 role because it’s not just his lightning-quick pace, but also his intelligence to use it in the right spots. PSG have endured a bit of a weird season but within that, Mbappe has taken another massive step in his development.
Best performance: ‘Poker’ against Lyon
Against Lyon – arguably PSG’s toughest opponent in Ligue 1 – Mbappe scored four second-half goals in 13 minutes, the first three were plundered in only eight minutes.
What next for Mbappe?
Having dominated Ligue 1 at such a young age, similar to Eden Hazard when he was at Lille, the World Cup winner must consider testing himself in a much more demanding environment. There is less scope for growth the longer he continues to sweep up league titles with ease. But, he’s not just a massive asset in purely footballing terms, Mbappe is a marketing dream and while the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City would cast wanting eyes in his direction, there will be zero desire from PSG to sell, now or in the near future.
Honourable mentions: Nicolas Pepe (Lille), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain)
BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Rafael Leao, Lille, 19 years old
The entire world is watching Leao and justifiably so because this teenager is something special. Ligue 1 is quite the mine for young diamonds and sitting alongside Mbappe is this Portuguese phenomenon. Leao was one of the players to leave Sporting Lisbon in the aftermath of the ugly violence directed at the squad and although it took him some time to get going in French football, when he did, he set it alight. He’s contributed to 11 goals this season (eight strikes and three assists) and since the turn of the year, has turned heads. He’s been the perfect support system for Lille’s other shining jewel, Nicolas Pepe, as Lille have all-but secured second spot and a return to the Champions League. What we’ve witnessed this season is an attacker with explosive qualities. He’s a bit like an early iteration of Cristiano Ronaldo in that sense, because he blends blurring acceleration with skill. He’s show an ability to play anywhere across the front three and Leao will be electric in the Champions League next season, whether that’s at Lille or elsewhere.
Best performance: Goal+assist against Nice
Leao scored the opener and assisted Pepe for the second in Lille’s 4-0 thrashing of Nice.
What next for Leao?
The teenager has already attracted interest from top European clubs, most notably Barcelona and Manchester City. Although he could develop immensely under a manager like Pep Guardiola, game time is paramount at this stage in his career. There’s areas of his game which need rounding out, only natural for a player of his age, so it’s unlikely he’ll leave this season. The elite sides will no doubt be watching his progress in Europe next term.
Honourable mentions: Houssem Aouar (Lyon), Youcef Atal (Nice)
Mbappe said it would be surreal but also “statistically possible” for him to break Pele’s record of three World Cup triumphs.
The Paris Saint-Germain superstar won his first World Cup as a teenager in Russia last year – the same scenario as for Pele, who won international football’s biggest prize for the first time in 1958 as a 17-year-old, before further success followed in 1962 and 1970.
Mbappe, now 20, could play in at least another three World Cups for a talent-laden French national side.
He has already followed in Pele’s footsteps – Mbappe matched the Brazilian’s record of scoring more than once in an individual World Cup match and then in the final itself as a teenager, in 2018.
Speaking at a promotional event alongside the Brazilian, Mbappe was asked about his future World Cup ambitions.
Watch the video above to hear from the PSG frontman.
Who is the best centre-back in each of Europe’s top five leagues?
Well, to answer, we’re going to break down two of the best from each of the divisions to gain measure of just who is the standout star.
We’ll start with Ligue 1 and it’s Paris Saint-Germain’s elegant Brazilian Marquinhos versus Montpellier’s ageless wonder Vitorino Hilton.
STATISTICS [2018/19 Ligue 1]
Minutes – 1883
Tackles – 16
Interceptions – 31
Clearances – 105
Pass success – 81.8%
Aerials won – 45
Minutes – 1620
Tackles – 41
Interceptions – 22
Clearances – 44
Pass success – 92%
Aerials won – 35
Being at least six feet tall is seemingly a prerequisite for a top notch centre-back but tell that to Hilton. Of course, his height or lack thereof is not the most alarming thing about him. At the ripe old age of 41, he is the oldest player in Ligue 1, even older than PSG’s summer recruit Gianluigi Buffon. It’s understandable then if he’s a little slow out the blocks. He does possess a decent leap and is strong but no standout traits to really write home about.
Marquinhos on the other hand is more aligned with what you’d associate an elite modern day centre-back with. While he isn’t particularly tall, he does meet the six-foot cutoff. The Brazilian has a rather wiry frame but boasts a good turn of pace.
Vitorino Hilton, 15 ans pour le meilleur et pour le pire 🙌— Ligue 1 Conforama (@Ligue1Conforama) February 7, 2019
Le doyen de la @Ligue1Conforama (41 ans, 439 matchs) fête aujourd'hui le 15e anniversaire de ses débuts dans notre championnat 🎂
Retour sur le parcours du Brésilien, qui a vraiment tout connu ➡https://t.co/mkWw8eaKHW pic.twitter.com/rEyrkOGov1
When exposed to a one-on-one scenario – which is a rarity – Hilton is adept at standing his ground, containing the attacker and waiting for help to arrive. However, he’s usually the deepest lying defender, flanked by a younger and more mobile centre-back on either side. Montpellier head coach Michel Der Zakarian has done well to develop a system with three at the back that has brought the best out of Hilton and held the team in good stead over the last few years.
The greatest testament to Marquinhos’ positional sense is the success with which he has filled the void in midfield for PSG this season. Thomas Tuchel has total faith in the Brazilian’s tactical intelligence, trusting him to play a crucial role in the middle of the park where his technical ability has been put to the test as well. Marquinhos has still played the majority of games – just about – this season at centre-back where he is most comfortable. His awareness of space around him is unparalleled and he is excellent at shuttling out wide and covering for a marauding full-back – a frequent occurrence in Tuchel’s set-up.
It takes strength, discipline and commitment to enjoy a professional career that spans over 23 years and Hilton has had all in abundance. Montpellier’s relative success in recent years has been built on strong values like hard work, team spirit and self sacrifice. Hilton has been the embodiment of those principles. The very fact that he’s defied his age and continued to compete at the highest level is testament to his character.
There was a moment during PSG’s 2-1 group stage win over Liverpool that was memorable. It wasn’t a stunning goal, red card or penalty – it was a goal-kick. Coming under intense pressure from the Reds, Marquinhos conspired with Thiago Silva to deny Mohamed Salah a way through and let the ball run out of play. A passionate chest-bump between the duo followed. Marquinhos, like his compatriot, is a fierce competitor and simply loves defending.
Marquinhos’ game by numbers vs. Man Utd:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 12, 2019
100% take-ons completed
56/62 passes completed
4 accurate long balls
Best player on the pitch. 🇧🇷👊 pic.twitter.com/VISpZ12JN2
Hilton is older than some of the Icon players on FIFA 19 Ultimate Team but he’s still going strong. He’s an old-school centre-back who boasts strong fundamentals and does the basics well. The aging defender is under no illusions; he’s fully aware of his limitations and operates well within them. However, his effectiveness is largely dependent on the set-up around him. A shift to a back four could easily leave him exposed.
Marquinhos on the other hand is the more complete centre-back and though he’s been around for so long, is only 24 with time to improve. There are no glaring weaknesses in his game and while Hilton affords little flexibility, Marquinhos is nothing if not versatile.