TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh marvels at a prodigious striker and explains why young footballers are one of the game’s greatest charms…
Watching Wednesday night’s game between Manchester City and Monaco – a sure contender for one of the best of the season – it was hard not to enjoy a breakout performance from 18-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe. Within the first 10 minutes, the young Frenchman was already terrorizing the City defence and he capped off a great first half display with a goal, a cool half-volley past Willy Caballero.
This was Mbappe’s first Champions League start and there is something very special about watching a young player rise to the occasion so capably. Putting partisanship aside, the emergence of any youngster who is ready to perform on Europe’s grand stage is a sight to be reveled in. Mbappe has already had a remarkable season, becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in Ligue 1 earlier this month.
As a young, French striker at Monaco, he has had to contend with the rather unoriginal label of ‘the next Thierry Henry’ – even from Henry’s former manager Arsene Wenger. The legend himself perhaps offered the best advice – “he needs to be him and just be the best he can be”.
If Henry’s style can be defined by flair, finishing and pace then there are certainly similarities. These comparisons can bring pressure to young players but there were no signs of fear in Mbappe’s game this week. Indeed, it was his fearlessness that made his display so energizing for the spectator.
Memories are short in football and backlash begins quicker than ever, but when youthful exuberance emerges it is one of the sport’s greatest joys.
City too have been offering fans a similar sensation this season. Pep Guardiola has described his forward line of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as “the future”. While Jesus’ bright start to English football has been cruelly derailed by injury, Sterling and Sane were at their electric best, registering a goal and an assist each.
Sterling in particular, whose emergence as a 17-year-old debutant at Liverpool now seems some time ago to the point where he seems older than his 22 years, has been revitalized under Guardiola.
Of course, there are dangers of promoting youth too soon and it’s an issue that this publication has been keen to address. In 2013, we warned of ‘burn-out’ in young players with specific reference to Sterling’s bright start at Liverpool.
When he left to join City in the summer of 2015, he had amassed a remarkable 129 appearances for Liverpool, aged just 20. Sterling took a great deal of flak for underperforming in his first season at City and for his hefty price tag, but it was little wonder he looked worn-out given how much high-level football he played in his youth.
Mbappe tweeted after the game that “there was still a match to play” before Monaco would be out of the competition. Maybe it’s that spirit that sums up our appreciation for young players.
They are the real fighters, free from the corruption and distractions of adult life. It remains to be seen if the experienced heads of Radamel Falcao and Sergio Aguero will have the deciding say, but the it’s the likes of Mpabbe, Sane and Sterling who have helped to make this a gripping tie so far.