Mbappé & Haaland: Heirs to the Throne?

Regardless of which soccer team you support, you’ve probably engaged with the age-old debate of the 2010s: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

Regardless of which soccer team you support, you’ve probably engaged with the age-old debate of the 2010s: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? The legendary duo has shattered every record possible, winning the Ballon d’Or––the most prestigious individual accolade––a combined 11 times. It has been a privilege to witness both players craft their legacies within the soccer community; nonetheless, with Ronaldo now 36 and Messi 33, their era is gradually ending. Luckily, there seems to be a new duo on the rise, Europe’s most heralded young players: Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland.

This is an easy narrative to follow if you watched last week’s Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League matchups. Mbappé’s Paris Saint-Germain FC (PSG) demolished Messi’s FC Barcelona, with the 22-year-old becoming the first opposition player to score a hat-trick at the Nou Camp since 1997. Leading his team to a 4-1 victory against Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona, Mbappé demonstrated an acute understanding that elite players must produce exceptional performances on big occasions. In Seville, Borussia Dortmund’s Haaland did not lag behind, netting twice and recording an assist in a 3-1 victory against Sevilla FC. On the other hand, Messi did score for Barcelona but was ultimately ruled irrelevant as PSG thumped his team. Ronaldo’s Juventus FC also faltered, suffering a shocking 2-1 defeat to FC Porto.

When examining Mbappé’s performances, a few attributes stand out: pace, dribbling, and decision making. The last quality is the crucial component that has distinguished the forward from the pack. Mbappé possesses the ability to make quick decisions while the game is in full flow, allowing him to be economical with the ball. Mbappé’s role in Neymar’s goal against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League is a perfect snapshot of the French wonderboy’s intelligence. When Mbappé received a pass from Neymar in his own half, he had two options: dribble the ball forward using his incredible pace or lay it off to the oncoming Brazilian. Deferring to Neymar had a greater chance of success, given that teammate Edinson Cavani made a run down the middle. Despite intense pressure from the opposition, Mbappé instinctively chose the latter and created the crucial goal opportunity that would provide PSG a win.

That said, the same game against Liverpool exposed how Mbappé can be shackled by quality defenders and revealed how the Frenchman’s game often requires his surrounding conditions to be ideal. Mbappé thrives when his team plays on the break, making his style somewhat one-dimensional; his pace and ability to dribble past his defender most often come in handy during counterattacks. Throughout France’s victorious 2018 World Cup campaign, France constantly fed the ball to Mbappé, who positioned himself wide and high on the pitch to capitalize on transitional moments. The system worked for Mbappé because it accommodated him, with defender Benjamin Pavard and midfielder Paul Pogba supporting the youngster, as opposed to Mbappé morphing his game to fit the system’s needs.

Likewise, Haaland is an amazing talent whose value rapidly rose given his goal-scoring exploits and great physicality. Last season, Haaland netted 40 goals in 44 matches, a superb performance that earned him the Golden Boy Award––an annual honor given to the most impressive young player. This season, he currently has 25 goals in 27 matches. The striker’s stats are even more impressive when compared to Messi and Ronaldo. In the Champions League, Haaland has scored 18 goals before turning 21; Messi managed only eight goals by age 21, whereas Ronaldo didn’t get his first until he was 22.

While goals are the most imperative aspect to consider when defining a striker’s career, Haaland needs to develop his passing ability to truly join the cabal of elite attackers. With only two assists in last year’s Bundesliga season, statistics show that Haaland touches the ball fewer times per game than 90 percent of strikers in the big five leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga, and Serie A). Moreover, he attempts fewer passes per game than three-quarters of these forwards––thus, Haaland’s presence on the field is often limited to his contributions in the 18-yard box. Furthermore, according to FBref.com, the majority of Haaland’s passes are short (45 percent) and medium (51 percent) in length, rarely providing long balls (4 percent) which hints at his lack of ability to spread the field.

Considering their youth, it’s difficult to predict how Mbappé and Haaland’s careers will progress. Yet, one thing is for sure: reaching the level of Messi and Ronaldo will be extremely challenging. Messi and Ronaldo have showcased great versatility throughout their careers, which has enabled them to successfully bring their play to the next level. Ronaldo morphed from a winger to a de-facto center-forward, while Messi transitioned from a wide attacker to a “false nine” to a general playmaker, content to dictate from midfield. So, Mbappé’s heavy reliance on pace or his teammates’ support, and Haaland’s mediocre passing, are clear areas of improvement. If these areas are not addressed, Mbappé and Haaland are unlikely to reach the heights of Messi and Ronaldo.

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