What does Lionel Messi’s arrival at PSG mean for Kylian Mbappé?
The adulation and anticipation that had bubbled away since PSG announced the signing of Lionel Messi finally came to a head on Sunday evening when he came on for the last 25 minutes of PSG’s 2-0 win over Reims. As is to be expected for a player who is still getting to know new teammates in a new league after a long summer in which he won the Copa América with Argentina, he was quietly impressive but did not have a huge impact on the game.
Mauricio Pochettino, though, was quick to outline the difference his countryman made to the team, saying: “I felt it as soon as he came on, across his first touches. He brought a sense of calm to the team. He is happy and is blending in well with the team.” Messi replaced Neymar – another player who had a busy summer – and played on the left of a front three, with Kylian Mbappé through the middle and Ángel Di María on the right. Messi was greeted with a hearty round of applause from the home crowd and was subjected to a rather brusque challenge from Reims midfielder Marshall Munetsi but, in all, his first appearance in French football was rather uneventful.
Messi’s arrival has not been the only story of the summer in Paris, where the will-he-won’t-he dalliance between Mbappé and Real Madrid continues to develop. The deal appears to be off for now, with Mbappé looking more likely to leave on a free transfer next summer. Even with his future in the balance, it was Mbappé rather than Messi who stole the show at the Stade Auguste Delaune on Sunday, scoring both goals for PSG and offering a powerful reminder of what the club will lose if they cannot convince him to extend his contract.
Mbappé, who was played centrally in the absence of Mauro Icardi, has done nothing but score when fit for PSG, whether playing on the right, left or through the middle, either on his own, or as part of a front two. Needing only an instant to find space, he opened the scoring after a nervy start to the match with a nimble header, slipping between a pair of Reims defenders to nod home from close range. The pass, whipped in from Di María on the right, was just as deserving of praise than the finish.
No one in the PSG squad – not even Neymar, for all of his gifts – is anywhere close to the level of Messi. His ability to transform a match single-handedly is unparalleled but, given that Messi is 34 years old and Mbappé will be celebrating his 23th birthday in December, one has to wonder what the endgame is here for PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi and sporting director Leonardo.
There is no doubting the commercial impact Messi will have on the club and he should have at least two or three more seasons left in his body before he either retires or has a stint in MLS, but his signature has instituted a new hierarchy in the squad. Mbappé must be wondering when he will be given his chance to be the focal point of the attack. Even before Messi arrived, Mbappé was shunted around the pitch with maddening frequency, with tactics, teammates and managers changing in rapid succession.
Messi’s arrival keeps Mbappé playing second fiddle. He has said all the right things about Messi joining the club, but for just how long will he be patient, having already proven his ability in a system built around him with both Monaco and France? He showed it again on Sunday – his second goal was also a brilliant one-touch finish, this time from an Achraf Hakimi pass – but the match offered a frustrating microcosm of his situation. Mbappé was brilliant, but the focus and construction of the team are now based around Messi.
This is not to imply that Mbappé is better than Messi, or even better suited to being the focal point of PSG’s attack, but just to offer a reminder that, as a player now in his seventh season of professional football, his patience may be wearing thin. His next contract will determine where he spends his peak years and he seems to want to join a team that will be built around him.