If France won the last men’s World Cup thanks in part to then-19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, then should Les Bleus repeat in Qatar he ought to take the Jules Rimet trophy home for himself. The full-grown phenom has been, well, phenomenal: After scoring twice in France’s 3-1 win over Poland on Sunday, he’s tallied two more goals than anyone else at the tournament — and France is three wins away from their third title in the past seven World Cups.
After over a decade of waiting for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to lead their countries to World Cup victories, smart analysts have concluded the legacy of a modern all-timer shouldn’t depend on winning a quadrennial team competition where the teams are assigned via matching passports. The global concentration of money and talent in top European club teams means the World Cup is not the same competition Pelé took by storm in 1958.
But two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Mbappé already has netted as many World Cup goals as Messi (nine), and more than Ronaldo or Diego Maradona (who both have eight). He’s averaged a blistering 1.52 goals per 90 minutes in Qatar, behind only England super-sub Marcus Rashford. If France takes its 48 percent chance to beat England on Saturday, Mbappé’s scoring pace projects him to tie Pelé for fifth on the all-time World Cup scorers list by this tournament’s end. And Mbappé is not just scoring goals. He’s having one of the all-around most productive World Cups ever (or at least since detailed data is available, starting in 1966).
According to StatsPerform’s model, Mbappé leads the tournament in combined expected goals plus expected assists per 90. In fact, among players who played at least 90 minutes across three games or more in any given World Cup, Mbappé is generating the third-most xG plus xA since ‘66:
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Of course, it helps that Mbappé’s passport pairs him up with a lot of other great players. His fellow Frenchmen Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann rank fourth and fifth in combined expected goals and assists, according to StatsPerform’s models; Griezmann, attacking midfielder Ousmane Dembélé and left back Theo Hernández rank first, sixth and eighth in chance creation. But France was also loaded with talent in 2018, when they won the whole thing, and Mbappé was merely a key part of an ensemble cast. This time, their goals — and their title hopes — run a lot more through his feet. Here are Mbappé’s percentile ranks among all World Cup players in various categories of offensive chance creation in 2022, versus in 2018:
Mbappé is near, if not at, the top of all forwards in Qatar in almost any scoring-related rate stat one could name. Compare his rates of chances created, shots taken and expected goals plus assists to his 2018 output, and Mbappé’s transformation into a dominant scorer is clear. He’s taking shots more than three times as often, scoring goals more than twice as often, and creating chances more than half and again as often as he did in Russia.
But it’s more than that: France has reshaped its entire attack around his quality. In 2018, it was all about the speed of Griezmann and the finishing of Giroud. Mbappé was just one of a swarm of dynamic supporting attackers; he finished fifth on the squad in shot frequency. Yet his average of 0.284 xG per shot1 meant that when he did take his chances, they were great chances. In his 2022 chart, that same stat looks like a glaring deficiency: With just 0.128 xG per shot, he’s ranked 45th of 95 forwards this World Cup. But that’s a reflection of his new primary role – when you take 21 of your team’s 70 shots, they can’t all be bangers.
And as remarkable as Mbappé’s transformation is, France’s might be even more so:
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In Russia, France was rather direct: They were the seventh-fastest team pushing the ball upfield, and ranked midpack in average passing-sequence duration and number of passes.2 In Qatar, they’ve been much more deliberate. France’s passing sequences have been the seventh-longest, on average.3 They rank 25th in direct speed upfield, and 27th in the share of passes going forward. Only Spain, Argentina and Germany have averaged more touches per 90 minutes.
How do you say “tiki-taka” in French?
What’s more, the slow build-up toward Mbappé has created much more actual offense than 2018’s quick upfield scrambles: In 2022, France has created chances 69 percent more often, taken shots 29 percent times more often and scored 12.5 percent more often.
To an extent, France manager Didier Deschamps was forced into this change by the simple fact that four years have passed. Giroud is 36 and Griezmann 31; both are well past their peaks as scorers. Mbappé’s potential to become an all-time great has been obvious since he scored nearly a goal per game for AS Monaco, in France’s Ligue 1, as a teenager. But putting a World Cup title defense solely on a 23-year-old’s shoulders is a huge amount of pressure.
“For us to win the FIFA World Cup,” Deschamps nevertheless told Fox Sports’s Jenny Taft, “Mbappé needs to be at his best.” Plenty of players have crumpled under those kinds of expectations — including, arguably, Ronaldo and Messi. But Mbappé has shined.
Mbappé can’t win it all by himself. And had he been born in a less-traditional soccer power, he might not even be at this tournament, let alone in a position to win it. His accomplishments at the club level lag far behind many of the greats he’s outshining in Qatar (including his Paris Saint-Germain teammates Messi and Neymar). But even if France loses on Saturday, it won’t make a dent in Mbappé’s reputation as one of the best players in the world (with or without a “young” qualification). And if he leads France back to the top as the unquestioned focal point of the team? His international résumé will stand among the very best of all time — and he’ll have plenty of time to make it better.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.