Heart Of Football

Kylian Mbappe could underpin Arsene Wenger's future at Arsenal

Oh for the wings of youth. Kylian Mbappe, still in the chrysalis stage of his football development, is the star of AS Monaco's remarkable rise this season.

Do not take that as read. A night has passed between me writing the sentence and Mbappe, 18, waking up. And one day, or night, is long enough for his club to accept any of the bids that fill the French and European sports pages.

Arsenal's ageing manager has apparently bid €100 million (S$154.8 million) for the youth from his former club down in the south of France. Why not?

Monsieur Arsene Wenger had a history of taking Thierry Henry through the same schooling at Monaco, then making Henry his protege at Arsenal. Wenger sees similarities in the young Henry and the young Mbappe, and now that Wenger has been given a two-year extension to his 21-year role in North London it would seem like starting all over again if he could build the future around a fast, gifted, embryonic countryman again.

So €100 million will not cut it.

Monaco has had higher bids, €120 million and more, from Real Madrid and seemingly from Manchester City, whose defences Mbappe shredded in the Champions League last season.

France forward Kylian Mbappe arriving in Clairefontaine- en-Yvelines on May 29, in preparation for the World Cup qualifier against Sweden on June 9. The teenager is attracting attention from many quarters, but his club, AS Monaco, seem to be in no hurry to sell him. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The word is that Dmitry Rybobovlev, the Russian potash billionaire who owns A.S. Monaco, thinks there is greater value still to be squeezed out of this phenomenal youth.

Having just beaten the Qatari-boosted Paris Saint-Germain to the French league title, and made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, Monaco with its refreshingly attacking team should itself be building, not dismantling.

Mbappe is typical of the French-born fledglings of immigrants. He comes from the suburbs 10km outside of Paris. Stade de France, the national stadium in the troubled immigrant region of St Denis is close by, and so are the regions where Thierry Henry, and indeed N'Golo Kante grew up.

The superbly organised junior clubs take these kids off the streets before anyone else is aware of their potential. Mbappe had a head start because his dad Wilfried Mbappe coached youngsters at Bondy, where the boy was enrolled.

Pretty soon the France Football Federation academy recruited him. Wenger, of course, knows the French scene as well as anyone, and said five months ago: "This young boy has a huge talent. Mbappe has similarities to Thierry Henry but, of course, what makes the career is the mental aspect that Thierry had."

You can almost see Wenger wishing he could roll back the years. To take this youth under his wing. To give him the guidance he once gave to Henry. To reboot his own Arsenal aspiration on another French youngster.

Yet the path is littered with pitfalls. Anthony Martial was bought for Manchester United, from Monaco, two seasons ago. Louis van Gaal gave Martial wing, but then van Gaal was fired and under Jose Mourinho, the career of Martial has gone backwards.

Perhaps the winger who cost £58 million (S$103.4 million) as a down payment, rising exponentially on future performance, might simply be in need of time. Maybe he will adapt, or most likely Mourinho will not wait and will spend, as he is wont to do, on a more finished star product.

Martial, at 21, is old compared to Mbappe. He is also not the amazing goalscorer that Mbappe appears always to have been. Thrust into the Monaco first team just shy of his 17th birthday, a hat-trick hero when he was barely a year older, Mbappe looks to be a free spirit whose turbo boost of pace and eye for goal terrorises seasoned opponents in Europe.

In an ideal world, Mbappe would stay at least another season under Leonardo Jardim at Monaco. The pressure there is not so white-hot as it is at Real Madrid, or would be in the EPL.

Alas, nothing in football stays the same from one season to the next. Jardim, a Portuguese citizen though born in Venezuela, might get offers to move on up. Or the coach could find that it is not so easy to liberate youth, and to give his players free reign to express themselves as they have done this season.

The bigger clubs are already taking Monaco apart, piece by piece, player by player.

Man City paid £43 million (S$76 million) to pluck Bernardo Silva, the play-maker, from Monaco last month. And City are negotiating to acquire Benjamin Mendy, the galvanic right back from the same team.

You can almost see Wenger wishing he could roll back the years. To take this youth under his wing. To give him the guidance he once gave to Henry. To reboot his own Arsenal aspiration on another French youngster. 

Arsenal and Spurs are reportedly both bidding to take left winger Thomas Lemar as well.

And so, one by one, the team-mates of Mbappe leave. That seems to be the way of it in Monaco. It is a small principality, a tax haven where wealthy Formula One drivers and Russian oligarchs choose to reside.

Its team, often playing to half-empty audiences in the 18,523-capacity Louis II stadium, has had a marvellous adventure in the 2016-17 season.

The owner has to be pragmatic. He runs an academy which itself appeals to the parents of evolving schoolboys from the hard-pressed suburbs of Paris and somewhere.

Those boys have a safe haven. They grow their skills in a privileged and sunny environment. They know, or might sense, that this is the time of their lives.

Monaco gives them freedom and finance, but if they catch the eye of Europe's predatory giants, their time in the principality will be limited.

For sure, Mbappe is exceptional for his age. He seemingly always was. When he was 11, Chelsea invited him to London to experience its resplendent training camp, and to play in a trial match against Charlton Athletic.

He impressed, but his father didn't sign a thing. The Mbappe family had a similar experience at Real Madrid. Wisely, they accepted no inducements, other than the chance to grow in Monaco's finishing school, along with other French youths speaking the same language.

But you sense that, when the time and the price are right, Monaco will take the money and Mbappe will fly away.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Mbappe could underpin Wenger's future'. Print Edition | Subscribe