Why Kylian Mbappe and France are better off without Karim Benzema

The reigning Ballon d’Or winner’s injury has proven serendipitous for Les Bleus as their superstar has been unlocked

Miguel Delaney
in Doha
Friday 09 December 2022 13:19 GMT
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As England’s staff currently attempt to work out how to stop Kylian Mbappe, there is a very relevant question that’s confounded some around the French squad.

How do you lose the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and become better? How has that made the actual best player in the world become better?

This has been the consequence of Karim Benzema’s tragically unfortunate – but potentially serendipitous – injury. France look much more coherent and combative than at Euro 2020. Mbappe looks like he is now fully forging his own era, something made all the more conspicuous by the fact it is happening in Qatar and he plays for Qatar’s other major sportswashing project at Paris Saint-Germain.

He certainly feels at home right now, and comfortable with himself.

This is in large part down to the make-up of the team.

It should be stressed that none of this is any personal issue with Benzema. He and Mbappe get on well, and have been perfectly willing to work with each other. It was just that it quickly became apparent at Euro 2020 that Benzema isn’t the type of physically imposing forward that makes France play best.

And there is little doubt that the current set-up makes Mbappe play best – something they aim for above all else right now.

His best friend is Ousmane Dembele, who is, at last, starting all the time. He has already publicly identified Olivier Giroud as the striker who makes him play best.

Olivier Giroud’s physical presence up front has helped unlock Mbappe (AP)

There is then the inspired and insightful development of Antoine Griezmann as an attacking midfielder, at once completing the attack and linking the team. The Atletico Madrid veteran has surprised many by doing even more defensive work than people expected.

Figures within the France squad say it has brought out a Mbappe who is “better in attacking construction than he’s ever been”. His collective play is excellent. His individual play is incredible. “This isn’t even a normal Mbappe,” has been another line.

That could be seen in the way he let fly, in so many senses, for those goals against Poland. This was a player in full command of his ample compilation of abilities.

The first was perhaps the fullest show of those. As Mbappe bore down on goal, opening up into 10m of space in the manner that has become one the most exhilarating sights in football, it seemed to everyone he would seek to arch the ball into the far corner in the way Thierry Henry made his trademark. Wojciech Szczesny evidently felt that. Mbappe even shaped like that, clearly giving the goalkeeper “the eyes”.

He didn’t just wrong-foot Szczesny, though. Mbappe put his own foot through, with an abandon that was absolutely explosive. Many players would have reached for a precise low finish in that situation. Mbappe has gone for exactly that in the past, not least against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

He here had that higher-level confidence to go for the spectacular, adding an audacity to a moment that was already another announcement.

Forget Leo Messi or Neymar. Mbappe is going to go beyond them, and make this World Cup his own, as well as a new era.

He’s going to be the new star, something that is helped by the fact he currently feels loved and supported.

Some who know him say it is quite a contrast to PSG right now.

Mbappe’s first goal against Poland demonstrated an outrageous audacity (Getty)

Much of this is testament to Didier Deschamps’s meticulous team-building. A little like Gareth Southgate, the French manager receives a lot of fair criticism on his tactical view, but it is too often overlooked that is offset by the spirit he engenders in his squad. This team shows that, and a return to the vibrancy of Russia.

Eduardo Camavinga has been seen as a revelation in that regard. The squad love him for his energy. He is one of those that just instantly improves the mood.

That has reflected a greater expressiveness and sense of fun on the pitch.

This is a much more fluid and attacking team than in 2018. They are less rigid, especially with the way Mbappe and Dembele stretch opposition sides on both wings.

It is also true that has made them looser. They don’t have N’Golo Kante filling gaps. It is yet possible this might cause France more problems or cause Deschamps to change up.

That is something that has been discussed this week.

Many figures in the squad would point to how Adrien Rabiot has been another revelation, another who has responded superbly to Deschamps’s man-management. He does a huge amount of defensive work, constantly complimenting Griezmann. Aurelien Tchouameni is meanwhile seen as the equal of Jude Bellingham, while Dayot Upamecano is one of the young players whose sudden evolution has impressed French staff most.

The team has, for the moment, come together.

England will put that to test, but then this is also the biggest test of Southgate’s entire time in charge so far.

That is, remarkably, down to the loss of the European player of the year. It has made the best player in the world even better.

England vs France kicks off at 7pm on ITV on Saturday

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