Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé take different paths to lethal brilliance

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
Top: Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.
Bottom: France’s Kylian Mbappe celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between France and Poland, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s World Cup final between Argentina and France, one thing is for sure: The title will strengthen a star’s standing among the greatest to have played the game.

That the two players in question – Argentina’s Lionel Messi, 35, and France’s Kylian Mbappé, 23 – are club teammates on Paris Saint-Germain at different ends of their careers only adds to the intrigue. For Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or honoree who has long been his nation’s all-time top scorer, that elusive World Cup crown would let him fully escape Diego Maradona’s shadow in the Argentine soccer pantheon.

Mbappé, meanwhile, already finds himself tied for 15th all-time with nine World Cup goals and is on the verge of winning his second global crown at an age that puts his rise on par with Pelé’s trajectory in the 1950s and 1960s. As if there isn’t enough at stake, Mbappé and Messi are all even in the race for this tournament’s Golden Boot, at five goals apiece, with Messi holding a 3-2 edge in the assists tiebreaker.

So what has made Messi and Mbappé so influential in Qatar? Both players are deployed up front, prefer to cut in from wide areas and are granted tactical freedom by their respective coaches. But beyond that broad-strokes comparison, the players have drastically different approaches to sparking their respective attacks.

Quick and crafty on the ball, with defense-piercing vision, a silky touch and precise finishing, Messi tends to float toward the right flank – allowing him to slice in to his lethal left foot – or fall back to midfield to kick-start attacks. After beginning the tournament in a proactive 4-4-2 formation during a stunning loss to Saudi Arabia and a bounce-back win over Mexico, Argentina Coach Lionel Scaloni pivoted to a 4-3-3 formation – featuring Messi as a roaming center forward – for victories over Poland and Australia.

Scaloni then rolled the dice for the quarterfinal against the Netherlands – a shootout win after an electric 2-2 draw – by restoring the two-man front line of Messi and Julián Álvarez in a stingier 3-5-2 formation. Despite having just one forward in front of him, Messi excelled as Argentina’s facilitator, connecting on 10 of 11 line-breaking passes (balls that bypass the opponents’ defensive, midfield or forward units). To compare, forward Memphis Depay of the Netherlands – the closest analog for the incomparable Messi in the Dutch lineup – completed four of seven line-breaking attempts.

For the 3-0 semifinal shellacking of Croatia, Scaloni returned to the 4-4-2 formation but deployed a quartet of natural central midfielders – Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes, Enzo Fernández and Alexis Mac Allister – that stayed relatively compact. That opened up the flanks, where Messi connected more with right back Nahuel Molina than any other player. Although Argentina typically wins the possession battle, it controlled the ball just 34 percent of the time against Croatia and seemed content to strike in transition. After coolly converting a penalty kick, Messi had a hand in Álvarez’s full-field counterattack strike and teed up the striker’s second goal with a slaloming individual run down the right side and along the end line.

France, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent formation-wise, wielding a 4-2-3-1 alignment in every game except for the group stage finale, when Coach Didier Deschamps rotated his squad. Olivier Giroud is the lone striker in that lineup, with Mbappé on the left side of a playmaking trio that also features Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé. In contrast to Messi, who can drop deep to find the game, Mbappé tends to stay high and wide. Boasting unrelenting pace and bulldozing power, Mbappé stretches defenses with his verticality and breaks them with his finishing prowess.

In fact, Mbappé was easily France’s most advanced player in all three of its knockout round victories. He punished Poland in France’s 3-1 round of 16 victory, patiently rifling a shot into the top corner to cap a counterattack and curling home his second strike after navigating tight space in the box. Mbappé also led France with a whopping 10 ball progressions (instances in which a player advances the ball forward) on a day in which no teammate had more than three. Limited to four progressions in the scrappy 2-1 quarterfinal win over England, he racked up nine in the 2-0 semifinal victory against Morocco.

Come Sunday, Argentina’s Molina will have his hands full holding Mbappé in check while also finding moments to jump into the attack and combine with Messi. When it comes to containing the Argentina captain, it will be a group effort as Theo Hernández and Ibrahima Konaté – the left side of France’s back line – look to stay tight on Messi and limit his options in the final third.

But if it were as easy it sounds, Messi’s Argentina and France’s Mbappé wouldn’t be bracing for a World Cup showdown. And when it comes to players of such caliber, even the most disciplined tactical approach can be undone by a single moment of brilliance. That, perhaps more than anything, is what makes Messi and Mbappé’s talent so transcendent.