Mbappe's struggles symbolic of collective ennui engulfing France

How do you solve a problem like Kylian Mbappe?

It is not a question you would expect to be asking yourself if you knew France were preparing to face Spain in another major tournament semi-final.

The dull, relentlessness of a risk-averse team with an underperforming striker against the backdrop of a snap general election, England are not the only set of supporters considering the unthinkable this week.

Excluding penalties and own goals, France are yet to score in their five games at EURO 2024. No side has ever gone longer without such a goal in the tournament's history, with Les Bleus attempting 86 non-penalty shots (7.25 non-pen xG) without scoring from one at this year’s finals
Excluding penalties and own goals, France are yet to score in their five games at Euro 2024

Mbappe, like Harry Kane, will not be dropped. But the pair have been living off their reputations at Euro 2024. The tale of the out-of-sorts striker has been a theme of this curious 17th edition of the European Championship.

A resurgent Cody Gakpo leads the scoring charts on three goals after five rounds of football, level with the departed Georges Mikautadze, who scored from each of his three shots on target for Georgia.

The football itself has, at times, been nauseating. The noise, the colour and the fun has largely been provided by the fans, three years on from the soulless Euros, played amid sparse crowds and restricted travel due to coronavirus restrictions.

Spain have been the stand-out team, but tournament football is about finding a way to win. How often we have seen the best side not prevail across seven games in a month.

For France coach Didier Deschamps, he will hope that trend continues on Tuesday night in Munich.

Explaining why Mbappe is yet to click into gear is partly a result of improving second-tier nations, who have demonstrated greater defensive organisation. Austria and Poland both adopted a low block designed at nullifying the pace in behind of France’s dangerman.

The fractured nose he sustained in the closing stages of the opening-night victory over Austria meant the forward missed the 0-0 draw with the Netherlands on matchday two, while the 25-year-old has had to wear a protective mask ever since.

France's captain has scored one goal and suffered a broken nose
France’s captain has scored one goal and suffered a broken nose

His only goal came in the 1-1 draw with Poland – his first in a European Championship – and that was from the penalty spot. Mbappe has since described the requirement to wear face protection as “an absolute horror,” and it is visible in his body language.

While Portugal coach Roberto Martinez stood resolutely by Cristiano Ronaldo in extra time, it was of little real surprise to see Deschamps replace his talisman before the shootout in spite of his penalty prowess.

Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe explains Portugal substitution

“I asked to be taken off. At half-time in extra time, I told him [France coach Didier Deschamps] that I didn’t feel it anymore, that I was too tired.”

L’Equipe awarded him a rating of 2/10 and there is a genuine debate in the French media over whether he should start against Spain.

“It limits my vision, the sweat gets blocked. It felt like I was in 3D and that I was a VIP guest at the Euros,” said Mbappe when asked to explain the discomfort.

Randal Kolo Muani has come to his captain’s defence having tried the mask on himself, adding that he expects the new Real Madrid forward to overcome his struggles: “You really see nothing. Nothing.

Mbappe was born to lead the team, according to Randal Kolo Muani
Mbappe was born to lead the team, according to Randal Kolo Muani

“It’s natural for him. He has this gift of carrying the team, the group. He gives ideas and advice to the players. He was born for this. He was born to pull the group upward.

“To see him not score, it’s up to us to help him, to push him. The competition is not over. Apart from his little broken nose, he’s OK physically.”

The player has had mixed fortunes playing at the Allianz Arena, having scored twice in a Champions League quarter-final victory for Paris Saint-Germain over Bayern Munich in April 2021.

Mbappe is yet to have a real impact at the tournament
Mbappe is yet to have a real impact at the tournament

How have France not scored more?

France have yet to score from open play, reaching this stage on the back of two opposition own goals and a Kylian Mbappe penalty. That is despite taking 86 shots, exceeded only by Spain (100) and eliminated quarter-finalists Germany (93) and Portugal (87).

It wouldn’t lead to European glory, while he cut a forlorn figure two years later following a round-of-16 exit at the same venue.

For France, his record speaks for itself. Only Olivier Giroud (57) and Thierry Henry (51) have scored more goals for his country (48), while Mbappe’s goals-per-game ratio of 0.59 sees him come out on top.

Deschamps told Telefoot: “Don’t you think he has already made enough history, with what he has done so far? He wants to make even more history.

“We did everything we could with him, with the medical staff, to get him to be here. During the preparation, he had a little back problem, too, but Kylian is here.

“Even if he’s not 100 per cent, I know very well that for the opponent, knowing he’s playing makes them think and forces them to adapt.”

Mbappe is set for his 57th game of the season, but another reason for his below-par displays has been the soap opera that surrounded his protracted move to Madrid.

In June, the player revealed that he was convinced he would never play at all for PSG last season because of how “violently” he claims he was spoken to having refused to extend his contract.

Kylian Mbappe stats - June 3rd, 2024
Mbappe’s numbers at club level speak for themselves

Manager Luis Enrique did begin planning for life after Mbappe towards the end of the domestic campaign, which contributed to fitness issues long before Austria’s Kevin Danso realigned his nasal septum.

“Before the end of the season, I didn’t play that much,” he said. “Everyone knows why I didn’t play so much. But you have to adapt. There are difficulties you have to overcome when you’re a player.”

This is also a different France to the one that swept to the 2022 World Cup final and the one that prevailed four years earlier in Russia.

Back then, Paul Pogba’s presence was integral to getting the best out of Mbappe with his forward passing, while Antoine Griezmann filled that role in Qatar.

Pogba is currently serving a four-year suspension from all football-related activities following a failed doping test in August 2023. Without his vision, Mbappe has had to evolve his game to suit the qualities of Pogba’s midfield replacements.

“Why do I not make runs in behind anymore? It depends on the team,” he explained. “A striker must always adapt to all situations, to his team-mates, to their characteristics.

Mbappe scored 20 goals and provided 17 assists in 41 matches playing with Pogba for France
Mbappe scored 20 goals and provided 17 assists in 41 matches playing with Pogba for France

“Many people refer to the game we had when I arrived in the national team. But we had different players. With [Pogba], you just have to lower your head, run, make a call and you know that the ball will arrive at your foot.”

Deschamps has opted for more industrious options with N’Golo Kante, Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot the preferred trio alongside Griezmann, who isn’t performing anywhere near his level as the creative force.

It is the defence that has dragged France through to the semi-finals, but there is still time for the pattern to change.

They have reached at least the semi-final in four of the last five major tournaments, failing only at Euro 2020 when they were knocked out by Switzerland on penalties in the round of 16.

This is at least twice as many semi-finals as any other European nation since Euro 2016 – but they have only converted the World Cup in 2018 into silverware.

“A happy man is more likely to play better than a sad one,” said Mbappe on the eve of the tournament, breaking into a smile.

Having looked disinterested and distracted far too often in Germany, their fallen star must finally come to the fore if France are going to break from the collective ennui surrounding their title credentials.

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