Kylian Mbappe is leaving, so what next for Paris Saint-Germain?

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Maybe this was a glimpse of the future.

On Saturday night, Paris Saint-Germain took on Nantes without Kylian Mbappe in their starting XI. After playing 90 minutes against visitors Real Sociedad in the Champions League in midweek, and then privately revealing his intention to leave PSG at the end of the season, Mbappe was dropped by coach Luis Enrique.

The striker had sat on the bench against Lille the Saturday before that Champions League last-16 first leg — a precaution due to an ankle knock — but, other than that, the occasions he has been relegated among the replacements have been few and far between over the past seven years.

In the context of what has happened this past week, it felt symbolic of a power shift.

Had his confession over his impending exit ended his untouchable status and made rotation easier? Luis Enrique preferred a simpler reflection. “There was a Champions League match during the week and we needed energy to be competitive,” he said after his side’s 2-0 away win. “We had to give playing time to those who didn’t have it in Europe. Our goal is ambitious and I need all players involved to achieve it.”

But this picture in Nantes, of a PSG side without Mbappe, will be the norm soon enough. A team without a storied individual. The Ligue 1 champions and current leaders will be shedding the spotlight and the baggage that can come with that. But they will also be losing a game-changer who can — as he inevitably illustrated when he came on after an hour on Saturday — step off the bench, embarrass an opponent to win a penalty, score it, and kill off a match.

PSG have become accustomed to those moments of brilliance from Mbappe. But now, change is coming.

The impact will be huge.

Mbappe still made an impact as a substitute in Nantes (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Preparing for life after Mbappe has not been an unforeseen eventuality for PSG. Speculation about his future has been a regular, and often tiresome, soap opera that has rumbled on through almost every transfer window over the past two years. Now, however, the conclusion feels more concrete. It may not have been publicly stated, nor his new club formally agreed. But this time it is for real.

Mbappe will leave PSG in the summer. And PSG must focus on life without him.

That is not going to be easy. Mbappe is not just any old player — and not only because of his talent. He is the most influential French player to have ever worn their shirt. He may have insisted that the club was not ‘Kylian Saint-Germain’ in a marketing dispute last year but, at least in recent times, it is hard to escape the veracity of that description.

Mbappe is arguably the best player in the world today, having established himself as PSG’s record goalscorer by the age of 25. He has claimed multiple records since he signed, at 18, from Ligue 1 rivals Monaco in summer 2017 on an initial loan that turned into a €180million (now £153.8m; $193.7m) permanent switch a year later.

He has scored the most goals for PSG both domestically and in Europe, as well as the most hat-tricks, the most ‘doubles’ and the most goals in a single game (five). He has helped France win the World Cup in that time, scored in successive World Cup finals, including one hat-trick, has won the tournament’s Golden Boot, and gone on to become France captain. He is the most prolific and consistent goalscorer the French league has seen since Jean-Pierre Papin was running riot for Marseille in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

If he wins the Ligue 1 Golden Boot again this season (a near-certainty: he is on 21 goals, second-placed Wissam Ben Yedder of Monaco has 11), he will have received that award six times in a row — no player has done that before.

How on earth do you fill that Grand Canyon of a void?

A disconsolate Mbappe departs the 2022 World Cup with the Golden Boot after France lost to Argentina in the final (Mohammad Karamali/Defodi Images via Getty Images)

On the field is one thing. Off it, his achievements place him not only among the greats, but above most of them.

Mbappe’s relationship with his hometown club has at times felt transactional; a pretense of an emotional link while ensuring international eyeballs, impressive brand embellishments and enormous financial recompenses. That may be why his relationship with the PSG supporters has not always appeared perfect — you could even argue he may not have achieved the levels of adoration his achievements deserve purely due to the repetitive nature of these transfer sagas.

But there is no doubting there is affection for him.

It was telling that at the start of this season, after Mbappe was cast aside as the club laid out their ultimatum of “extend or be sold”, that supporters near the Virage Auteuil — a stand at PSG’s Parc des Princes stadium frequented by the club’s ultras — were reticent to discuss the issue when approached by The Athletic. They acknowledged instead the delicate balance of that situation, respecting the club’s position but also pointing out the risk of losing a beloved player.

Again, on Saturday, the supporters held their fire. Mbappe has been whistled before over the intrigue and uncertainty around his future by the club’s fervent fans, but he was not whistled by those in the away end in Nantes.

Mbappe is a global but local star — born on the outskirts of Paris, and now a worldwide ambassador for his country and a player who has proudly worn PSG’s shirt. To lose him is a significant blow; and more so if it is confirmed he is to join a rival for the coveted Champions League in Real Madrid.

With fans also facing the uncomfortable prospect of PSG leaving Parc des Princes, their home since 1974 — just four years after the club was founded, it also adds to the uncertainty about the club’s future identity.

PSG will be viewed differently without Mbappe.

PSG fans unfurl a flag depicting Mbappe at Parc des Princes (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

The club have already begun the process of regeneration.

Last summer was the onset, when they parted company with both Lionel Messi and Neymar, under the declaration that their ‘superstar’ era was over and that, instead, PSG would pivot to a younger, more cohesive team built with a longer-term focus — and clear playing philosophy —  in mind.

More than €300million was spent on talent with 13 new faces signed, plus the appointment of new head coach Luis Enrique. January saw the addition of two more youngsters in Lucas Beraldo and Gabriel Moscardo. The average age of the team has dropped dramatically.

PSG have also opened a new, €300million training ground, which brings together all aspects of the club — not just the men’s, women’s and academy football teams but also their judo and handball sides — on one site in Poissy, west of the city.

They have also found new financing via the American investment firm Arctos, which club sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships, like all of those consulted for this piece, claim may dilute their sole ‘state-backed’ status. It is thought further investment will be pursued.

But it’s losing their last ‘galactico’ that truly closes the door on what has gone before.

That should at least mean a reduction in off-field dramas, which reached their height last summer when, after Messi’s unauthorised travels and subsequent suspension, Mbappe was left out of the club’s pre-season tour of Japan and South Korea and made to train with the club’s fringe players.

The notion of the “club above all else”, a point stressed in a pre-season speech to the players by the president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, may be easier to enforce. Mbappe’s influence always seemed above what most clubs would consider normal; his contract renewal was said to give him a say in recruitment and the appointment of some key staff, such as Luis Campos, PSG’s football advisor who works in recruitment on a consultancy basis.

On the other hand, though, this evolution means a loss of the spotlight and of course, the departure of a truly elite-level talent. This recent era may have failed to secure the longed-for Champions League, but has provided near-certainties of success. During his time at the club, Mbappe has won five titles and is well on his way to number six, and lifted the two domestic cups (before the League Cup was scrapped in 2020) a combined five times.

Mbappe and PSG celebrate winning Ligue 1 last season (Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

PSG may have paraded him triumphantly holding a shirt emblazoned with “2025” when securing Mbappe to new terms only two years ago, but they say they have been preparing for his departure with a dual-track approach from the moment this saga exploded last summer.

On the sporting side, that represents a continuation of their “long-term” project under Luis Enrique, a part of which has seen public statements downplaying the “necessity” of winning the Champions League. That project will mean acting further in the market. On their list of summer targets, as The Athletic have reported, are Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Barcelona midfielder Gavi. The expectation is there will be multiple reinforcements. PSG still want to be an elite club after Mbappe goes and they will attempt to fill the void if they can.


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On the field, there are quality players already in place. Take 21-year-old Bradley Barcola, who has hinted at his own exciting potential in a left-wing berth with his recent performances — and he will have competition from the exciting Xavi Simons, also 20, who is currently on a season’s loan at RB Leipzig in Germany. In the central attacking position, which Mbappe has often occupied, PSG have the options of Randal Kolo Muani, 25, and 22-year-old Goncalo Ramos, signed last summer in deals worth a combined €170million, before considering further action in the market.

There is more youth too — none more exciting than homegrown midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery, who is poised to sign a new long-term contract, probably after he turns 18 early next month.

Tactically, Mbappe’s exit will mean the final departure of a player who transcends tactical instruction.

“He plays where he decides; he has total freedom,” said Luis Enrique in December. “He has complete freedom to play inside, outside, wherever he wants, and we have to balance our positions in relation to him. The question is who will follow Kylian by attacking inside or outside; it will depend on the match.”

This year, Luis Enrique has fiddled with the position of Mbappe in his team, moving him from out wide to a central role. But his exit also means the loss of a match-winner — as was witnessed again on Saturday. Replacing his goals will be tough. His 21 league goals this season are 15 more than any of his team-mates.

Financially, the club also say they prepared for both eventualities. They point to how Mbappe has been costing them €200million per year in wages, and that investment will now be funnelled, in part, into their recruitment plans. There’s also the wiggle room created last summer by significant exits, including those of Neymar and Marco Verratti — players who commanded transfer fees in addition to the club getting their salaries off the books.

There are, though, commercial implications to all of this.

Club sources have tried to play down the impact Mbappe’s exit, certainly in the short-term, will have on commercial agreements where a majority have longer terms to run. PSG’s collaboration with the Jordan sportswear brand, for example, should continue for at least another two years with both parties already working through future designs, while their agreement with Nike, Jordan’s parent company, is in place until 2032.

They also point to broadening their horizons with multiple players who can now grow in stature out of Mbappe’s shadow, and those who can access new markets — such as South Korea international Lee Kang-in.

The club’s profile has grown significantly in recent years, and can now hold its own in spheres beyond football.

Lee Kang-in (Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

But there is no denying Mbappe is the closest thing PSG have to a Michael Jordan — a globally-recognised star whose impact off the field of play mirrors their achievements on it, boasting a legion of fans, independent of club loyalty, who will tune in and buy tickets to watch them play and take notice of which companies they work with. Some of that audience will go when Mbappe does.

PSG point to how the club have continued to grow despite the departures of Messi and Neymar last summer, but Mbappe’s will not be an easy one to overcome.

His exit will also have implications for Ligue 1, which is in the middle of trying to negotiate a new domestic television rights package after its broadcast auction was scrapped in October having received no offers.

Losing Mbappe, so quickly after Messi and Neymar moved on, is a big blow.

When it comes to new partners Arctos, PSG sources insist Mbappe leaving is not an issue, owing to the fact that placing so much investment in one individual, who could be injured at any time, would represent a significant liability.

There may be other consequences, too.

Campos, the club’s football advisor, joined PSG as part of the negotiations to persuade Mbappe to renew his contract in 2022. His own fate has been tied to that of Mbappe, so there has to be a chance this transfer marks the end of his tenure, too. Campos did, of course, play an integral role in the club’s summer overhaul last year, and is now preparing for the next phase of the project, suggesting they still value his input. He is understood to be keen to stay; what he puts in place over the next few months may be key to whether he does.

Luis Campos (Franco Arland/Getty Images)

In the short term, it remains to be seen how all this will affect the rest of PSG’s 2023-24 season. The players are still adapting to Luis Enrique’s philosophy and remain a team in transition. This was always going to be a major sticking point when it came to Mbappe’s future — reconciling a player determined to achieve everything in the here and now with a project that is being built for the long term.

The reality now is that, for Mbappe to achieve his ultimate goal and bring the European Cup to Paris, the clock is ticking. It has to happen this season. That adds extra pressure, even if it has outwardly been stated, by Al-Khelaifi to Luis Enrique, that the competition is not the club’s be-all and end-all any more.

“We want to win it, like all teams, but we don’t feel any particular pressure or obligation,” said midfielder Fabian Ruiz last week.

The certainty of Mbappe’s departure does take one aspect of speculation away, even if it has not yet been officially confirmed. It introduces a long goodbye that could galvanise the team. For once, there won’t be distracting talk about what he will or will not do in the summer.

PSG can now look to the future and enact those plans they have long had prepared.

But no matter how much work has been put in to get ready for it, losing a player of Mbappe’s calibre is going to have a huge impact. Both and off the field.

(Top photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

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