How to be prolific from outwide; A case study on Kylian Mbappé.

Kylian Mbappe’s goal celebration after scoring his 145th Club career goal at the age of 22 away to Bayern in the Quarterfinals of the 20/21 Champions League. Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Kylian Mbappé Lottin is the best U23 player in the world and has been for the last 4 years. The electric young forward hailing from Paris, France rose to prominence in the 2016/17 season as a 17-year-old having a decisive hand in Monaco’s underdog Ligue 1 victory. His 24 goals and 7 assists in all comps as 17 YEAR OLD (which must be reiterated) earned him a then-record move from Monaco to PSG for €180 million.

And in the past 4 seasons playing for Paris Saint Germain in Ligue 1 the World Cup winner has never had a season where he’s produced below 0.95 non-penalty goals and assists per 90.

In a world where that level of prolific contribution is the peak for some world-class players and unreachable for others it’s a testament to Mbappé’s quality.

At Mbappé’s creative peak, he was generating 0.51 xA per 90 off of 2.26 key passes per 90 in the 19/20 Ligue 1 season.

At his goal-scoring peak in terms of chance reception, he was getting chances worth a whopping 1.01 non-penalty xG per 90 in that same season.

At his actual Goalscoring peak, he was scoring 1.23 non-penalty goals every 90 minutes off of expected numbers of 0.99 npxG per 90 in the 18/19 Ligue 1 season.

In 46 Champions League Games Kylian Mbappé has gotten 45 Goal involvements, 27 Goals and 18 Assists.

In the Last 3 CL campaigns, he’s never fallen below 0.81 npxG+xA per 90.

And in all CL seasons he’s played in the lowest level of production from him has been 0.9 non-penalty contributions per 90.

So if you’re under the impression that he just statpads in a “One Team League” you couldn’t be more wrong. He produces on the biggest stage.

This now brings us to the question: Why Kylian Mbappé play so good?

Thanks to Pep Guardiola for being a meme.

Movement

When I say ‘Off-the-ball’, you say ‘Movement!’

Off-the-ball…

Off-the-ball…

There is NO prolificacy without movement off the ball and in behind opposition defensive lines. From your Cavani’s and your Aguero’s to your Sterling’s and your Messi’s they all had the ability to repeatedly get themselves into goal-scoring positions. Mbappé is another that hails from this school of elite movers. He instinctively and consciously knows where the goods are at.

Box Movement

Mbappé vs Nîmes (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

Here Kylian stays 12 yards out for a cutback that doesn’t reach him. But anticipating Cavani’s cutback he quickly repositions himself at the far post, just narrowly missing what would have been a high-quality tap in. This is some excellent box movement for three reasons.

  1. His foresight that a ball would be flashed across goal.
  2. The constant movement that gets him free, without markers in acres of space.
  3. Blindside movement; if defenders can’t see you, they can’t defend against you.

If him not getting a shot off doesn’t convince you then:

Mbappé vs Nîmes (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

Really good box movement.

Mbappé begins in an offside position which takes him out of the defender's attention, the logic being that if he’s offside he can’t pose an immediate threat. But should the ball be played ahead of him after he intentionally moves back in front of the defence he’ll be onside with fewer or no markers and that’s how this goal plays out. He remains on the blindside of the defender as possession is moved up by his fullback’s run. Juan Bernat’s high possession and the threat of his cross drag the Nîmes defensive line up and Mbappé positions himself 12 yards out in the space created, unmarked for a cutback.

Runs into small depth

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there’s no space to make a run in behind because there always is. If a player has good playing and shooting angles they can make short runs into small spaces behind the defensive line and get good goalscoring opportunities. Not all the time will there be space for the ball over the top so a player must recognise that and learn to make short vertical and diagonal runs to get on the end of pinpoint through balls.

Mbappé vs Dijon (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

He makes a run into the small space vacated by the CB and it takes him wide. Making runs like this requires good finishing from tight angles as keepers and defenders can quickly close him down when running in such small spaces.

Runs into large depth

Mbappé vs Lyon (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

There is value in having little to no defensive duties, it means he can stay upfield during opposition attacks as an outlet and exploit vast amounts of space when the ball is won back.

Blindside movement

Mbappé vs Guingamp (A) 18/19, Ligue 1

With the defender focusing on the ball, Mbappe slips in behind him to score.

Mbappé vs Dijon (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

The instant Kehrer gets on the ball, Mbappé makes a blindside run across the CB that has been dragged outwide, the run is not reciprocated but he ends on the blindside of the other centre-back and positions himself to receive on his shoulder.

Finishing runs in the Box

Mbappé vs Montpellier (A) 20/21, Coupe de France

Pass and move. This is a key facet of Mbappé’s game, after passing the ball he doesn't become static or detach himself from the attack, he becomes a runner. Laying off the ball helps to take attention off him so he can then make a run without being marked.

Mbappé vs Reims (A) 18/19, Ligue 1

Most goals are scored in the box, so if you want to score you need to get in the box. Mbappé understands this, when the ball goes wide he makes sure to finish his runs in the box in anticipation of crosses or cutbacks.

Anticipation and The Right Place at the Right Time

They say you make your own luck and it’s true for Kylian Mbappe, his perseverance and unrelenting drive to get in the box and at the end of deliveries sees that he’s in positions to sweep up rebounds in the box. When he lays the ball off he finishes his run in the box.

Mbappé vs Nice (A) 19/20, Ligue 1

It seems a bit wishful that he could join this attack when it’s so far away from him and there are no angles for Di Maria to play the ball to him and yet he makes a run into the box intelligently anticipating any action he could be involved in and for that he’s rewarded with a goal.

Mbappé vs Dijon (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

It takes optimistic thinking to find yourself in situations like this, Mbappé doesn't know that the ball will find its way to him but despite being fouled and being on the floor he gets up because the ball is still in play and thus there are opportunities to be had. For his industry, he gets a goal.

Run through CBs

Mbappé vs Manchester United (A) 18/19, Champions League

Pretty simple run, he sprits gambling the shape of the cross would be too hard to intercept and that with his speed he’d beat the centrebacks to tap it in.

The Outside Run

Mbappé vs Nîmes (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

Recognising the space behind the FB that's caught in two minds he makes a diagonal out-to-in run across him.

Vertical Run Between FB and CB

Mbappé vs Montpellier (A) 20/21, Coupe de France

Here again, he pounces on the space left behind a defender that has ventured forward, he uses his strength to shield the ball from the recovering defender to get a good shot off.

Mbappé vs FK Crvena Zvezda (A) 18/19, Champions League

Using his FB, Mbappé overloads the opposition FB causing him to have defend both of them and he receives behind him.

Run outside CB in transition/counter-attack

Mbappé vs FK Crvena Zvezda (A) 18/19, Champions League
Mbappé vs Monaco (A) 19/20, Ligue 1

Pretty self explanatory.

Goalscoring

Movement leads us to the most valuable part of the French forward’s game, goalscoring. Mbappé is a prolific goalscorer primarily because he gets lots of high-probability chances, his attacking of space and movement in behind gets him into 1v1s with keepers and cutback scenarios with the defensive line pushed far up in the box.

Mbappé’s shot locations for the past three Ligue 1 seasons, data from Understat

Taking a look at the shot map above there are a few things that stand out. The proliferation of shots and high xG ones, in particular, coming from the left halfspace, which makes sense with him being a left-winger. The cluster of tap-in goals in the 6-yard box. And his absurdly high shot quality of 0.21 npxG per shot. He’s bettering some elite centre forwards in average probability per shot as a “wide player”. 76% of his shots come inside the penalty area, 8% from the 6-yard box and the last 16% from outside the penalty area.

Positioning

If PSG is in the First or Second Phase of build-up he tends to be holding width or sitting between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence.

When dropping BTL (between the lines) he usually is very sparing with the ball. He can turn and play to goal if there’s massive space but usually bounce passes backwards or uses flicks to eliminate CBs that have got too tight to him and progress the ball to his advanced teammates and facilitate opportunities to attack the box.

Mbappé vs FK Crvena Zvezda (A) 18/19, Champions League
Mbappé vs Dijon (H) 19/20, Ligue 1
Kylian Mbappe’s heat maps for the 19/20 and 20/21 Ligue 1 seasons respectively. Source: Sofascore

Kylian’s heatmaps tell the tale of a left-dominant forward that favours inverting in and cutting into the goal but with the occasional roam deep and to the opposite side of the pitch. Despite playing a significant amount of minutes at CF in both seasons, his heatmaps express an affinity for drifting outwide.

Chance Creation

Kylian Mbappé is a very underrated creator. Probably because he creates more by movement to get into dangerous positions and less by ball-playing in front of the defensive block. This is not to say he can’t:

Throughballs & Gravity

Mbappé vs Nîmes(H) 19/20, Ligue 1

Here he uses his composure and gravity to draw the opposition toward him and then slip into Ángel Di María in space for a big chance.

Mbappé vs Strasbourg (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

Mbappe uses his composure mid-carry and whilst boxed in by the opposition to look up and find an outlet and plays a perfectly weighted needlepoint pass for Kean’s run.

More often than not though, Mbappé creates behind the defensive line rather than in front of it. His dynamic movement and dribbling gets him into positions where he can set up his teammates for easy tap-in goals.

Mbappé’s assists in the last two Ligue 1 seasons

Looking at his assist map we can see that he is a penalty box creator, he assists mostly through short passes, shot crosses, and cutbacks in the box. His wide runs, in-to-out runs, combination play and wide in-to-out carries and dribbles get him into threatening positions where he pulls the defensive line up and makes defenders gravitate toward him to free up space in the penalty area and slip his teammates through on goal.

Mbappé’s assists in the last two Ligue 1 seasons

7 of his 12 assists came in either transitions and counter-attacks, 4 in settled play, and 1 in settled play vs a 10-man Montpellier. So he carries a creative threat in both transitions and against settled blocks.

You might look above and feel like 12 assists across 2 seasons (1 and ¾ really) is not that special but looking beyond the flawed stat that assists are we see that: per Statsbomb across 19/20 and 20/21, he’s accumulated an xA of 13.1 in 43.2 nineties. He has an -1.1 xA underperformance due to poor finishing by his teammates. He’s at 0.3 xA per 90 in this period, so he was creating a lot but his teammates weren’t finishing a lot.

The Cutback Kid

Weak-footed, strong-footed, outside of the boot, from the left or right whichever you choose this is the chief chance creating weapon in the 4-time Ligue 1 winner’s armoury.

Mbappé vs Strasbourg (H) 20/21, Ligue 1

Here he receives wide left in ‘his’ zone, executes a stepover to create space, then he bursts past the fullback with an arced run to get closer to goal and in a familiar fashion, he lays it back to the centre of the 6-yard box.

Mbappé vs Angers (H) 20/21, Ligue 1

He is particularly good at this because of his strength to hold off physical challenges and his explosiveness. In the gif above he brushed past two opposition players and kept his balance.

Short Crosses

Mbappé vs Dijon (H) 19/20, Ligue 1
Mbappé vs Reims (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

Square passes across the face of the goal are his bread and butter because playing on the shoulder constantly puts him outwide and above the last line of defence. Notice how both these chances are facilitated by combination play to get in behind the defence, this is a way of shaking off markers because a lot of the time they’re focused on the ball. It’s especially potent around the penalty area because the immediate threat of possessing the ball there increases their fixation on the ball.

Dribbling

The 22 yr old is a quick-footed 1v1 demon. His mixture of pace, power, and guile makes for a thrilling sight, almost encouraging you to support his take-ons. Almost entranced, you might find yourself watching him in a 1v1 or 1v2 and start rallying behind him, telling him to attack his fullback and put him on his backside.

Shot creating actions from dribbles and fouls drawn in Europe’s top 5 Leagues 20/21, data from Statsbomb via Fbref Inspired by:https://twitter.com/HemmenKees/status/1287010775756931073

In the 20/21 Ligue 1 season, he averaged 3.33 successful dribbles per 90 with a career-low 46.6% success rate. This could be due to his career-high attempts of 7.16 per 90. What he lacks in efficiency, he makes up for in threat. In 20/21 on a per 90 basis, he was creating 1.1 shots per 90 from dribbles and fouls drawn, the graph above puts him up there with the best Attacking Midfielders and Forwards in Europe for this.

Shot creating actions are offensive actions that lead to a shot. In 20/21 he was at 0.72 per 90 which put him in the 96th percentile. Meaning he was part of the best 4% of players in Europe’s top 5 leagues for creating shots from dribbles.

Fake Shot + Ball Roll

Mbappé vs Nîmes (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

He has a repertoire of moves used to bypass defenders. His signature dribbling move is the ‘Ball Roll’, where he begins with a fake shot/pass and then with his slanted leg he transitions into dragging the ball across the ground around a defender. The fake shot has the effect of making defenders look away and slant their bodies away in order to brace for the shot they think is coming.

Mbappé vs Bayern Munich (H) 17/18, Champions League

They plant their bodies for a split second and can't react in time which allows the space to then get around them. He uses the ball roll because he can organically transition to it from the initial feint.

Mbappé vs Nîmes (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

Also useful for rounding the keeper.

Feint + Quick Burst

Mbappé vs Lyon (H) 20/21, Ligue 1

This move involves him coming to a standstill and dropping his shoulder away from where he actually wants to go (Playing on the right means he’ll drop it to the left). This does two important things, it’ coaxes a defender into also standing still and make them think he'll go in the direction of his dropped shoulder. He then uses their stationary position against them and his explosive agility to accelerate past them by flicking the ball towards goal/his intended destination.

Mbappé vs Marseille (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

Even with it not coming off here you can see it’s a potent tool, the only way the defender could stop him was to blatantly foul him.

All of these skills aren’t just for show, they are tools for breaking down defensive structures in order to create shots, create chances and progress the ball into dangerous areas. It’s such a valuable weapon for an outlet like Mbappé because sometimes running in behind is not enough and you may find yourself in situations like this:

Mbappé vs Dijon (H) 19/20, Ligue 1
Mbappé vs Clermont Foot (H) 21/22, Ligue 1

isolated against a defender with time ticking down as the opposition regroup. Runs aren’t always to create direct goalscoring opportunities, sometimes they’re to eliminate some of the opponent’s defensive structure and to come to 1v1 situations that prelude goalscoring. Mbappé is an outlet on a whole other level because of his added dribbling ability. Where some other players would have to wait for support to arrive to lay the ball off he has the determination to test isolated CBs and Fullbacks to create chances for others or shots for himself.

Finishing

Preparatory actions

Mbappé’s deft touches, mobility when receiving, and quick-footed nature also make him very good at upgrading his own shooting opportunities. He can either create shooting angles where before they didn’t exist or turn low-value shots into better value shots.

Mbappé vs Guingamp (A) 18/19, Ligue 1

He opens his body up to receive the diagonal through ball and his first touch controls the ball into his path to easily slot in past the keeper. If Mbappé hadn’t taken that touch he’d be easier to close down. If he hadn’t angled his body like that he wouldn’t be able to finish with his dominant right foot or around the keeper to the far post. He would have to go on the outside of the keeper, with his weaker left foot which he actually is adept at:

Mbappé vs Marseille (A) 20/21, Ligue 1

With Mbappé’s momentum, it’s impossible that he would stop and readjust himself to cut in here.

Mbappé vs Bayern Munich (A) 20/21, Champions League

Mbappé’s quick feint fools the Center back and goalkeeper. It firstly draws a block attempt from the CB but since no shot follows for a second or two the CB adopts a set body position trying not to be fooled again. That’s a mistake that allowed Mbappé within a split second to shoot through his legs, without the CB trying to block his shot. On the other hand, the goalkeeper moves leftward expecting the shot to come across him but Mbappé uses the Goalkeeper’s leftward momentum to go to the right where he doesn’t have enough time to reach. Mbappé processes all of these decisions in just a few seconds with the imminent threat of being closed down.

Ball Striking

Mbappé has a variety of finishes at his disposal, round legged instep for precision, chips for keepers too close to him, side-legged tap-ins for…tap-ins.

Mbappé’s non-penalty goals, 19/20, Ligue 1
Mbappé’s non-penalty goals, 20/21 Ligue 1

I took a look at 38 of his Non-penalty league goals across the past two seasons. he’s shown; a proclivity for the rounded instep, two footedness and ambipedality, and the ability to target different areas of the goal.

Statistical Performance

Mbappé’s xG performance across PSG career, Statsbomb via Fbref

Across his PSG career, the 22-year-old has largely been a statistically above-average finisher of chances. In 19/20 and 20/21 he overperformed his npxG by +0.9 and had returns of 18 and 21 non-penalty goals respectively. +0.9 is not up there with the most clinical finishers but it shows that he’s not reliant on clinical finishing for good goal returns and more reliant on his high chance magnetism/reception.

Physical Profile

Mbappé is a Rolls Royce winger with all the attributes suited to playing outwide. He’s extremely fast and explosive on top of it. He can burst past players from long sprints or from a standstill. The ability to accelerate from a standstill means he can regularly catch defenders out and bypass them.

Mbappé vs Montpellier (A) 20/21, Coupe de France
Mbappé vs Monaco 20/21, Coupe de France

Whilst his centre of gravity isn’t low enough to make him a volume dribble that the likes of Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi are, it is low enough to where he has good balance and the ability to resist physical challenges whilst carrying the ball.

Playing Conditions

For

In his PSG Career, the 22 year old has played under 4-time Europa League Winner Unai Emery who boasts a 76.3% Win-rate with Paris Saint German and Recent Champions League winner, Thomas Tuchel who similarly won 74.8% of his games as PSG manager.

He has played with elite forwards, prolific chance magnets and high volume creators such as Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria who have provided for him as both creators and outlets. There’s no doubt that being surrounded by such talent has contributed to his capacity to score goals and create chances. Behind him are excellent ball progressing midfielders like Marco Verratti, Leandro Paredes and Idrissa Gueye that many teams in Europe would be better for having. The first and last are particularly combative midfielders that help win back possession, sustain pressure and launch counter-attacks that Mbappé Benefits from.

Idrissa Gueye’s pressing efforts create a goal for Mbappé, PSG vs Bordeaux (H) 19/20, Ligue 1

PSG itself is a behemoth that has the necessary platform to cultivate and sustain the output of a prolific striker.

Territory and Possession in the last 4 Ligue 1 seasons, data from Statsbomb via Fbref

He plays for a team that enjoys a vast majority of the ball and of the pitch and has done so for the last 4 seasons with no other team in Ligue 1 coming close to PSG’s level of dominance. Mbappé is mostly used as a striker or inside forward with the license to play on the last line and effectively as an additional CF when tucking in and to forego defensive duties. These are luxuries afforded to him because he plays for a big team, that plays in the opposition half most of the time and his output is so damn good that it makes up for/excuses the lack of defensive output. But it is also a big reason for his good output, he sees much of the ball. He averaged 10.5 touches per 90 in the opposition box in 20/21, the most in Europe of players that played over 16 nineties in League competition.

Against

In the last three seasons, Ligue 1 has ranked 1st (18/19), 2nd (19/20) and 3rd (20/21) for the least amount of goals per game across the top 5 Leagues. In terms of defensive strength, it’s much closer to The Premier League and La Liga instead of the high-scoring environments of The Bundesliga and Serie A. It’s also consistently low in terms of non-penalty chance concession per game.

Top 5 Leagues 18/19, from Statsbomb via Fbref
Top 5 Leagues 19/20, from Statsbomb via Fbref
Top 5 Leagues 20/21, from Statsbomb via Fbref

Playing for PSG the French wonder-kid regularly faces against mid-block and low-block teams in domestic competition. Teams that utilise a lot of defensive width, are horizontally compact and don't press very high or engage Centerbacks.

PSG vs Saint Etienne 4-4-2 Low-Mid Block (H) 20/21, Ligue 1
PSG vs Troyes 5–4–1 Low block (A) 21/22, Ligue 1

With that said, being a Manchester United fan my perception of low-blocks and hard-to-breakdown defences is particular so watching some of the goals that Mbappe scores I find myself saying, “Hmm, would this happen in the prem? Would he get that opportunity playing for us?”.

Analysis of his 18 League goals in 19/20. Inspired by:https://twitter.com/GuyKaye2/status/1428439780912734211
Analysis of his 21 non-penalty League goals in 20/21

In the 19/20 Ligue 1 season, 50% of his goals came in settled play but many of the defensive team’s shapes were open or diminished due to having red cards. I could very well be suffering from Manchester United related delusion thinking defences must always be rigid and super compact and I don’t know if it’s more of a case of PSG’s ability to manipulate a block and less of a team’s innate defensive incompetence. 44% came in transitions and counter-attacks and 6% (1 lol) came in the second phase of a set-piece.

So, what does Kylian Mbappé’s game tell us about being prolific as a wide player?

I would be disingenuous if I didn't acknowledge that Mbappé isn’t just a winger, he is a forward; sometimes he holds width and a lot of times he plays out wide but equally so he plays upfront alone and sometimes in a two. But despite this, he still presents a valuable blueprint on high-value contribution as wide forward. Modern-day wingers are nominally wingers, at least up the food chain. A winger playing for a big, Champions League Side is likely to be inverting during the attack phase, acting as an auxiliary Striker. So,

  1. Play for a big team with lots of possession and territory.

So you can invert and get closer to goal but also so your team can maintain lots of possession to facilitate your attacking. It’s hard enough trying to be a prolific striker in a midtable or relegation side so being a prolific wide player in that kind of team is almost out of the question.

2. Be physically fast, explosive, strong and have high endurance.

Another prerequisite is physical ability you need to be physically gifted, if a wide player is not explosive, it limits their ability to operate individually and makes them more reliant on other players. So many opportunities to dribble past a player won't exist because of an inability to get an inch on them. A Center forward can get away with not being explosive due to their proximity to the goal but a wide player aiming to be prolific probably can’t. You also need an engine to power the endless runs required to maximise chance reception.

3. Optimistic thinking. Obsessive thinking.

You have to want it, you need to have a desire to score goals, you need to be inquisitive about how to score goals. There has to be a hunger to win so large that you’d do anything to succeed. A prolific winger must be such a fiend for goals that they would endure the dozens of times a game where their runs aren’t rewarded with a pass. Have the understanding that just how every shot doesn’t become a goal, every run doesn’t become a shot but you have to keep on accumulating runs to accumulate shots and in turn, shots to accumulate goals.

4. Have extremely good off-the-ball movement, positioning and timing.

Have a wide array of runs you can make that can target different opposition weaknesses. Have a deep bag of runs you can make that you’re familiar with executing. Diversify your movement, have the runs in behind but also have box-movement, double movements, blindside movement. You’ll end up being tactically flexible and useful against any kind of opposition.

5. Establish a repertoire of shot-creating passes

Sorry, I don’t know who made this one.

Pick a zone, pick a pass, work hard on perfecting your techniques for those passes, work on how you’ll get into a position to make those passes and work with your teammates and coaches to facilitate you getting in those positions and for them to be on the end of your passes.

6. You have to be a good dribbler.

You don’t need the greatest success rate but you need to be a threat from dribbles. So much opportunity can be created from fooling opposition players so establish a repertoire of dribbling moves that are replicable in real game environments, are quick and are good at bypassing the opposition and then combine it with your physical ability like quick feet or explosiveness.

7. Have diverse Wingplay

It’s so important for an inverted winger to be ambipedal and multi-faceted when attacking in wide areas. You can’t always cut in and shoot because if that’s all you can do the opposition will nullify you by packing the space in front of the goal and force low-quality shots from in front on their block. Mbappé has variation to his wing play that makes him harder to defend; the opposition won’t know if he’ll drive to the byline and cross, or cutback, or if he’ll cut in and shoot or go on the outside and shoot.

If you made it to the end I have a treat for you (if you’re into this kinda stuff). We can’t be serious all the time, so let's have some vibes:

Kylian Mbappe-Lottin — Ante Up

Learning about football step by step.