Kylian Mbappe was a no-brainer signing who Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti did not need

Ryan Baldi
Kylian Mbappe and Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid
Can Carlo Ancelotti get the best out of Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid?

Real Madrid had to sign Kylian Mbappe. But did they actually need the Frenchman when Carlo Ancelotti’s European champions already have Vinicius Junior?


Has there ever been a footballing flex as ostentatious as the one Real Madrid have just pulled off?

Just days removed from completing a La Liga and Champions League double by beating Borussia Dortmund at Wembley to claim a record-extending 15th European Cup, they have announced the signing of Kylian Mbappe.

There are two predominant pillars to Madrid’s sporting identity: signing star players and winning Champions League titles. They’ve done both of these relentlessly for decades. Marrying the two so closely is the most Real Madrid thing Real Madrid could possibly do.

You can imagine Florentino Perez plotting the whole scenario at a Bernabeu board meeting. The septuagenarian don of football’s most feared family asks his underlings to name the two things that Real do better than any other club. One of his minions pipes up, listing Champions Leagues and Galacticos. Perez nods smugly, reclines in his chair and then dramatically intertwines his fingers, David Brent style.

But let’s be clear: Madrid are signing Mbappe because they can. Not because they need to.

The French superstar is out of contract since his deal with Paris Saint-Germain expired at the end of the 2023/24 Ligue 1 campaign. And his signing for Real has had a sense of inevitability for several months, ever since it became clear he would not renew terms at the Parc des Princes.

Mbappe is, by a margin as long as the Champs Elysees, the highest-profile free agent on the market this summer. He is probably the highest-profile free agent ever. He is also, of course, anything but ‘free’. He will reportedly earn £12.8 million a year with the Spanish champions, plus a signing bonus of £128 million to be paid over five years.

The 25-year-old has a credible claim to being the best player in the world, too. He is a World Cup winner, the first player since Geoff Hurst to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final and he has scored 329 goals in 442 career games. And given his age, his best is conceivably still ahead of him.

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Put short: Mbappe is Real Madrid material.

It’s easy to see why Mbappe is attracted to Madrid, too. Beyond the prestige of the club and a fascination with Los Blancos that dates back to his childhood bedroom adorned with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo, they can offer him a stage unmatched anywhere else in world football – certainly a grander platform than the one upon which he performed in Paris.

For all the vast honours he has collected already in his career, Mbappe’s trophy cabinet still has a vacancy for the most prestigious title in European football, the Champions League, and the game’s most coveted individual accolade, the Ballon d’Or. With 15 of the former and 12 players winning the latter while contracted to them, no club offers as good a guarantee of either.

Mbappe to Madrid makes total sense, then. An all-timer of a no-brainer. Until you consider how it will work on the pitch.

Take the Madrid line-up that ultimately defeated Dortmund in the Champions League final: a 4-3-1-2 set-up with Jude Bellingham as the No.10 behind split strikers in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. The position within that structure that best suits Mbappe’s skillset and tendencies is the left-sided centre-forward role – the position that belongs to Vinicius, the Brazilian wing wizard coming off the finest season of his career, arguably Madrid’s best player and, as Rio Ferdinand obsessively pointed out, the 2024 Ballon d’Or frontrunner.

Carlo Ancelotti could, of course, switch up his system in an attempt to accommodate Mbappe. But any configuration of a line-up that includes both Mbappe and Vinicius would result in at least one of the uber-gifted pair being somewhat diminished.

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They could go 4-2-3-1, for example, with Vinicius on the left and Mbappe at the point of attack. But toiling as a lone striker is a role to which the Frenchman isn’t best suited and has complained about being used in at PSG. He has spoken in the past about wanting to be “that type of player who plays with the ball, connected with the game, but can also play without the ball and create some movement without it”; an attacker who, in whatever system his manager selects, can “drift around” a more conventional No.9, as he has with Olivier Giroud for France. At present, Madrid don’t have a high-calibre central striker of this ilk. The acquisition of one to appease Mbappe would only exacerbate the selection headache awaiting Ancelotti.

Alternatively, he could be stationed on the right, taking the place of the less influential of Madrid’s Brazilian attacking duo. It was from the right flank, after all, that Mbappe helped fire France to World Cup glory as a teenager in 2018. But that would take him away from his preferred zone of influence. Whether his starting position is wide or central, like compatriot and former Arsenal great Thierry Henry the French superstar likes to drift left, terrorising right-backs with his pace and direct dribbling or racing into the space between full-back and centre-back. Heat maps of his and Vinicius’ activity this past season are like carbon copies; they do similar things in almost identical areas of the pitch.

When it comes to keeping big-ego superstar footballers happy and performing, there is no better manager in the world than Ancelotti. If anyone can solve the conundrum of how to fit an obscene number of brilliant players into a functioning system, it’s him.

Signing Mbappe for ‘free’ is a no-brainer for Madrid. But making it work on the pitch will require the full employ of Ancelotti’s frontal lobe.

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