Mbappé, Luis Enrique feud shows that PSG are preparing for life without him

For the first time in his professional career, dating back to when he established himself in the Monaco first team in 2017, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappé has been more of a substitute than a starter. As incredible as it is sounds, it is the truth.

In his past three matches, Mbappé was on the bench for more than an hour at Nantes two weeks ago (PSG won 2-0), roughly half an hour against Rennes last week (a 1-1 draw) and 45 minutes on Friday at Monaco (a 0-0 draw). In total: three games, one goal scored, one win and two draws for PSG, and a huge controversy.

PSG manager Luis Enrique has been pretty transparent about the notable shift since this incredible sequence began. He keeps repeating his justification like a mantra: “Soon, we will be playing without Kylian, so we need to get used to it. … I am looking for the best options for the team.”

Mbappé, 25, obviously isn’t in agreement with Luis Enrique’s thinking here, and he has been vocally unhappy about his game time diminishing so dramatically. On Saturday morning, the two men met and had a frank discussion about the situation, sources told ESPN. The manager told his first team vice-captain that it was nothing personal, but that he wasn’t indispensable anymore because he is leaving this summer to complete his move to Real Madrid.

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Dropping Mbappé to the bench and making him play less in Ligue 1 is surely easier to do right now because the Parisians are nine points clear of Brest at the top of the table, cruising towards their 10th title in 12 seasons. This probably wouldn’t be happening if the title race was tight, because Mbappé is still Paris’ best player — he’s one of the best in the world, finishing third in the 2023 Ballon d’Or voting. The team has more chance of winning games with him on the pitch than without.

However, Luis Enrique has a point about getting used to playing without the 2018 World Cup winner, though it still feels a little disingenuous: preparing for next season now, while the 2023-24 campaign is still going on and with plenty of other squad moves likely in the summer, feels strange.

Sources told ESPN there is a clear power struggle occurring at the moment within the club between Mbappé/his camp, Nasser al Khelaifi, the PSG president whose offers of a lucrative extension were rejected, and Luis Enrique. In short, Al-Khelaifi is not a fan of being told “no.” When midfielder Adrien Rabiot refused to extend his contract a few years ago, he essentially sat on the bench for the second half of the season. Mbappé is no Rabiot, mind you, and PSG cannot simply shelve him as they did his France teammate. But they can limit his minutes, as we’ve seen over the past two weeks.

This isn’t the first flash point between player and club president, either. Last summer, Mbappé was dropped from the first team and didn’t travel to Asia for the preseason tour. It was interpreted as a punishment for him not wanting to extend his PSG contract. At the time, sources told ESPN, club officials were discussing a wild idea: why not be strict and actually not play Mbappé all season? The notion was quickly abandoned.

Back then, Luis Enrique pushed for the player to be reintegrated while that conflict was ongoing; this time, he’s the main protagonist in the drama.

Luis Enrique is known for not being fond of stars. He clashed with Francesco Totti when he was at Roma, he clashed with Lionel Messi at Barcelona, and it’s now Mbappé’s turn.

As a young manager, Luis Enrique didn’t think Totti ran enough or played with enough intensity at almost 35 — he left the Roma star on the bench such that Totti didn’t net his first goal of the 2011-12 season until January.

It was a similar story with Messi — although Luis Enrique won everything, including the treble, in the 2014-15 season, he memorably tried to take Messi off the pitch in the 80th minute of an October match against Eibar, but Messi snubbed him and stayed on the pitch. By January, tensions had bubbled over enough that the two men clashed at training over a foul not awarded by Luis Enrique to Messi in a small-sided scrimmage. In Barcelona’s following game against Real Sociedad, Messi was on the bench for the first (and only) time of the season. Days later, Messi failed to turn up for training.

The Spanish manager has a reputation of wanting to be the “star” and being seen as the boss, but it’s harder to maintain that image when you have club icons in your squad. On Friday in his prematch news conference, he told the media that his team will be much better next season — reading between the lines, he meant “when Mbappé will not be there anymore.” It was seen as a brutal quote by the player and his camp, sources told ESPN.

In that meeting on Saturday morning, Luis Enrique told Mbappé that he will still count on him for the big games, including on Tuesday in the Champions League round-of-16 second leg against Real Sociedad in San Sebastián, with the Ligue 1 giants holding a two-goal advantage from the first leg.

Overall, there is nothing Mbappé can really do to fix this situation. Sources told ESPN that he won’t change his mind about deciding to leave; he’s preparing his move to Real Madrid and is very excited about it.

Mbappé also knew that such a situation was likely to happen; after seven years, he knows the club and Al Khelaifi too well. But he will do his best when he plays and won’t create a scene when he doesn’t.

Saying that though, on Friday evening in Monaco, Mbappé felt like he had to do something to express his mood. So instead of sitting on the bench for the second half, having been subbed off during the break, he went and sat next to his mum and his entourage in the stands, three rows above … Al Khelaifi. They didn’t talk that evening, sources told ESPNFC, but they didn’t really need to. The damage has been done already.

PSG still need Kylian Mbappé at his best if they want to finish the season as well as possible, especially in the Champions League. But Mbappé doesn’t expect anything from them anymore.

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