When the transfer window opened a few months ago, Kylian Mbappé and Naby Keita were two of the top prospects on the market. Neither is old enough to rent a car at an American airport, but both have already produced at world-class rates at the highest level of the sport.
Back when Neymar-to-PSG was the kind of rumor fake Sky Sports Twitter accounts dreamed of, Mbappé was supposed to break the transfer record. At just 18, he scored six goals across six starts (nine appearances) during Monaco’s run to the Champions League semifinals. And in 17 domestic starts (29 appearances), he notched 15 goals and eight assists. That’s one goal per 90 minutes in Europe, in addition to 0.9 goals and 0.5 assists per 90 in Ligue 1. Like the rest of the Monaco team, Mbappé rode some red-hot (read: unsustainable) finishing to those numbers, but his underlying stats compare favorably to all but about 10 players in the world. Teenagers just don’t do what Mbappé did last season, and he hasn’t even hit 2,500 minutes played as a pro.
If the numbers aren’t enough, then just watch. Every French striker who can tie his own shoes gets compared to Thierry Henry, but Mbappé has the same hunched-over languid explosiveness that the former Arsenal legend used to terrorize the Premier League for a decade. Long legs can be a burden for strikers, who need to make the most out of time spent in tight spaces, but Mbappé’s already in full control.
Still, there’s doubt as to whether Mbappé can produce at the same level, across a full season, against defenses who now know who he is; these worries don’t exist for Keita. Over the last three seasons, first at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and then at RB Leipzig in Germany, Keita’s gone from a dominant ball-winning midfielder to a dominant ball-winning midfielder who also creates chances and scores goals. The current iteration of the sport is obsessed with transitions and vertical progression—create an unsettled opposing defense by winning the ball and then move it straight to goal before they can recover—and Keita does both better than just about anyone else in the world. He tackles and intercepts passes while also doubling as an Arjen Robben–level dribbler who scored eight goals and added seven assists in the Bundesliga last year. He’s already arrived; projecting his future seems to be a matter of determining exactly how great he’ll become.
The last 3 seasons of Naby Keita. Unique skillset for a central midfielder. Capable of doing EVERYTHING at an elite level. pic.twitter.com/c8cA6kYg0O— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) August 28, 2017
Mbappé and Keita’s talent is obvious, and no one should be surprised that they were sold this summer. But nothing about their transfers has been simple. One of them won’t permanently move for another year, and the other has to wait until July 1, 2018 to play for his new team. When wealthy teams want extraordinary players, sometimes it takes more than just money to make a deal happen.
On Wednesday, Liverpool announced that Keita would be joining the club … next year. After a summer saga that included bids of up to €75 million, some run-of-the-mill coded racism from Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick, and the new hallmark for a wantaway player (the training ground horror tackle), the two clubs found a compromise.
Keita has a €50 million release clause in his contract, but other clubs can’t activate it until next summer. Rather than hoping that the midfielder would still want to chose Anfield a year from now when any team can pay the clause, Liverpool are reportedly going to pay Leipzig something like €10 million more than they’d have to pay to acquire him next summer. Even still, they’re locking Keita in for well-below market rate in a summer that’s seen players of a similar quality go for triple digits.
This is a gamble for Liverpool. Considering the high-intensity style that Leipzig plays and the fact that the deal has already been finalized, Keita could pretty easily get hurt before officially joining up with manager Jurgen Klopp. Why wouldn’t Leipzig play their best player as much as possible? Liverpool can’t cancel the deal if Keita gets hurt, and they can only take insurance out on a career-ending injury. But the potential payoff of a world-class midfielder yet to enter his prime makes the risk easy to swallow. Leipzig, meanwhile, gets a higher transfer fee than the release clause, plus they get to keep their best player for the club’s first-ever season in the Champions League. And Keita himself locks in a much more lucrative contract that probably includes a bonus due to the reduced transfer fee.
Liverpool would obviously prefer to land Keita for this season—and he’d prefer to leave, too—but given a contract that runs until 2020 and Leipzig’s natural attachment to such a vital player, the deal placates all sides. Keita could end up being Liverpool’s most important purchase since they paid Ajax €26.5 million for Luis Suarez in 2011. He’ll be worth the wait.
PSG won’t have to do any waiting. They’ve reportedly agreed to sign Mbappé on a loan from Monaco for one season, with an additional agreement to purchase the teenager next summer for €155 million.
According to FourFourTwo magazine, loan deals began in the late 1800s out of necessity: “If an away team turned up a man or two short, perhaps due to injuries or travel problems, they would borrow some players from the home team in order to make up the numbers.” As the sport became professionalized, teams began to use loans as a way to get a player’s wages off their books for a season or for younger players to get game experience with a lesser club. More recently, Chelsea has built its business into a shell-game loan empire: The club currently has 39 players out on loan. Essentially, they buy up a ton of young talent for low fees without any real commitment to cycling the players into the first team, then they loan them out for a few years to allow them to develop and be seen by other clubs before selling them for a profit.
Monaco’s loan of Mbappé clinches them a massive future profit, but the clear downsides of the move—they lose Mbappé immediately, and they have to wait a year to get paid—suggest that PSG were the only team willing to make Mbappé the second-most expensive player of all time. Still, they’re locking in an incredible amount of money for a player with less than a half-season of professional football under his belt.
For PSG, the benefit of the structure is obvious: They don’t have to pay Mbappé’s transfer fee for at least another year. Given Neymar’s salary and the world-record sum paid for him, it’s already difficult to see how PSG won’t violate UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which essentially say that a club can’t spend much more than it earns. Throw in the second-highest fee ever paid for a player, and there would be no way for them to find the revenue to match. The Guardian’s reporting on the deal says that PSG have been in talks with UEFA over the details of the Mbappé transaction, so the Paris club isn’t even trying to hide the reasoning behind the weird structure.
After a summer of selling off €177.5 million worth of players, Monaco would’ve benefited from a set-up more like Keita’s. But we had never really seen a deal like that before Liverpool and Leipzig agreed to it. Then again, we’ve also never seen a deal like PSG’s with Monaco, either.
In the wake of the Neymar deal, the summer of 2017 has seen countless inflated transfer fees offered out by teams desperate to lock up new players. Keita is such a singular talent that Liverpool were willing to wait. Meanwhile, Mbappé offers so much potential that PSG don’t even have a choice.