Kylian Mbappe and Christian Pulisic represent the future of attacking play
Tuesday's meeting between Borussia Dortmund and Monaco isn't the most hyped Champions League tie of the day; Juventus' home match with Barcelona will inevitably attract more viewers.
But this could be a sensational match; a clash between Thomas Tuchel's exciting, high-tempo Dortmund side against Leonardo Jardim's thrillingly fast, ultra-attacking Monaco. It also features the world's most exciting 18-year-old footballers: Dortmund's Christian Pulisic and Monaco's Kylian Mbappe. Between them, they might come to define the next decade of football.
In basic terms, they have little in common. One is an American playmaker establishing himself in the Bundesliga, the other a French forward shining in his home country. But there is a similarity. Usually, 18-year-olds are notable for one or two things -- their pace and dribbling ability, for example -- but these two are curiously complete players, perfect for the this era of universality in which footballers are no longer expected to be specialists in one role, but instead capable of providing numerous different qualities.
Right now, Mbappe is the greater star. Describing a youngster as being "the new X" always feels a cheap, simplistic way of explaining his qualities to the world, but it's difficult to watch Mbappe without thinking of another Frenchman. Indeed, when even Arsene Wenger suggests he "could be another Thierry Henry," it's probably time to stop resisting the comparisons. Mbappe, like Henry, has risen through the ranks at Monaco, and he stole two records from the Arsenal legend: He became Monaco's youngest-ever player, and then, sure enough, Monaco's youngest-ever scorer, too.
He also, incidentally, became the youngest full France international for more than 60 years, and Mbappe's development in the past few months has been extraordinary. He made just two league starts last season, played only 25 minutes in the Champions League group stage this season, and made consecutive league starts for the first time in February. Jardim has intelligently been trying to manage his playing time at this young stage of his career, but Mbappe has become impossible to ignore and has developed into the most promising young attacker in the world.
He's so highly rated precisely because he seems an incredibly mature, all-round attacker. Whereas many promising youngsters of his age are talented but flashy and liable to overplaying in the final third, Mbappe is brilliantly efficient and tucks away chances with nonchalance. In the first half of the season, he was primarily a provider, racking up three goals and five assists until Christmas. Since then, however, he's increasingly become the main man. He hasn't recorded another assist since then but has smashed in 11 goals in his past 11 games.
Like Henry, Mbappe is right-footed but prefers playing from the left, cutting inside and finishing coolly. When running at full speed, he sometimes appears leggy and lacks the natural grace and balance of Henry, but he's trickier in tight situations, capable of throwing feints and stepovers before playing neat, clever passes into onrushing teammates.
Mbappe's major shortcoming is his lack of defensive work; as he's acknowledged, this is an area he must improve. But then, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard have become top-class players despite their lack of defensive work and have simply convinced managers that their attacking efficiency justifies freeing them from defensive duties. Mbappe might well do the same.
The Frenchman will attract plenty of transfer interest this summer, but that speculation can wait. For now, he's the most exciting player in arguably Europe's most exciting side, and with Monaco into the Champions League quarterfinals, there's no reason they can't surprise the usual contenders and triumph. First, of course, they'll have to get past Dortmund -- and Pulisic.
A talented young American at one of Europe's most exciting clubs was always likely to be hyped like crazy, but the more you watch Pulisic, the more he appears to have all the attributes required to succeed at the highest level. He seems the real deal, and while he isn't quite winning games as regularly as Mbappe, it feels like Pulisic's potential is greater, his ceiling higher. Playmakers tend to peak considerably later than speedy attackers, and Pulisic will get better and better for a number of years.
The American offers the perfect blend of counter-attacking directness and more wily creative play in tight positions. Naturally, he feels like a No. 10, but having generally been deployed out wide for Dortmund this season, he's learning his trade in a different role, developing his all-round game. Besides, for now that might be the best use of his skill set, without putting too much pressure on him to be his side's primary creative outlet.
In a Dortmund side all about quick passing combinations and clever movement, it's notable how quickly Pulisic uses the ball in tight situations, but more than anything, Pulisic is thrillingly direct. You wouldn't describe him as a showboater in possession, and he tends to use skills to slalom past opponents quickly and put himself into good positions to play immediate passes. His decision-making is extremely good for an 18-year-old, even if there's inevitably room for improvement.
What's most distinctive about Pulisic's game is his short stride length, and when combined with his ability to play the ball with either foot, this leaves his opponents guessing about precisely when he's going to play the ball, whether a pass or a shot. He can release it at any moment, and compared to players who have longer, less rapid strides and strongly prefer one foot, it means Pulisic is a gloriously unpredictable player.
Like Mbappe, Pulisic needs to become better in a tactical sense when the opposition have the ball. Although his work rate can't be faulted, at times it's arguable Pulisic does too much running back with his opponent rather than remaining in positions to launch quick counters. It was notable how Philipp Lahm pushed him back easily at the weekend with constant forward running, whereas in the past, Dortmund's wide players have often caused Bayern problems by being slightly braver with their positioning.
It remains to be seen whether either Mbappe or Pulisic will prove crucial in this week's Champions League quarterfinal, but you sense this won't be the final opportunity to triumph for either 18-year-old. Both quick, dynamic, versatile and technically gifted, it feels like these two represent the future of attacking play.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.