PSG, Real Madrid or...? Why Mbappe's options may be limited

Could Mbappe be Benzema's heir if he goes to Real Madrid? (1:24)

Julien Laurens talks about Kylian Mbappe's letter to PSG and what that means for his future and a potential move to Real Madrid. (1:24)

Lemme know if you heard this one before: The game's No.1 superstar under the age of 35 lets it be known that he won't sign a contract extension at his club, Paris Saint-Germain, which means that in 12 months' time, he will be a free agent.

Minus COVID, it kinda feels like 2021 all over again, doesn't it?

Kylian Mbappe told PSG last Monday that he would not be taking up the one-year option on the contract he signed 13 months ago. (Which make the pictures of him posing with that silly 2025 shirt seem even more ridiculous now, doesn't it?)

Then, as now, PSG were stunned. Then, as now, folks were speculating that the club would need to sell him this summer. Then, as now, Real Madrid seemed the likeliest destination, given the Cristiano Ronaldo posters on his wall as a child, given Florentino Perez's penchant for Galacticos (superstar players) and given the fact that you can count on one hand the clubs that can afford him.

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Two obvious -- and interconnected -- considerations come to mind here. The first is that if you're a young superstar of the sort that transfers clubs for huge sums and are willing to bet on yourself, shorter contracts are the way to go.

Once upon a time, long contracts were designed to guarantee a player stability and security, knowing that the financial future of his children and grandchildren would be assured. But the fact is this: guys like Mbappe are already nicely set up for life by the age of 24. What they lose in guaranteed money, they gain in freedom and control over their own careers.

Maybe it's a Gen Z thing, but the prospect of a single secure job for their entire playing lives (and a gold watch at the end) doesn't necessarily have the appeal that it did to those who came before them. Especially since the risk of career-ending injury and lost earnings is covered by the hefty premiums they shell out on insurance.

Mbappe and his family who advise him understand the leverage this brings better than most.

Take his last PSG extension. He could have signed it at any time between 2019 and 2021 and it would have been a bonanza. But he waited until the very end so that he could either a move to Real Madrid or get the "two-plus-one" deal he craved. And it was worth it to him even if it meant that in his first few seasons in Paris, he was still on his original contract and therefore relatively underpaid.

Which brings us to the second point. Yes, Mbappe holds all the cards ... but who is sitting him across from him at the table? Who can he actually play with, metaphorically and practically? Here, you get a massive sense of deja vu.

If it's Real Madrid, if they overcome the bitterness of being stood up at the altar 13 months ago. If it's PSG, if he does the same 180-degree, handbrake turn he did last May and opts to extend his deal (or changes his mind on the option year). If Mbappe moves this summer, there will be a transfer fee to pay and assuming he wants to stay in Europe without some massive pay cut, the only other options are in Manchester -- and both are long shots.

Mbappe: PSG is my only option at the moment

Kylian Mbappe responds to the reactions his letter addressed to PSG received and reaffirms his commitment to the French champions.

United, for all their pleading poverty and uncertainty over their ownership, could probably find the money, but it's hard to see Mbappe wanting to join a rebuilding club right now. He would add even more quality to City, and a Haaland-Mbappe partnership would be the stuff of fantasy, but does Pep Guardiola want to mess with his treble-winning machine? (And, even if he did, does Mbappe want to share the limelight, having done so the past couple of years? And does he want to roll the dice given the Premier League charges against City and the possibility of Guardiola moving on when his deal expires in 2025, if not earlier?)

If the plan is for Mbappe to force a move this summer -- remember, he says it's not, but rather that he's simply not taking up the option on his contract -- he may have leverage, but no suitors.

Would it be different a year from now? Maybe Thomas Tuchel can persuade him to make a "lifestyle choice" at Bayern. Maybe Arsenal or Liverpool will be ready and willing to make a bold move. Maybe Chelsea will be back in the Champions League and Todd Boehly's grand plan will suddenly make sense. Maybe Barcelona will find more levers to pull. All possible, none of it probable.

That's the irony. For all his leverage, his options are limited. It's not quite a monopsony -- a market condition where there is only one buyer -- but it's also not far off and everything points to Real Madrid ... unless history repeats itself. And that possibility is no doubt making Madrid a little wary.

In 2021, when he had a year left on his deal, PSG spent much of the summer saying he wouldn't be moved on. They were true to their word, turning down repeated Real Madrid offers that went as high as €180m (around $200m). When the transfer window closed in September 2021, Real Madrid just shrugged and likely thought "fine, we'll just get him as a free agent next summer and a big chunk of that €180m that was going to PSG will go to him instead."

Except then Mbappe threw that curveball with his May 2022 extension, which left Madrid seething and Liga president Javier Tebas -- who was relishing the prospect of a global star joining his league -- complaining to UEFA that PSG must be breaching financial sustainability rules.

So we can't definitively rule out this possibility, though you feel PSG's behaviour this summer will give us some indication of how things might go. Do they become more attractive to Mbappe, perhaps with a credible rebuild, perhaps around young French talent with him as the figurehead? Or is it going to be the same super-expensive, agent-driven zoo it was last year? Will they try to find a buyer for him, rather than losing him on as a free agent next year? We should have a pretty clear idea by August.

Still, indicators point to Real Madrid, for various reasons. They are in a decent place financially. They had the second-highest wage bill (after PSG) in Europe, but that will be mitigated by the departures of Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard, plus maybe Luka Modric and Toni Kroos as well. And the fact is that even as their wage bill ballooned, Madrid actually made a profit of €160m ($175m) in the transfer market since 2020 -- the money is there, even with the addition of Jude Bellingham. (In fact, signing arguably the best teenager in the world, should help attract Mbappe to what's being built at the Bernabeu.)

Is there bad blood from what happened 13 months ago, maybe a sense of "once bitten, twice shy" here? They thought he was saving themselves for them. Nobody likes to be stood up, least of all Florentino Perez. Maybe, but it's Mbappe and you don't become a billionaire like Florentino by having an ego about these things. If you can sign the best player in the world (or thereabouts) at age 25 for free then you do that, even though he might have used you like the mean girl in a John Hughes film two years earlier.

Some are fretting over the fact that Vinicius, Real Madrid's present and future, also plays on the right wing, like Mbappe, and that the latter doesn't like to play through the middle. I don't think that's a huge issue. It's not written in stone that Madrid have to play 4-3-3, you can find solutions there.

The biggest indicator however are the potential alternatives. If Mbappe doesn't commit to Real Madrid this summer or next and if he doesn't pull another Mbappe 2022 and extend with PSG, where can he go?

And that's the irony of the situation. Mbappe's short-term deal approach gives him freedom and control... but freedom to do what? In the current landscape, unless he wants to take a pay cut or conjure up some sort of novel revenue share arrangement with MLS or move to Saudi Arabia, his options are actually somewhat limited: PSG or Real Madrid.

Expect this to rumble on for a long time, but it would be surprising if the outcome were anything other than the clubs cited above.