Sports

Unpacking The Logic Behind Calling a Footballer ‘The New Thierry Henry’

When Kylian Mbappe faces Manchester City on Wednesday evening, he will bear the burden of comparison to a true great. This is inherently unfair on a young player, and also based on a deeply flawed rationale.

by Will Magee
Mar 15 2017, 5:52pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

When Kylian Mbappe turns out at the Stade Louis II on Wednesday evening, he will do so under the burden of comparisons to a true great of the beautiful game. Monaco's young striker, a mere 18 years of age, has made 44 professional appearances all told, and yet he is already being likened to one of the most talented footballers France has ever seen. Having scored an excellent off-the-shoulder goal against Manchester City in Monaco's 5-3 defeat at the Etihad last month, Mbappe has turned plenty of heads in England, and there is little doubt that he has the potential to make an excellent career for himself. That said, on the evidence we have at present, it should still be considered fundamentally absurd that some have prematurely labelled him 'the new Thierry Henry'.

Mbappe is not the first player to fall foul of this phenomenon, of course. Prior to his arrival on the scene, Anthony Martial was 'the new Thierry Henry', with a particular spike in such comparisons after he scored a sublime solo goal against Liverpool on his debut. It famously took Henry nine games to score his first goal in England, though details like that don't matter when making an arbitrary parallel between a promising youngster with much to prove and a legend of world football who – on the basis of sheer probability – he is highly unlikely to exceed or even emulate. There are considerably fewer columnists comparing Martial to Henry these days, not least because he seems to be struggling at Manchester United and has scored a mediocre seven goals in 28 appearances this campaign.

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The first and simplest point to be made here is that comparing a youngster to an iconic predecessor – almost always in the aftermath of a single great goal or one truly standout performance – is potentially damaging and inherently unfair to the young prospect in question. Really, an exciting teenage prodigy should not have to be the 'new' anyone, given that making a crude equivalence like this means the immediate death of discerning analysis, and hence any conclusions it leads to are likely to be flawed, limited and intrinsically distorted. What's more, it serves to create unrealistic expectations in terms of the player's performances, stats and general style of play. Teenage confidence in football can be fragile at the best of times, and the last thing an up-and-coming talent needs is to deal with the pressure of superficial similarities drawn between himself and an imposing former superstar, perhaps even one of his childhood idols. For most footballers at the start of their careers, this sort of thing will only represent a needless distraction, another mental hurdle to clear and – with so heavy an emphasis on emulation – might even hinder their quest to create their own identity, as opposed to becoming a lesser imitation of somebody who has already achieved it all.

Add to that the fact that fans and media reflect expectations in the tone and volume of their criticism, and the detrimental psychological effects such comparisons might have seem obvious enough. Martial has almost certainly received greater censure in light of the Henry comparisons than he would have otherwise, having unsurprisingly failed to live up to the legacy of a striker the likes of which we may never see again. Martial is 21 years old and, lest we forget, has scored 24 goals in 77 appearances for United – not a bad return at all for a player at such a tender age. Unfortunately, that just doesn't cut the mustard in comparison to Henry, who scored 48 times in his first two season with Arsenal. This is exactly why making premature comparisons between the two was so reductive, and ultimately it will always be careless to make such grand parallels on the evidence of even a full season, let alone a few choice games.

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So what do Mbappe and Martial have in common that has seen both of them compared to Thierry Henry, barring the fact that both are French and both made their names at Monaco? Essentially, the comparison seems to boil down to the fact that they are young, black strikers, in other words that they share a position with Henry and are of similar skin colour. This is where the phenomenon of calling a young player the 'new' someone else becomes uncomfortable, in that it often seems to be based on little more than facile racial criteria and perceived ethnicity. We have seen it time and time again with physically imposing, black midfielders being labelled 'the new Vieira', from Yann M'Vila to Geoffrey Kondogbia, Paul Pogba to William Carvalho to Victor Wanyama to Etienne Capoue.

Of course, none of these players would be complacently labelled 'the new Roy Keane', which can basically be attributed to the fact that they are neither white nor Irish. The comparison would obviously fall down on the criteria of their preferred role in the midfield, but it would be no less appropriate in that sense than the Vieira analogies which have been made regardless. In all likelihood, Martial will never be called 'the new Ole Gunnar Solskjaer', while Mbappe will never be labelled 'the new Jean-Pierre Papin'. When it comes down to it, there is a staggering lack of subtlety in these comparisons, and if the racial profile doesn't quite match then the comparison remains unmade.

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This phenomenon is not limited to black players, though it should be noted that they seem to receive a disproportionate amount of these comparisons. In South America, dozens of players have been labelled 'the new Maradona', almost all of them strikers and attacking midfielders of broadly similar build and appearance. Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi have all suffered this treatment at one time or another, usually accompanied by enormous hype in their home country which turns to vitriolic denunciation when they fail to have the required effect on the Argentine national team. Perhaps the only player who has managed to shake off the onerous 'new Maradona' tag is Lionel Messi, this by outshining his predecessor's talents in spite of the near-impossible billing. Still, as we are intermittently reminded, Messi has never won the World Cup with the Albiceleste, and so even he must labour under Maradona comparisons which can only be injurious to his chances of matching that particular success.

Naturally, the latest development in this phenomenon is the cliche of calling young players 'the new Messi' – often arbitrarily prefixed with their ethnicity or nationality – a parallel which is perhaps the most ludicrous and detrimental of all. It's not hard to imagine how such comparisons might stifle a youth prospect, not least because Messi is still playing football and still at the absolute pinnacle of the game. We will no doubt have to hear such analogies until someone finally outshines Messi, which may well mean the end of time or the fall of human civilisation. Should someone ever live up to being labelled 'the new Messi' – this providing they are diminutive in stature, excel in the attacking midfield and preferably have his exact skin tone and complexion – then some future generation of promising youngsters will have to be compared to that player in turn, so that they too can suffer under the crushing weight of collective expectancy.

Maradona, and 'the new Maradona', await the coming of the new 'new Maradona' // PA Images

When we break down the reasoning behind calling a young footballer the 'new' someone else, it seems fairly apparent that it represents the path of least cognitive resistance. It is the easiest, most straightforward form of commentary, and so columnists and pundits fall back on it because it seems like analysis that everyone can understand. To paraphrase (and perhaps butcher) George Orwell, there's something to be said for restating the truth in its simplest terms, and this applies to the language of football as much as it does anything else. The problem with calling a footballer the 'new' someone else is that there is often very little truth in such a comparison, and so it neither informs nor enlightens us, but rather has the potential to foster wildly inaccurate first impressions among fans.

The other problem here is that, when it comes to labelling a footballer the 'new' someone else on the basis of little more than skin colour and background, pundits are essentially indulging soft prejudices. Players are not interchangeable on the basis of race and nationality, hence wantonly labelling someone like Kylian Mbappe 'the new Thierry Henry' seems not only unhelpful in sporting terms but also somewhat thoughtless and crass. While football is naturally heavy on nostalgia and there is a yearning to see legendary players returned to us, the reality is that each young footballer is an individual, and should be allowed to carve out his own distinct niche in the game. Instead, there is a constant need to make equivalence between young talents and the icons of yesteryear. When this then turns out to be only as substantial as some approximate physical resemblance, it should be considered to be of exceedingly little worth.

@W_F_Magee