- Name: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa
- Date of Birth: May 15, 1989
- Nationality: French/Central African
- Position: Central-defender/Right-back
- Club: Montpellier Hérault
Making his name
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa may be a name unfamiliar to the majority of football fans outside of France, but like the previously-profiled Mamadou Sakho, it is one that could well emerge firmly onto the radar in the near future.
Like many players who have contributed so much to the rich tapestry of French football over the years, Yanga-Mbiwa was not born in France, but instead the former-colony of Central African Republic. However, by the age of eight, Mapou and his family had already arrived in Port de Bouc, near Marseille, and it was there that the youngster developed into a fine footballer, joining the Montpellier academy aged fifteen.
Progression through the youth ranks was rapid. A first professional contract was signed shortly after his seventeenth birthday, before a debut in the 2006/7 season arriving with a year of turning profession. At this point in time, Montpellier were a competitive Ligue 2 outfit, sending a clear signal to outside observers that this powerful eighteen year-old defender had a bright future ahead of him, with Yanga-Mbiwa an almost ever present the following season. However, it was a second-season of first-team football that proved to be the making of the player, as the starlet shone throughout a campaign that saw Montpellier reach the promised land of Ligue 1.
A call-up to France Under-21′s followed in October 2009, as Montpellier began their return to Ligue 1 in fine style under new manager Rene Girard. The side finished their top-flight return in fifth place, a season that saw Yanga-Mbiwa’s reputation as one of France’s best young defenders cemented by success at the highest level. Qualification for the Europa League was the reward for Montpellier’s stunning arrival in the big-time, but a swift exit from Europe at the hands of Hungarian side Györi ETO put pay to dreams of continental success before it had begun. Yet despite that initial setback, the season would yet prove to be a resounding success for the historic club, with a trip to the Stade de France for the 2011 Coupe de la Ligue final more than compensating for a drop in league position, with Montpellier finishing a modest 14th position.
Over the course of the campaign, Yanga-Mbiwa had enjoyed a spell of great personal development, having moved into the centre-back position for the new season. In Montpellier’s first year under Girard, the versatile defender had featured predominantly as a right back as the side adapted to playing in Ligue 1. But now, having been given the opportunity to supersede club captain Nenad Džodić, Yanga-Mbiwa quickly stamped his authority on the vacant centre-back position alongside Emir Spahic. The reward for his efforts? In the summer of 2011, Yanga-Mbiwa was confirmed as the new Montpellier captain, aged just 22, as well as becoming the subject of a rejected €5 million bid from Lille, amidst reported interest from other parties including Newcastle United, PSG and Arsenal in particular.
Montpellier though hung-on to their man, at least for another season, and the results have been outstanding, with the team flying high in the top two positions of Ligue 1, even at this late stage of the season. It has already been conceded that the club will probably have to sanction deals for the likes of Yanga-Mbiwa, Olivier Giroud and Younes Belhanda in the summer, but in return, Champions League football could be heading to the Stade de la Mosson next season. Nothing is certain for the future of the France Under-21 international, but it is clear that a significant amount of money will be needed to tempt La Palliadeto part with one their star assets.
Style of Play
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa can be considered a multi-faceted defender, capable of fine play in both attack and defence, both with and without the ball. Odd as that description may sound, the young Frenchman truly possesses all the necessary attributes to develop into a genuinely complete defender.
Although physically defined, at 184cm (6’0) and 77kg (12stone), Yanga-Mbiwa is by some distance neither the biggest nor the broadest defender that Ligue 1 has to offer. However, blessed with pace, power and strength, the defender makes excellent use of the physical attributes that do fall in his favour to nullify the lost inches. As demonstrated in the videos below, the speed at which the Montpellier man can move across the ground makes a footrace fairly one-sided on most occasions, whist his powerful stride and toned physique mean that the man born in Central African Republic packs an impressive leap when it comes to aerial duels.
However, countless defenders worldwide can boast exceptional physical attributes, thus it is in both the mental and physical dimensions of the game that the 22-year-old has shown himself to be a class apart from many of his colleagues. Whilst there are some that make more tackles per match and there are others who make more clearances, Yanga-Mbiwa is not a defender who likes to leave his job until it is simply a case of last-ditch defending. With an intelligent reading of the game that belies his age, the Montpellier captain is a master of the interception, making more than any of his colleagues and developing the artform into a defining feature of his game.
In this respect and physically (although more powerful than his English contemporary), the France Under-21 defender can be compared with Rio Ferdinand in his youth. Quick of both foot and mind, Yanga-Mbiwa can play the role of the last ditch saviour, but prefers instead to use his innate awareness to see-off danger before it has developed and as with Ferdinand, is trusting of his technical abilities under intense pressure. A good passer of the ball off both feet, although predominantly right-footed, the defender demonstrates great composure week-in week-out, a quality that no doubt helped draw the attention of several admirers.
In attack, these abilities come to fruition, as he is able to easily skip past opponents, creating time to pick out a team-mate ahead of him, or on occasion gallop forward to create the opening himself. Particularly when utilised in a full-back role, these attributes offer an added bonus to his side on top of his defensive abilities and in this respect, he has been previously likened to Les Bleus legend Lilian Thuram in the French media. Good ball control and raw pace are a lethal combination, negating the need for any real subtlety to beat even very experienced opponents. At times, as Thuram showed in his prime, these powerful drives down the flanks can prove nigh on impossible to defend.
As with all players, Yanga-Mbiwa does have faults and areas of his game to improve. For a player who has shown he can head the ball well and rise above opponents, the defender’s scoring record is poor and is an area he can look to improve. Four goals in 160 games is not the best return for such a talented player in many areas of the attack. At times the defender’s longer passes can be improved, with a little more refinement needed when picking out the run of an attacking colleague. However, when it comes to short, sharp passing under-pressure, it must be added that the Montpellier man is excellent (85.9% overall pass completion).
Besides those minor points, the player has generally been excellent in his work this season and needs simply to continue upon his current developmental path in order to succeed. By all accounts Yanga-Mbiwa is a well grounded character, with a dedication to improving himself that has been rewarded with the captain’s armband by manager Rene Girard. There is an ever-increasing maturity to his game, meaning the forward-charges from centre-back are somewhat decreased. Yet, they can be considered no less effective, as now they are in general better-judged than in previous years, giving maximum effect.
A good disciplinary record, demonstrated by the fact that to date, he has not received a straight red card in his career, is testament to both the temperament that so-impressed his manager and a fine technique in dispossessing opponents, aided by game-reading abilities that often mean the need to tackle an opponent is avoided. With a high-profile move on the cards, there is little doubt Yanga-Mbiwa has the qualities to succeed anywhere, although at just 22-years-old, he must be allowed time to make adjustments to a new style of play. There is room for improvement, but the Frenchman truly looks like a star in the making.
What Others Say
“Mapou is a joy to watch. Powerful in stature but graceful on the ball. Pace and ability to break forward or pick a pass. Had the talent to play at the highest level.” – Andrew Gibney, Co-Editor and Founder of French Football Weekly.
“Defensively, he’s a very talented player. He is physically strong and very athletic. He is hard working, and stays after training. He will clearly succeed.”– Rene Girard, Manager of Montpellier Hérault
“No longer just a prospect but a talent in his own right. Fantastic technique, strength and vision of the game. Destined for the big time, hopefully that will come with a French club. Could go on to be one of Europe’s top defenders if he makes a sensible next move. Needs Champions League football to continue his development now. Similar in many ways to Mamadou Sakho, the lack of pressure on Yanga-Mbiwa has seen him enjoy a more succesful season so far than his PSG counterpart.” – Jonathan Johnson, Co-Editor of French Football Weekly.
Performance v Lyon (2010)
Demonstrating skill, speed and power (2011)
A trademark interception and surging run (2009)
It has become evident that for many of Montpellier’s star-names this summer will be a period of relocation, with the club already seemingly resigned to losing Giroud, Belhanda and Yanga-Mbiwa in particular. Whether a presence in next season’s Champions League would be enough to persuade the squad’s bigger names to stay is open for debate, but it must be assumed that all three players named will be looking at suitors who have also qualified for European competition, but with a greater chance of potential success. In football, as in life, anything is possible, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there could be another season another season at the Stade de la Masson for the defender, but it must now be regarded as doubtful.
To date, the likes of Newcastle, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Lille and PSG have had widely reported interest in the defender, with the German side having made a concerted effort in the January transfer window to sign their man. The list of admirers will only grow as Yanga-Mbiwa and Montpellier’s success continues, but in several recent interviews, the player has given a strong indication of his favoured destination.
Speaking to Sky Sports following the news of Bayern’s interest, Yanga-Mbiwa said: ”Bayern is a very big club. I’m really flattered, but my ambition is to one day play my football in England.”
Only last November, a similar sentiment was aired when asked about Montpellier’s potential Champions League status: ”If we play Champions League next term, could I stay? Why not? But I believe I would not reach the level that I want to reach if I stay with Montpellier. By leaving I would be forced to question myself. I would like to question my own limits. I believe the English Premier League is wonderful, but nothing has been decided so far.”
No doubt his agent will be happy with the player’s openness regarding his future ambitions at club level, but what about internationally? France’s centre-back positions are in a period of transition, with the aging Eric Abidal and Philippe Mexes ready to pass-on the baton to the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Mamadou Sakho, Younes Kaboul and of course, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. Valencia defender Adil Rami is established as first-choice alongside Abidal for this summer’s EURO 2012 tournament, whilst the wealth of options and Yanga-Mbiwa’s lack of experience count against the possibility of a late inclusion.
However, when looking forward to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there is an opportunity for the taking. It is highly likely that Abidal will retire from international duty this summer, leaving a vacant berth in the squad to be grasped. Alongside Sakho, Yanga-Mbiwa represents an attractive long-term vision for the Les Bleus and if given a chance in post-EURO 2012 friendly action, the Montpellier man can push himself ahead of some more senior players in the reckoning. International ambitions may well be a determining factor in the player’s Montpellier future, with Yanga-Mbiwa no doubt aware that a move to a club in regular European competition will greatly aid his bid for international honours, just as it has done for the likes of Koscielny.
There is of course the somewhat unlikely fall-back option of representing the Central African Republic. Thus far, Yanga-Mbiwa has rejected numerous advances from the country of his birth and moreover, it is unlikely France will allow a player of his stature and obvious quality to slip through their grasp. But, until capped in a competitive senior international, it remains an option.
The future of course is never certain and much will depend on the player’s attitude and willingness to develop himself. In four years of professional football to date, Yanga-Mbiwa has shown himself to have the required physical attributes and technical proficiency to make a career at the highest level. Now all that remains is for the player himself to go out and put these abilities to the test against the very best standard of opponents possible.