Try to imagine Jose Mourinho’s reaction if one of his players tried to swap shirts with the opponents’ superstar at half-time. That is what Malcom, widely rumoured to be one of Manchester United’s top current targets, did when Bordeaux played at Paris Saint-Germain in September. Not only that but the 20-year-old took a selfie with Neymar after the visitors were soundly thrashed 6-2.
“I think it was a youthful mistake. We explained him that we were not going to Paris to take photos and exchange jerseys,” said Bordeaux coach Jocelyn Gourvennec, but one can understand Malcom’s actions. After all, Neymar had always been his idol and role model. He mentioned him right after scoring his first top division goal for Corinthians, on his home debut against Chapecoense in September 2014.
It was an exquisite finish, too. The youngster toyed with the opposition on the right wing before sending an unstoppable shot into the bottom corner with his magnificent left foot. “You should be fearless and take the defenders on. I am trying to do that like Robinho and Neymar,” he stated then, bubbling with self-confidence. Only promoted to the Corinthians lineup at the age of 17 because Romarinho was sold to Qatar and the club didn’t have an experienced replacement, he took his chance with both hands.
“He responded very well and confirmed our high expectations. We have to take care of him because he is a promising and talented player,” said ex-Brazil coach Mano Menezes. Such was Malcom’s impact that a mighty struggle between Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk started for his services. Corinthians refused to sell him to Ukraine, though, which turned out to be a good decision for the prodigy.
As a matter of fact, Malcom has already bettered Neymar in one aspect at least. The most expensive player in history earned numerous trophies with Santos but was never crowned as the champion of Brazil. Malcom won the title in his first full season in 2015 and was one of the key players under the guidance of Tite. His trickery, imagination, pace and selflessness made him a joy to watch. Five goals and four assists were a nice return but they don’t tell the whole story.
It was somewhat surprising, therefore, that Bordeaux managed to sign the attacking midfielder for just €5 million at the beginning of 2016. The man responsible for the move was then-coach Willy Sagnol, who got high recommendations from his former Bayern teammate Ze Roberto. Mentioned as a “future Neymar” by the Catalan Sport newspaper a year earlier, Malcom might have been expected to sign for a bigger club at a higher fee. And yet, that was another good choice as far as the player himself is concerned.
The other “new Neymar” mentioned by Sport was Gabigol, who completely lost the plot after going from Santos to Inter in the summer of 2016: even his loan move to Benfica ended in a huge fiasco this season. Young prospects like Malcom need a patient approach and that is what he got at Bordeaux, even though Sagnol was fired just a few weeks after the starlet’s arrival.
The 2016-17 season was inconsistent to put it mildly. While Malcom’s potential had never been in doubt and his attitude was positive in the extreme — he even studied French thoroughly in order to fit in — his performances on the pitch varied wildly. Magical at times, Malcom disappeared for long periods and wasn’t always precise in his decision-making.
“Malcom has an incredible talent but he loses too many balls. It’s not a question of quality. He just has to be more confident and more involved. The problem is not just technical, but also mental,” said Gourvennec, never losing faith in his star.
Such an approach enabled Malcom to integrate gradually. “The game in France is much more physical than in Brazil. Adapting physically was the hardest thing for me,” the winger admitted in the summer and promised: “I need to show what I can do on the pitch. Last year I was still adapting and I think I can do better this time. This year you are going to see the real Malcom!”
He was true to his word. He scored seven goals in the previous campaign but has already reached that total this season; most of his strikes are absolutely breathtaking, too. The injury time thunderbolt in the 3-3 draw at Lyon in August was incredible. The winner at Toulouse was an extremely well-taken shot, and the same can be said of the effort versus St Etienne. Against Nantes he finished a nice team move with his weaker right foot, showing versatility.
But Malcom’s game is not only about goals — far from it. He enjoys passing more that scoring, loves playing centrally as much as on the right wing, and is capable of performing on the left as well. His dribbling skills are phenomenal and his vision enables him to spot, and execute, delightful through balls for teammates. Not for nothing, Tite admitted that his former protege at Corinthians has a fighting chance of making it into the Brazil squad ahead of the World Cup. “He is on our watchlist,” said the Selecao coach.
However, Malcom is not a complete player yet. He is not as influential as he is bound to become in the future and was helpless to prevent Bordeaux falling apart in recent months, as just a single win in 12 matches left Gourvennec on the brink. His defensive contribution is not strong enough either; the possible big money move to Old Trafford could prove disastrous.
There are certain similarities between Malcom and Mohamed Salah during his Basel days. We all know what happened to the Egypt prodigy when Mourinho signed him for Chelsea four years ago, but Salah flourished under Luciano Spalletti and Jurgen Klopp after escaping Stamford Bridge. The Brazil forward can be seen as a replacement for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but what are his chances to be more consistent and tactically disciplined than the Armenia international in Mourinho’s eyes?
At thisstage of his career, Malcom desperately needs a coach who trusts him and lets him play on a weekly basis even if he makes mistakes. While leaving Bordeaux in January is not out of the question in January, Mourinho is not the right man to nurture his talents. Yet he is bound to succeed at Manchester United in the future with another manager.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.