Benjamin Mendy: one-time Sunderland target chases Champions League glory

Paul Doyle
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Benjamin Mendy, right, was part of the Monaco team that outclassed Manchester City in the last 16 of the Champions League this season.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters</span>
Benjamin Mendy, right, was part of the Monaco team that outclassed Manchester City in the last 16 of the Champions League this season. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

Benjamin Mendy limped off during Monaco’s win over Toulouse on Saturday but probably felt he dodged a metaphorical bullet all the same. And not just because the injury is unlikely to prevent him from playing in Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final against Juventus.

But also because this weekend Mendy got a stark reminder that instead of closing in on the Ligue 1 title and preparing for a mouthwatering clash with Juventus in the last four of Europe’s showpiece competition, he might have been chewing over a pitiful relegation from the Premier League. If, that is, he had joined Sunderland, which he was about to do four years ago until a last-minute twist changed his destiny.

There is no telling, of course, exactly how different the fates of Mendy and Sunderland would have been if that deal had been completed. Perhaps he would have proved to be the one successful purchase that Sunderland made during the summer of 2013, when the director of football, Roberto De Fanti, oversaw 13 signings, only one of whom, Vito Mannone, remains at the club.

Or maybe the potential of Mendy, who was a week shy of his 19th birthday when he flew to the north-east with the intention of completing a transfer, would have been stunted at the Stadium of Light and he would have been written off as just another dud in a batch of ill-judged recruits, along with barely-remembered characters such as Valentin Roberge, Jozy Altidore and Cabral.

The chances are, however, that Mendy would not now be one of the most thrilling and coveted full-backs in Europe, a France international with an opportunity of completing a brilliant double with Monaco before deciding whether to join Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City or one of the other elite clubs who now see in him what Sunderland saw four years ago.

That is because Mendy is a player who needed strong guidance to help harness his potential and become so important. Maybe he would have got that from Paolo Di Canio and then Dick Advocaat, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes. But he definitely got it from Monaco’s manager, Leonardo Jardim, and, before that, from Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille, the club who persuaded him not to join Sunderland.

At first many Marseille observers thought the club had made a mistake by buying Mendy from Le Havre. Or, at least, there was a widespread view that the youngster was being exposed to the top flight before he was ready. His attacking prowess was undeniable but his defensive nous was almost non-existent.

He was not helped by the fact that the midfielder in front of him, Dimitri Payet, had little inclination to help him. Opponents tended to have a field day down Marseille’s left flank and Mendy was regularly lambasted by impatient fans. “It fascinates that Mendy is still a regular starter,” said the former Marseille left-back Eric Di Meco in January 2014. “They’re killing him.”

Bielsa arrived as Marseille manager in May 2014 and began giving Mendy better tuition and protection. The player improved. Last season, however, instability at Marseille, who went through three managers in the campaign, coincided with a patchy season from Mendy.

But in the 90 Ligue 1 and Champions League matches that he played by the age of 21 he showed enough to convince Monaco that he fitted in well with their policy of investing in young players with big potential. The club bought him from Marseille for around £11m last summer.

It has proved a perfect match.

True, there was a moment in December when Mendy showed he still has a thoughtless streak. He was suspended for five matches after blowing a fuse and booting Lyon’s Corentin Tolisso in an off-the-ball outburst; then, during Ligue 1’s winter break and while he was still banned, Mendy took a holiday to Brazil and decided to tweet a photo of himself ambling around Rio in a Marseille jersey. Some Monaco fans were outraged; Mendy laughed it off and suggested anyone getting het up about what he wears should learn to be as laid-back as he can be, tweeting that they were “making a lot of noise about nothing”.

Some fans responded that it would have been easier to tolerate him wearing a Marseille shirt if his ban did not mean that he would miss a potentially difficult assignment to the home of that very team. As it turned out, Monaco won 4-1 at the Stade Vélodrome without Mendy. But when he became available again he went straight back into the team. Because, yes, Mendy and this new and improved version of Monaco have proved a perfect match.

Jardim is the ideal coach to hone Mendy’s defensive wherewithal. And Mendy is the ideal left-back for a habitually cautious coach who went into this campaign under pressure to develop a more adventurous style of play. That mission has certainly been accomplished. Monaco have become one of the most exciting teams that France has ever seen.

Their 95 goals in 35 domestic league matches so far is more than any club has managed at this stage of a Ligue 1 season since Racing Club de Paris in 1960. Even Paris Saint-Germain cannot keep up.

It seems an anomaly that Mendy is not one of the 15 players to have scored for Monaco so far this season. But he is an essential part of the team’s attack, with his constant raids forward unhinging defences and providing regular chances for the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Radamel Falcao and even for Djibril Sidibé, the right-back who was signed from Lille at the same time as Mendy joined from Marseille and has made a similar impact.

Tottenham Hotspur can attest to that, as Sidibé headed Monaco’s opening goal against them in November – from a cross by Mendy – and then laid on the second in a 2-1 victory for the French team. Sidibé may not be fit to face Juventus.

But Wednesday’s match still promises to be a spectacular meeting between a side with one of Europe’s most committed defences and a Monaco team that attacks from everywhere, notably from left-back.

What to read next