Edouard Mendy has risen to become the calming influence behind Chelsea's rock-solid defence

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Edouard Mendy of Chelsea makes a save during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2021 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around Europe remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors - Clive Rose/Getty Images
Edouard Mendy of Chelsea makes a save during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2021 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around Europe remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors - Clive Rose/Getty Images

Since Thomas Tuchel was appointed by Chelsea in January, he has faced Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone, Jürgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane. These truly are the great and good of football management, and Tuchel has beaten them all.

Not only that. Tuchel’s Chelsea have also kept a clean sheet against each of these illustrious opponents, shutting down some of the most feared forward players on the continent. Against Real Madrid in Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final, his Chelsea side hardly allowed the Spanish champions a glance at goal, let alone a genuine chance.

The defensive strength of Tuchel’s team is bordering on preposterous, with this 2-0 win over Real representing their 18th clean sheet in 24 matches. By contrast, they kept just 26 clean sheets in 84 matches under Frank Lampard. They are a different team now, playing a different game.

Chelsea’s solidity is built on the power of the collective: the hard-running of the energetic forwards, the intelligence of the midfielders, the composure of their three central defenders. But a fundamental truth of their season is that, surely, none of this would have been possible without the £22 million purchase of Edouard Mendy in September.

Who would have thought last summer, when Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Hakim Ziyech were signed for around £200 million, that the lesser-known Mendy would end up being arguably the most important arrival of them all?

It is certainly hard to imagine Chelsea reaching the Champions League final, brushing aside the might of Madrid in the process, if the calamitous Kepa Arrizabalaga (a £72 million signing, lest we forget) remained between the posts, even if Kepa was part of the side that kept a clean sheet against Manchester City in the FA Cup last month.

Mendy provides a physical presence, quick reactions and, above all, a sense of calmness. He may not be quite as gifted in possession as a goalkeeper like Manchester City’s Ederson, but he is a player who, at the very least, does all the basics well. And when you have the likes of Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kante ahead of you, doing the basics well is generally all that is required.

On the rare occasions Real did find a way through the Chelsea defence, Mendy was ready for the challenge. In the first half at Stamford Bridge, he produced a diving save of the highest order to deny Karim Benzema. He then pushed away Benzema’s header, and later stood firm to prevent Eden Hazard from scoring against his former club.

Edouard Mendy of Chelsea makes a save from Karim Benzema of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2021 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around Europe remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors - Steve Bardens - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Image
Edouard Mendy of Chelsea makes a save from Karim Benzema of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on May 05, 2021 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around Europe remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors - Steve Bardens - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Image

In this season's Champions League, Mendy has kept eight clean sheets – the most ever by a goalkeeper for an English club in a single campaign. “He was solid and so, so strong,” said Tuchel of his goalkeeper. “Strong hands, intelligence. He kept a clean sheet again.”

Mendy’s ability to react so sharply to these few opposition chances, after having little to do for much of the game, is all the more impressive because this is his first season playing for one of Europe’s biggest teams. As recently as 2018, Mendy was turning out for Reims in France’s second division.

“Earlier in my career I was at clubs where you were much needed in goal,” the 29 year-old said last week. “For concentrating, that was easier. It is possible our opponents only have one or two situations, maybe maximum three, where I have to respond.”

The guidance of Petr Cech, a similarly calming goalkeeper in his playing days, has been crucial behind the scenes to Mendy’s development. He considers himself to be a better player, technically and mentally, since he joined the club, and that can be seen in his response to a minor dip in form around Christmas.

Naturally, Mendy has been helped by the work of those in front of him. Chelsea pressed all over the pitch against Real, hunting down the white shirts and preventing the visitors from building any momentum. In defence, Thiago Silva made five clearances. In midfield, Jorginho made six interceptions, regaining possession a total of eight times. No player on either team made more tackles than Mason Mount, whose primary role was to be a creative midfielder.

“We never lost the hunger,” said Tuchel. “Never lost the desire to defend. The second half was even better, the structure to defend. Real Madrid are always dangerous, they can turn nothing into goals. So to hang in there, even when you have chances and miss them, they never lost concentration, focus and positive energy on the pitch. This was a huge performance.”

Clearly, it was a team effort. And it was such an impressive collective performance that Mendy could watch most of it from afar. When he was needed, though, the Chelsea goalkeeper responded. Many Chelsea fans would not have known his name a year ago, but now he is only one game away from making history for the club and confirming his status as one of their best signings in years.

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