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FEATURE | Benjamin Mendy – the left-back livewire’s journey to becoming a Premier League champion

“Mendy is crazy,” said Pep Guardiola, “He has six months of unavailability and he sprints!” While ‘sprinting’ might have been an exaggeration on Mendy’s touchline hobble to celebrate Raheem Sterling’s injury time winner over Southampton, ‘crazy’, in the best possible way, is not too far wide of the mark. Despite a cruciate ligament injury that has held the Frenchman to just five City starts so far, his joyful, larger than life persona has made him a cult hero. His exuberance, however, has also been a hindrance in his short career to date.

Developing his talents as a teenager with Le Havre who boast one of France’s most respected academies, with Riyad Mahrez, Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet all fellow alumni, Mendy was swiftly promoted to the first team. But as he told The Telegraph in September his playfulness was already an issue. “I was always messing around,” Mendy explained. “In my first season they said, ‘Sort it out or you’re on your bike’. It was a big wake up call.”

‘Messing around’ or not, after a pair of seasons in Ligue 2, Mendy’s delivery and dynamism were hard for Marseille to ignore. Although a three-year spell at the Vélodrome was inconsistent on-pitch, a burgeoning sense of professionalism developed under Marcelo Bielsa, who Mendy credits with substantially influencing his career. “With Bielsa, passion was reflected on the field, he knew how to handle me,” Mendy explained in L’Équipe, “I will never forget Bielsa, he has much touched me, he made me discover another football.”

Concentration, nevertheless, particularly in video sessions was an issue for Mendy at OM. Where Marcelo Bielsa would leave him in a dark room with no distractions other than a tactical review playing on a loop, eventually forcing Mendy to watch, his successor, Spanish coach Michel, was not so patient nor innovative. Michel grew infuriated with Mendy’s laid back attitude, going as far as to state “if I have white hair, it’s partly because of him.”

“When he puts his qualities in line with his head he will be a fantastic left-back, but this is not yet the case,” continued Michel at an OM presser. “You may feel like he’s a man, because he’s tall and tough, but when you look at him in the eyes, he’s a child.” Video sessions were again an issue as Mendy admitted later. “I could manage with Marcelo Bielsa’s videos, I did it for a long time, but Michel’s were different.” Relations remained frosty between player and coach, Mendy later telling L’Équipe he confronted Michel saying “coach, if you have something to say, I’d prefer to be told up front.”

Michel was sacked by the end of 2015/16, having overseen Marseille’s worst season in recent memory finishing a disastrous 13th, barely avoiding the relegation fight. As a result, Mendy’s summer switch to Monaco was tinged with surprise. Despite some solid displays, and still only being 21 at the time, the eight-figure sum that Les Monegasques paid for his services seemed a little out of the blue. Mendy, however, proved to be a revelation for the Principality club. In tandem with opposite full-back Djibril Sidibé, his whipped crosses, ability to support attacks, dynamism and pace proved crucial to Monaco’s title success last season.

A sole low point came when Mendy kicked out at Lyon’s Corentin Tolisso, incurring a four-game suspension and being forced a public apology as well as receiving internal sanctions from Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim. “It’s up to me to make people see the real Ben,” said Mendy afterwards “this is a big mistake and I apologise directly to my teammates and the general public, I do not think I’m a bad boy, I’m respectful.”

While he is yet make his mark for Guardiola’s team, Mendy’s prolific, jovial social media presence and constant practical joking has endeared him to City fans. The rousing reception that the Frenchman received replacing Fabian Delph during the win over Swansea last month underlines his popularity. Despite the fun Mendy has had in referring to City as ‘sharks’, poking fun at Lewis Dunk’s ‘bullet header’ of an own goal and hiding Bernardo Silva’s shoes from him, this has been the hardest season of his career, but he has remained characteristically upbeat despite a long recovery. “Maybe at first it was a little hard. Not anymore… he’s a pitbull,” said long term friend Diacko Fofana, “what he’s done after three weeks is incredible.”

Crucially, Mendy feels at home in Manchester, as his drive to regain fitness, connection with supporters and obvious admiration for Pep Guardiola underline. As Mendy said “you haven’t seen nothing yet!” Nevertheless, whether or not he becomes as prominent in Pep’s eleven as he is in fans’ affections, it is unlikely Mendy that will be turning City fans’ hair white anytime soon.

 



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