When you discuss the best left backs in world football the first two names that come to mind are Marcelo of Real Madrid and David Alaba of Bayern Munich, both are multi functional players equally comfortable in defence or attack, in space or in tight areas, with or without the ball. Now though we can add a third name to that illustrious list, the new Manchester City signing Benjamin Mendy.
The French full-back was, in my opinion, the best full back in football last season, as part of an attacking and enterprising Monaco side, Mendy was a key component to their attacking structure. In full flight, he is a force to be reckoned with, tall and powerful with a long stride Mendy can be exceptionally difficult to stop whether he has the ball at his feet or when running into space.
That Mendy was identified early on as a target by Pep Guardiola and Manchester City this season is indicative of the quality that the player possesses. Equally comfortable when attacking up and through the wide area as he is coming inside and linking play in the half space Mendy offers the kind of tactical versatility that Guardiola covets from his fullbacks.
At 23 years of age, Mendy is now coming into the prime of his career having enjoyed a well rounded, if somewhat eclectic, footballing education in his native France. From his early years in the youth academy and the first team of Le Havre, a well-known club for developing players, he moved south to Marseille and played under the tactical instruction of Marcelo Bielsa. In 2016 he was identified as a key component to the youthful revolution being created by Monaco, fast forward just a year and the young French full-back has been signed for a reported £52 Million.
There are still rough areas in his game, not least when it comes to the tactical side with Mendy used to relying on his pace in order to recover position when caught high up the field and occasional lapses in his positional play in the defensive phase. These are issues that can be negated though with the type of coaching that he is likely to get in positional play from Guardiola and his coaching staff.
As touched upon above Mendy has extreme pace which can be used to recover his position when his side lose possession of the ball and the opposition look to transition into the attacking phase.
His willingness to join in the attacking play tends to mean that he takes up extremely high positions when his side are in possession of the ball, depending on the team structure ahead of him this can see Mendy either holding the width of the field in a wide area or moving in to the half space to link play with this playing centrally.
It is likely that Guardiola will look to encourage this attacking instinct in order to stretch the width of the field and allow the left winger, most likely Leroy Sane, to play a more traditional inside forward role. I have seen a lot of talk since City completed the signing of Mendy and Kyle Walker questioning their ability to play the inverted fullback role that Guardiola made famous at Bayern Munich, this involves the fullbacks moving infield to act as auxiliary central midfielders in the attacking phase, a role played perfectly by David Alaba and Phillip Lahm at Bayern. This does not, however, mean that we would see Guardiola look to use his fullbacks centrally in every game, look at his time with Barcelona with Dani Alves for example, a far more indicative measure of what we can expect from Mendy this coming season.
Here we see an example of Mendy already in position when the opposition, Guardiola’s Manchester City, in this case, look to attack, as the ball is played forward into the wide area by City we see that Mendy is already well positioned and aware of the pending danger.
He is strong and quick in stepping in front of the receiving player to take possession of the ball for Monaco. What is most illustrative of his mentality, however, is the desire from Mendy to immediately launch a counter attack in transition as he drives with the ball up and into the wide areas.
Once again in this example, Monaco are in a more established defensive phase with Juventus looking to attack and add to their lead. As with the previous example, the timing of the challenge from Mendy is the key as he moves in to dispossess the Juventus player before the attack can progress to a dangerous situation.
The reaction after winning the ball back illustrates my previous point regarding the ability of Mendy to stretch the width of the field and create space centrally for teammates. The fullback immediately bursts down the touchline and in doing so creates space for the player in possession of the ball to attack diagonally from the half space towards the central area of the field.
Ability in 1v1
As with most modern attacking fullbacks, Benjamin Mendy is superb when given the opportunity to attack an opponent in a one on one situation. His combination of size and speed, combined with quick feet and good technique make him a difficult opponent for any opposition player.
In football today the player on the field who enjoys the most freedom and space in possession tends to be the fullback, this tactical trend is partially responsible for the amount of wingers who are now being converted to fullback at a young age in order to maximise the impact they can have when afforded this freedom.
Mendy is in no way a frustrated winger but his ability to stretch the play and contributing in the attacking phase really stood out last season for Monaco, indeed this attacking intent is likely to see Mendy make the French fullback position his own for the next decade.
Here we see Mendy on the far side of the defensive line for Monaco as the opposition have an attack that break down in the Monaco half of the field. As the ball breaks across the field it comes to Mendy who is immediately engaged by an opposition player.
Instead of panicking in this situation we see Mendy open up his body to take the ball on his far side and manipulate it past his immediate opponent. Having played the pass off however we again see Mendy immediately burst into the opposition half dragging an opposition player with him and once again creating space in the central areas for his teammates to approach.
This time we see Mendy take possession of the ball in the wide area isolated against a defender at the edge of the penalty area.
The piece of skill that Mendy shows in beating the defensive player is by no means an example of perfect technique but he is intelligent enough to use the defender’s momentum against him by cutting the ball back. He also shows a definite preference for his left foot as he moves around the ball to clip it into the area, perfectly weighted to allow the forward to score with ease.
Another aspect of modern full back play is the ability to cross the ball accurately from a variety of depths and angles. Since the signing of Mendy this week I have seen many people in the media question this part of the game as in their view ‘City don’t cross the ball’. This, however, is not entirely true, whilst it is fair to suggest that lofted crosses from deeper wide areas are not a part of City’s attacking game plan they do favour hard crosses from closer to the touchline where cut back crosses are more dangerous to the opposition defences.
Mendy is a fantastic crosser of the ball with the ability and composure to pick out attacking players whether static in the area of running from deeper areas.
Once again in this clip we immediately see that Mendy has taken a position high and wide of the pitch, stretching the opposition defensive structure.
Whilst the diagonal pass out to Mendy in the wide areas has to be admired for its quality the technique from Mendy to hit the cross first time, into an exceptionally dangerous area, easily matches the quality of the first pass. The volleyed cross finds an attacking player in the area and the chance should have been finished.
In this clip against Dortmund, we again see the quality and the variety of crossing that Mendy is capable of. In the initial moment, Mendy is behind the ball but we see his pace and desire combined as he gets up the field in order to overlap and support the man in possession of the ball.
When the ball is slipped into space for Mendy to collect the temptation would be to blast a low cross into a crowded penalty area, instead, we see Mendy take stock of the positions inside and clip a wonderful cross over to the back post, once again the chance really should have been finished.
I am confident that come the end of this coming season the decision to spend what is (currently) a world record fee for a defender in order to sign Mendy will be vindicated.
He is a huge upgrade on the likes of Kolarov and Clichy, who Guardiola had at his disposal last season, and he is young enough to develop still further until he is unquestionably the best left back in world football.
Manchester City fans should all be looking forward to seeing their new left back dominate the opposition.