It is hard to identify a position that has evolved and reformed as radically as the modern day full-back. In years gone by, they were judged, almost entirely, on their defensive trustworthiness and awareness.
Times have obviously changed, and as the range of tactical philosophies have increased – and in turn have become more physically demanding than ever on their players – so have the fundamental requirements for the international 21st century full-back. The essentials include three attributes: consummate athleticism, technical proficiency and tactical flexibility.
No player embodies the first two traits more than the world’s most expensive left-back: Man City and France’s £52m star Benjamin Mendy.
The former Ligue 1 champion epitomises the modern revolution of the left-back role. Powerful, pacey and attack-minded, Mendy frequents to drift inside to create space for the winger on the outside, or he will often provide the overlap to offer his unerring crossing ability for his team.
Mendy and his then-Monaco teammate Djibril Sidibé – both key figures in their memorable 2017 Ligue 1 feat under manager Leonardo Jardim – were showing such irrepressible domestic form a year prior to Russia 2018 that they appeared nailed on to rekindle their full-back partnership in the tournament.
However, serious injuries to both – an ACL rupture meant Mendy only made league 7 appearances in his debut season in Manchester – forced Didier Deschamps to look elsewhere in his squad.
He identified two inexperienced young talents from Atletico Madrid and VfB Stuttgart respectively: Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard. Both possessed a certain maturity and assuredness in their performances throughout Les Bleus’ tournament triumph and, with both exhibiting a convincing, unyielding defensive discipline, felt more suitable to the pragmatic tactics of Deschamps.
Post Russia 2018, with Mendy having returned to full fitness and playing a major role in Pep Guardiola’s Man City side, and an unquestionable lack of depth in the full-back areas for France, that Deschamps would recall the 24-year-old immediately into the first team setup was never really in doubt.
However, it was until the 62nd minute of France’s second UEFA Nations League game – following the fairly drab goalless draw against Germany in Munich – that Mendy was to be introduced as a substitute for Hernandez in the celebratory homecoming 2-1 victory over the Netherlands.
Despite Mendy having only half an hour to impress on his return, the Man City star did not fail to reveal both the offensively invigorating and defensively suspect aspects to his game. Indeed, within three minutes of his introduction, an unconvincing clearance presented the Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum a hugely presentable opportunity which was spurned, and just a minute later the 24-year-old was sucked out of position, in an incredibly negligent moment of defending, to allow Kenny Tete to set up Ryan Babel to equalise for the visitors.
As France sought a winner, Mendy’s inclination to saunter forward in support of attacks was put to good use as, sixteen minutes from time, receiving the ball high up the pitch as he hugged the left touchline, he delivered a pinpoint cross onto the left boot of Olivier Giroud, who swept home a clinical volley that was too hot for Jasper Cillessen to keep out.
Mendy’s offensive characteristics could certainly prove too great for Deschamps to disregard, but the question becomes how does the manager integrate him into a World Cup-winning side that, not only have fared so well without him, but have suitably filled his position and crucially, do not look like conceding goals in his absence.
In the first quartet of Premier League fixtures before the international break, Mendy contributed four assists for Man City – the third City player to assist this total in the first four games of the season after Samir Nasri in 2011/12 and David Silva in 2015/16 – and his cross for Giroud’s winner may trigger the question as to whether he could possibly be a future left midfielder for Les Bleus in the making.
His attacking prowess is particularly highlighted in his dribbling: in full flight, tall and powerful with a long stride, he is a difficult player to stop when he has the ball at his feet or is running into space. Naturally, if Mendy was to be re-positioned higher up the pitch to be deployed as a left winger, Deschamps would not have the concern surrounding the space absconded if, say, Hernandez was played behind on the left-hand side to maintain defensive shape.
Mendy’s extreme pace at left-back has often proved a huge asset in the past for Monaco and frequently, in the helter-skelter nature of the Premier League for Man City, but it is unlikely to sit easy with Deschamps, who prides his teams on defensive and stolid tactical discipline.
At 23 years-old, Mendy is approaching the prime of his career, and whilst he will not always be able to rely on his pace to recover when caught high up the field, we may well see Deschamps tinker with a new formation – something the 49-year-old frequently proved throughout World Cup qualification he is not afraid of doing – to accommodate Mendy’s enthralling attacking flair, without sacrificing the team’s defensive solidarity.
One thing is for sure with Mendy, wherever he is playing on the field for France, entertainment value will not be absent.