Marcelo Bielsa’s first and perhaps sole season with Marseille has been a mixed one. The very exciting first-half of it made the club the “Autumn champions” heading to the winter break. Naturally, a third or fourth placed finish will be seen as a disappointing one. But given how good the performances have been in some of the games, getting back into European football and playing in such an exciting manner at times, Bielsa has certainly done the job he was brought in to do (and to be fair, a league title would have been a massive overachievement, and that is not healthy in modern football, just ask Brendan Rodgers). Another thing that the Argentinean has so terrifically done for the club is brought out the best from some of the players, and because of having such a limited squad, the younger players have had a larger role to play. One of Bielsa’s achievements from this season will have to be the development of left back Benjamin Mendy.
Who is Benjamin Mendy?
20 year-old Benjamin Mendy was one of the nominees for the European Golden Boy award this season and is in is his second season with Olympique de Marseille. Mendy joined Le Havre AC, currently in the second tier as a 13 year-old in 2007. He slowly made his way up the youth ranks of the club and in 2011, he was representing the senior side as a 17 year-old. Playing almost 30 games for Le Havre in his second season, his performances drew him the interest of various clubs including Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Cardiff City, Sunderland (where he even travelled to check out the training facilities after admitting he wanted to move to England at some point in his career), Lyon and Marseille. Eventually, it was Marseille who signed him on a four year contract for a sum in the region of €4m.
After signing for Marseille in 2013, Mendy was always going to be a squad player. Still, he managed 24 appearances for the side, with only 6 of those coming from the bench. He also got a goal and four assists in the process, but importantly he showed glimpses of the player he could be in a few years. Not surprisingly, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal reportedly made an enquiry for him in August 2014 but the approach was quickly turned down by the Phoceens who said Mendy was part of their long term plans. This season, the Frenchman has started 33 out of 37 league matches and has proved himself to be indispensable for his manager.
Talent Radar Player Accolades:
2016-17 Talent Radar Defender of the Season [Runner-Up]
2016-17 Ligue 1 Young Player of the Season [Second Runner-Up]
Mendy was part of the under-17 team that reached the quarter-finals at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Having represented Les Bleus in every youth level, the left-back hopes to get a call to Deschamps’s side for next year’s Euros, and if the player continues playing the way he has under Bielsa – and makes some improvements along with that – there is no reason why he wouldn’t be in contention for the tournament.
Benjamin Mendy was at No.7 in the defender’s category in Outside of the Boot’s 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015 feature.
Style of play, Strengths and Weaknesses
A modern day full-back, it is quite apparent Mendy enjoys the attacking side of the game more than the defensive one. His offensive qualities have also shown much more this season and the fact that he is only behind Dimitri Payet and Flaurin Thavin in creating chances illustrates that he is excelling in the attacking side of his game. The player has created 39 chances and has four assists in the league this season.
He is very good dribbler of the ball and can whip in inviting crosses from the left hand side. When you have someone like Gignac at the receiving end (who has scored a lot of headed goals in the league this season), the crosses are often converted, and Mendy has proved to be an excellent provider at that.
His athleticism and tremendous work rate are quite impressive when compared to other full backs of his age. The fact that Bielsa has insisted that the attacking players like Andre Ayew remain in advanced position and do not track back to support the defence means that Mendy has more work to do on that side of the pitch and the youngster has executed the responsibility well on most occasions.
Of course, there have been instances when he has left the three man defence exposed but he can patrol the left flank with efficiency and his presence on that side of the pitch helps the team in exploiting all the space available in attack.
His defensive abilities have been brought into question a lot of times but one can see him improve in this respect. Statistically, Mendy was averaging 1.6 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per game in the league last season. This has gone up to 2.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per game in this campaign.
The fact that he is 6ft 2in helps him in aerial duels. Mendy has improved in this category as he has started bringing his physicality into play. Clearances and blocks per game have also remarkably improved so one can see the Frenchman is improving in the defensive side of the game. However, he has to further improve the defensive side of his game, especially his awareness when defending without the ball.
All in all, Mendy is an excellent prospect and this season has been a huge learning curve for the player. Under Marcelo Bielsa, he has learnt a great deal about his own capabilities and has improved significantly with the right coaching and the amount of game time he has got. The fact that he is balancing the attacking and defending side of the game shows he is maturing.
For now, he needs to stay with the side with or without the Argentinean coach as it is imperative that he continues to grow. Especially if he wants to realize his dream of making it to the French national side as early as the next Euros (2016). Mendy certainly has the potential to become a phenomenal full back. The fact that he has high aspirations makes him more driven and that shows on the pitch. With Marseille getting European football back (Europa League) after a season long absence, there will more opportunities for the talented full back to realize his potential.
Written by Aakriti Mehrotra