In a way, Edouard Mendy needed that performance on Saturday.
Certainly, Chelsea did, holding on to the narrowest of 1-0 wins over Brentford. In the final 20 minutes, they faced a barrage from Thomas Frank’s men, who took the game up a few gears in search of an equaliser after Ben Chilwell struck at the end of the first half. In doing so, they dominated possession and territory, lifting their expected goals to 1.95 by full time, dwarfing Chelsea’s 0.27. Mendy ensured expectations did not meet reality.
Mendy’s game isn’t solely about making saves. It certainly wasn’t in 2020-21, the most successful of his career. A save percentage of 69.5 put him 18th out of 39 goalkeepers to make an appearance last season.
After eight Premier League games this term, that rank is a lot higher. Mendy’s 89.3 per cent has him fifth overall, having saved 77 of the shots against him (excluding penalties and own goals), conceding just once from those efforts. Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale is the only one above him to have started more than once. And no doubt Mendy’s most memorable stops so far came this weekend.
He has racked up plenty of clean sheets already during his 13 months in English football. Of Chelsea’s 18 league clean sheets last season, 14 came with Mendy between the posts. His nine during the successful Champions League run – in his first go in the competition, no less – matched the record for a single campaign.
Clean sheets though are not solely his doing, nor a true measure of his work. The defensive structure established by Thomas Tuchel since the German took over at Stamford Bridge in January has been the most robust in Europe. The system has been implemented on the pitch by those ahead of Mendy, notably Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger.
Even without them on Saturday, Trevoh Chalobah’s goalline clearance from a Christian Norgaard shot after Mendy was floored from keeping out Pontus Jansson’s 83rd-minute effort with his face, ensured the Senegalese keeper had a fifth shutout in 21-22. Yet few could argue this was unequivocally his.
A lot of what Mendy has done has gone unnoticed, which is exactly why he was signed. Kepa Arrizabalaga, the previous incumbent of the starting goalkeeper shirt, was too noticeable. It started with the £71.6m fee from Athletic Club in 2018 creating a spotlight that enhanced every mistake. Former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard had to defend the Spaniard constantly. Mendy’s signing from Rennes and immediate placing in the first XI not only rid Lampard of that line of questioning but prolonged his stay as manager.
Mendy does all the simple things well. He claims crosses with ease and punches with conviction, gathers cleanly more often than not, and is comfortable with his feet. He is a good judge of when to come off his line and out of his box, both of which were abundantly clear on Saturday.
Passing, too, is no stress. While he might not necessarily have the range of Ederson, his short-passing is akin to a recycling midfielder: economical with his touches and not afraid to drop a shoulder to misdirect an on-rushing attacker to create space to find one of his defenders. All quite unspectacular but mightily effective.
This brings us back to why such a performance from Mendy was important. For all the advances in computing and analysing the game, modern football, specifically how it is consumed, rewards the flashy. With all the appreciation of different skill sets required to be a top goalkeeper, what they do has never seemed more mundane.
Somehow, knowing how involved they are in build-up play has dulled their uniqueness. These once colourful mavericks are now as monochrome as their shirts. And Mendy might be the most monochromatic of the lot.
Things were different on Saturday. Every rush out and clearance, every pass – even the half-volley out wide to Ben Chilwell when closed down by Bryan Mbuemo – came and went. But every save exponentially increased the hype. Each drawing despaired gasps from the Brentford faithful and exalted cheers from Chelsea fans in the stands and those in blue on the field.
Mendy’s final save was the most spectacular: tipping a Norgaard overhead kick beyond the bar in injury time. The gasps and cheers had come and gone while he remained faced down on the turf upon landing from acrobatically arching back and left to get his right hand to the ball. Having collected his thoughts, he got back to his feet, chastised his teammates for trying to congratulate him when there was a corner to come and still seconds on the clock, and got back to it.
Frank’s reaction said it all, putting his hands to his head then turning to the crowd behind, arms open in disbelief, “what more can we do?!” written across his face. Similarly, the scenes that greeted full time spoke of how both teams felt. Brentford satisfied knowing they could not have done more. Chelsea gleeful that, thanks to Mendy, they were able to do enough.
Before television, the striker and the goalkeeper were the two main protagonists in any football match. Brazilian goalkeeper Gilmar, a World Cup winner in 1958 and 1962, inspired the next generation because of how his exploits came across on the radio. “When I was a kid, I got used to hearing commentators scream his name,” said Valdir Peres, Brazil’s first choice at the 1982 World Cup. “I thought he was the best.” As Jonathan Wilson put it in his book The Outsider, those in the heart of the dramatic moments in 1958, the first World Cup broadcast over radio in Brazil, became household names: “Those who had the shots on goal for Brazil and those who saved the opponent’s shots.”
Television certainly has not dulled our appreciation of goalkeepers, especially given how slow-motion replays can alert us to the faintest of fingertips not picked up live. But it has normalised their brilliance to a degree. Still the way we talk about their craft can be quite reductive. Even after Mendy’s performance against Brentford, the onus shifted back to how they really should have scored one of their 17 shots on goal. And that Bryan Mbeumo should really stop hitting the post.
Making saves is the very least a goalkeeper can do. But it is also the most exciting thing they do, and why the position carries that sense of glory. Such a clear, backs-against-the-wall display from Mendy gets people talking. Right now that conversation is on why he was not on the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or.
When the list was announced last month – when Mendy was very much the same player – his absence was not a talking point. Comments from Mendy’s compatriots Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly during the international break brought it to the fore. Tuchel has now added his voice to the cause, along with Rudiger, who tweeted his bemusement at the snub on Saturday evening.
It’s not that Mendy is under-rated or even under-appreciated. He is simply under-talked-about. In a role where success and failure are your only two options, it is one of the best problems to have. But it does not hurt that such a consistent performer is getting his dues in a pronounced way.
One imagines Mendy does not care about this beyond another strong performance that kept Chelsea in pole position. This is a man who registered unemployed aged 22 when he found himself on the periphery of the game. Seven years later, as a Champions League winner, a totem of black excellence in a position that has suffered from a lack of representation and a vital part in Chelsea’s push for a sixth Premier League title, he is undoubtedly right at the top.