‘I Was Shown That I Was Right’: Opportunity Knocks For Édouard Mendy
Édouard Mendy had some questions for us. We had some questions for him. So the Chelsea goalkeeper spent an hour with The Analyst talking football, data and his truly unique and impressive rise ahead of the Champions League final.
“There is no better way to convey reality, and it is great.”
Édouard Mendy is a fan of objectivity. The Chelsea goalkeeper was immersed in the data being presented to him about his debut season at Stamford Bridge, and his enthusiasm for it makes sense. Had it been there when he was struggling to get an opportunity to play football at higher levels, that opportunity may have come sooner. It’s there now, and the stats don’t lie: 39 clean sheets in just 94 top-flight league appearances, records using deeper data being broken in his first Champions League campaign, and all by a player who came close to giving it all up just five years ago.
Mendy’s football career has been anything but conventional. As a youngster, he played in the French amateur leagues and struggled to find full-time employment before being thrown a lifeline in 2015. After coming close to leaving football altogether, he earned a short-term deal at Marseille, where he appeared for their B team. But it wasn’t until the age of 24 that he finally secured a professional contract, moving to Ligue 2 club Reims.
His career up to this point had been a slow meander downriver, but the next four years have been the Great Glass Elevator. Each season has seen an upgrade for Mendy, from top-flight promotion, then making the progression from Reims to Rennes, and finally an exceptional debut season in the Premier League with Chelsea. Now comes the next challenge: winning the biggest club competition of all – the UEFA Champions League.
His professional league career certainly started as a baptism of fire. After just six minutes of Reims’ opening Ligue 2 game of 2016-17 away at Amiens, goalkeeper Johann Carrasso was given a red card after a rush of blood to the head, so Mendy was given his debut in unexpected circumstances.
With Reims leading 1-0, Mendy would have kept the opponents out on debut had it not been for an unfortunate 70th-minute own goal via teammate Anthony Weber. He only had to wait four days to secure his first professional start and clean sheet in a 1-0 home win over Bourg-en-Bresse. Unfortunately for Mendy, the return from suspension of Carrasso meant there were only six further Ligue 2 appearances for him that season, but 2017-18 was a different story.
Following the departure of Michel Der Zakarian to Ligue 1 side Montpellier, David Guion took over as coach of Reims. Guion installed Mendy as his No. 1 and his faith in him was repaid in full. Reims won the Ligue 2 title at a canter, with a 15-point gap between them and second-placed Nimes, which remains Mendy’s sole professional club honour. He was instrumental in their title victory, with a league-high 17 clean sheets and the best minutes-per-goal conceded ratio of any regular goalkeeper that season (136 mins), Mendy allowed the opposition to score only 19 times from non-penalty shots across his 34 Ligue 2 appearances.
If the story had peaked in 2018-19 for Mendy, it would have been a significant rise to the top of French football. But it didn’t peter out; it skyrocketed. A top-flight debut came on Aug. 11, 2018 at 26 years, 163 days old. A late bloomer, you could say, but more likely a case of underestimated talent.
Mendy played every minute of his debut top-flight campaign in 2018-19 and kept 14 clean sheets with an exceptional eight of those coming in his first 12 appearances in Ligue 1. Overall that season, only Walter Benítez (16) and Mike Maignan (15) shut out opponents more often, but both played at established top-flight clubs in OGC Nice and Lille. Mendy’s 110 saves for Reims that season prevented nearly six goals from being conceded, based on the quality of shots on target faced. It was a major reason Reims finished eighth, their best Ligue 1 finish for 43 years. And when something like that happens, other clubs inevitably take notice.
Rennes had suffered a disappointing Ligue 1 campaign in 2018-19, but a first Coupe de France title in 48 years meant that European football could be used to lure in talent. Despite finishing two places above Rennes in the table, Reims couldn’t stop Mendy from moving to Les Rennais, and so the shot-stopper made the transfer just three days before the start of the 2019-20 Ligue 1 campaign. The delay in transferring wasn’t helped by Mendy making his international tournament debut for Senegal at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, where they finished runners-up to Algeria.
Once again, teams found Mendy hard to beat. Rennes kept a clean sheet in over a third (38%) of matches that the Senegalese keeper appeared (nine of 24), and only Predrag Rajkovic (135 mins) had a better minutes-per-goal conceded record in Ligue 1 than he did. His performances led to Rennes finishing third and Champions League qualification for the first time in their history.
Success has followed Mendy’s professional career since becoming an established first teamer at Reims in 2017-18. From promotion to Ligue 1, to Reims highest placed top-flight finish in 43 years, followed by Rennes’ first-ever qualification for the Champions League/European Cup.
It’s little wonder Chelsea were next to call.
The Step Up
Chelsea’s goalkeeping issues since the departure of Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid in 2018-19 had been a public battle. The £71.6 million arrival of Kepa Arrizabalaga in August 2018 broke the world-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper, but the Spaniard struggled to adapt to the Premier League, and Chelsea’s defensive record suffered as a result. Only a terrible Huddersfield Town side (14.6%) conceded a higher proportion of shots faced than Chelsea (13.9%) in this two-season period, while the Blues conceded 90 goals from shots with an expected goals on target total of 75.5 – a league-high underperformance.
Chelsea needed reliability and security between the posts, so who else to help with the search than club legend Petr Čech in his new role as Technical and Performance Advisor. For the second time in Chelsea history, they decided to raid Rennes for their highly rated goalkeeper with the hope that he could replicate the success of Čech himself. Judging on Mendy’s performances in his debut season, he’s on the road to doing just that.
With 24 competitive clean sheets in just 43 competitive games so far in 2020-21, Mendy has collected the most shutouts in all competitions by a Chelsea goalkeeper in a single season since Čech’s total of 26 in 54 games during 2008-09 and is just four away from the Czech’s exceptional debut campaign in 2004-05 (28 in 48 games).
Mendy made clear the influence that Čech has at Chelsea and on his performances during his debut season in London.
“Petr has a very important role, both on and off the pitch,” Mendy told The Analyst. “He is still a good goalkeeper even if he doesn’t play anymore. We have quite similar profiles. The little moves that allow you to gain half a second to get up or to recover an aerial ball, his advice is very useful to me and I learn a lot from him. He is very important to me. … When you see his stats, you realise that what he has done is really impressive.”
Like Mendy, Cech had only played two seasons of top-flight football in France before his move to Chelsea on the eve of the 2004-05 season. Despite the apparent lack of top-tier experience, the current Chelsea star was fully aware of the qualities that he possessed and that he could make the step up to be a Premier League and Champions League keeper. During Mendy’s single season at Rennes, goalkeeping coach Olivier Sorin would commonly feed him statistics and insights to grow belief and confidence in his own ability, something that eventually led him to grab the opportunity to move to Chelsea with both hands.
“Last year, Olivier Sorin gave me comparisons in France and Europe on stats like expected goals, clean sheets and the precision of my passes to give me feedback about how I can progress. All the stats he gave me reinforced the idea that I could have ambition. I was shown that I was right,” Mendy revealed, whilst passing on that Chelsea were also aware of his qualities via the in-depth data that they receive from Stats Perform from first team all the way through to the academy.
He certainly didn’t struggle to settle in at Chelsea, with five clean sheets and just one goal conceded in his opening six Premier League appearances. But there was still an adjustment period in terms of learning the differences in the two leagues. Standing a towering 6-foot-5, it could be assumed Mendy would be used to some physicality at set pieces from his time in France, but it wasn’t the same as England.
“What surprised me in the Premier League, it’s way above in terms of intensity,” Mendy said. “In set-piece situations, blocks are made on the goalkeepers. The goalkeeper is not as protected as elsewhere in Europe, so you have to find your place to get rid of your opponent and above all not to forget the ball.”
As well as intensity and physicality, one major difference for Mendy this season has been the expectation of the goalkeeper to be a vital cog in the progression of play, and with that came a test of his skills with the ball at his feet rather than in his hands.
Despite missing seven Premier League games this season, no goalkeeper has been involved in more shot-ending sequences in the competition than Mendy (51). It’s a clear sign that Chelsea like to involve their No. 1 in open-play passing perhaps more than any other team. Last season at Rennes, he was a part of 21 shot-ending sequences in 24 appearances, which works out to about half his 2020-21 average.
The end location of those passes are often very close to his own goal. Mendy is the goalkeeper to have made the highest proportion of goal kicks inside his own box to a teammate this season, with the instruction to build from defence and progress up the pitch rather than aim long for a teammate’s head. Not every goalkeeper is comfortable with being asked to play like this, but with his cool temperament and obvious natural ability with the ball at his feet, Mendy has adapted quickly at Stamford Bridge.
His overall distribution is played short (under 30 yards) 79% of the time. No goalkeeper in the Premier League has a higher proportion, and it’s not something he came to Chelsea with as a personal characteristic. This is much higher than previous top-flight seasons at Rennes (56.5%) and Reims (39.6%), with Mendy explaining that the different aspirations of clubs have decided his role and influence in building moves from the back.
“I have had to adapt to what the club asked of me. At Reims, we were more focused on long or medium-length play because we were a team that was playing to avoid relegation, and playing short was not the priority. At Rennes, we gave more priority to the medium-length play because Julien Stéphan wanted us to switch sides quickly to hurt the opponent. At Chelsea, it’s another step up because the goalkeeper is integrated in all the schemes for getting the ball out. I’m asked to play short, to be a full-fledged player when we have the ball.”
Not only has Mendy had to adapt to more of a sweeper-keeper role at Chelsea, but he’s facing shots less regularly than ever before – something to be expected at a club with higher expectations that plays on the front foot. Opposition sides have attempted shots on target every 35 minutes against Mendy this season in the Premier League, which is seven minutes longer than at Rennes and 12 longer than at Reims. It hasn’t diminished his sharpness between the posts, and that’s perhaps helped by his greater involvement in their possession-based game.
On The Biggest Stage
Mendy has been able to elevate his performances on the biggest club stage of all in 2020-21, with some impressive, and vital, displays for Chelsea in the Champions League.
This is his debut season in the competition, making his first-ever appearance in Chelsea’s meeting with Sevilla in October at the age of 28 years, 233 days. Should Chelsea win the final in Porto against Manchester City, Mendy would become the first goalkeeper to play for a winning side in the Champions League final in his debut season since Marc-André ter Stegen for Barcelona in 2015.
With eight clean sheets in 11 UEFA Champions League matches this season, it’s already the most in a single campaign by a goalkeeper for an English side in the competition’s history. Keep one more and another record will be his, becoming the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine in their debut Champions League season.
Mendy has conceded 3.6 goals fewer than expected in the competition from non-penalty shots this season, conceding just three times in 990 minutes.
But there’s perhaps a better way to look at this as a comparison among Champions League keepers. The goals prevented rate metric can account for different goalkeepers facing a different number of shots over a period of time and is a more accurate way to judge a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping ability. Normalising for the volume of shots allows us to see if goalkeepers were expected to concede more or fewer goals for every goal that they conceded, based on the quality of shots that they face on target.
His goals prevented rate this season in the Champions League is 2.2, meaning that he would have been expected to concede 2.2 goals for every goal that he’s actually conceded in the competition this season – the best of any goalkeeper to have played 300+ minutes. The last goalkeeper to surpass this having played at least 600 minutes in a single UCL campaign was Keylor Navas for Real Madrid in 2015-16 (2.6).
Mendy was already well aware of most of the data behind his impressive Champions League performances this season and the power that data can hold in analysis, but the expected goals on target data was new to him.
“It’s a first time I’ve seen such a chart [the xGOT graphics above]. I had been told where I was conceding goals regarding the position of the shooter, but not from the point of view of the goal,” he said, and after a quick review, he was able to ID the data points.
“In the Champions League, I can remember which dot is linked to which goal: Guirassy and Benzema in the centre, and the Porto striker on the side. It’s a nice way to know if you made a big save.”
But one area that Mendy believes he can’t rely wholly on the data is with penalties. This subject will inevitably come up when knockout ties are concerned, but with over a quarter of the Champions League finals this century going to a shootout (six of 20), including both of Chelsea’s previous appearances in the final, there’s always the possibility it could come down to it.
In a Premier League meeting against fellow Champions League finalists Manchester City earlier this month, Mendy easily saved a Panenka penalty from Sergio Agüero to prevent City going two goals ahead. That save changed the game, and Chelsea went on to win 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium and delayed the inevitable title for a few more days.
Mendy was keen to stress that whilst data was important in looking at the history of where players place spot-kicks, his judgement and instinct on the day would be key.
“You can’t only rely on the data. When Agüero puts the ball down, you have the information [of where he usually shoots]. But even if you have that information, you can’t show the opponent that you have it, so you wait as long as possible to make your decision.”
Should Mendy play on May 29 and overcome a knock that forced him to come off at half time in Chelsea’s final day Premier League defeat at Aston Villa, he would become the first African goalkeeper to play in a UEFA Champions League final and the first since Bruce Grobbelaar in 1985 including the old European Cup. Ajax’s Cameroonian shot-stopper André Onana came close in 2018-19 but exited to Spurs in the semi-finals.
Mendy was born in France but through his mother was able to represent Senegal on the international stage. Upon debuting for Chelsea, Mendy became just the fourth African international goalkeeper to play in the Premier League and the first in 10 years. The absence of African goalkeepers in the English top-flight is perhaps a biproduct of unfortunate stereotypes of goalkeepers from the continent as eccentric and erratic, which is something Mendy hopes he can help erase with his performances.
“There are few of them [African goalkeepers], that’s why as an African goalkeeper in the Premier League, I have to give my best, to, if it’s a stereotype, sweep them away to open the way for others,” he said when asked about the lack of representation in England.
And who better to clear the path for future African goalkeepers than a man who has come so far so quickly, now with the opportunity for a Champions League title in his debut season?
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Translations and assistance from Jean-Baptiste Caillet. Design by Matt Sisneros.