Two years after he arrived at Chelsea, Edouard Mendy finds himself in a quite unusual place.
Back then, Mendy walked straight into the Blues’ goal to pick up the starting berth, billed as the man to save the Blues from the abysmal goalkeeping of Kepa Arrizabalaga even before the former’s name first appeared on a Chelsea team-sheet.
So low had Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of football, plunged the bar that Mendy didn’t really have to outdo himself to restore it to decent-enough heights.
But Mendy went the whole nine yards anyway, quickly establishing himself as one of the best in the Premier League and in Europe. His well-documented grass-to-grace back-story only embellished Mendy’s success even more, sending his stock right through the roof.
Mendy’s excellence made the last months of Frank Lampard’s tenure more endurable than it might otherwise have been, and he remained prominent and indispensable under the Chelsea legend’s successor, Thomas Tuchel.
Tuchel’s initial priority was to make the team harder to beat, and a sturdier, more resilient backline was key to achieving that objective.
Mendy’s brilliance was the foundation of that defensive fortress Tuchel constructed, yielding an unlikely UEFA Champions League title and improved results in the Premier League within months. In the FA Cup, Chelsea went all the way to the final, a tad unfortunate to finish runners-up to Leicester City.
Arrizabalaga had little part in all of this. He hadn’t exactly been banished, no, but there was every reason to believe he was now very much an afterthought, only called on for cup games. Most notably, Arrizabalaga was utilised as a shootout specialist/super-sub, yet even that ‘privilege’ was stripped off him after falling woefully short of expectations in last season’s League Cup final against Liverpool.
An exit, temporary or permanent, seemed inevitable, but attempts to engineer a move – to Napoli, it was rumoured – fell through last summer. And, with that, another year on the sidelines beckoned for the Basque native.
Not long into the 2022/23 campaign, however, a rare chance to start came up for Arrizabalaga, away to Dinamo Zagreb in Chelsea’s first Champions League game of the season. It was lost 1-0, but Arrizabalaga kept the scoreline ‘respectable’ on a chastening evening.
That match, in early September, would spell the end of Tuchel’s tenure – the price paid for a rough beginning to the season, making him the first managerial casualty of the Todd Boehly era – yet, for Arrizabalaga, it was just the start; a restart, it has turned out, under the next man in the dugout.
In all of Graham Potter’s nine games thus far, Arrizabalaga has started, and the results – as well as the underlying numbers – certainly vindicate that decision. Chelsea have lost none of the games, conceding just four goals, with Arrizabalaga not being squarely at fault for any of those.
The early impressions suggest, with ample evidence, that Arrizabalaga is just the goalkeeper Potter needs in moulding his new Chelsea project.
If Arrizabalaga initially regained pride of place by a stroke of good fortune, he’s determined to hold on to it by dint of the excellence he didn’t put up enough of the first time. The 28-year-old is keen to make the most of this second wind granted him, and his employers, needless to say, are happier for it – just not the guy at whose expense this renaissance is happening.
Mendy has been reduced to a spectator, now resigned to biding his time, as Arrizabalaga had all along. As it happens, starting goalkeepers are notoriously hard to dislodge, with backups often only finding a way in when injury or a string of blunders crack a sliver of opportunity open.
It was, in Mendy’s case, ultimately the latter that rendered his position vulnerable, but it may well have been the former. A series of high-profile gaffes – even if infrequent – stretching back to last season brought Mendy’s performances under increasing scrutiny.
His handling remains fair – though standards in that department have noticeably dropped – but in an era where a goalkeeper’s ability with his feet matters just as much, Mendy hasn’t covered himself in glory. Glaring flaws in possession against West Ham United and Real Madrid last season, and at Leeds United this term, cost Chelsea goals and points.
Having considered all that, then, it would be hard for Mendy to argue his peripheral role under Potter has been unfair.
That, of course, doesn’t make it any easier to take, especially in a World Cup year. Qatar 2022 is just around the corner, and Mendy – whose efforts have been essential to Senegal’s successes this year, including World Cup qualification itself – could do with a steady run of games right now.
That looks rather unlikely, with Mendy’s prospects of playing time probably limited to November’s League Cup visit to Manchester City; Mendy would be fortunate to get much more. That, needless to say, might mean showing up at the Mundial lacking in match-fitness and with his confidence shot.
To what extent would that affect a Senegal team that is as dependent on Mendy as it is on Sadio Mane’s quality at the other end of the pitch?
That’s a question which might have already crossed the mind of Aliou Cisse, the Senegal head coach – and one suspects it has Mendy’s, too.
A more relevant question, though, would be whether Cisse prefers to bet on his first-choice goalkeeper over any other options he might have – and I’m not talking about Alfred Gomis, signed by Rennes as a replacement when Mendy was leaving for Chelsea in 2020.
Gomis himself has now lost his place to France veteran Steve Mandanda, but Cisse wouldn’t even have to look that far for an alternative. Mendy may not be having the best of times at Chelsea, but another Senegalese goalkeeper in West London – albeit one operating at a lower level, and with a less sterling record of national service – is currently enjoying himself far more.
Timothy Dieng, born in Switzerland, is a big reason Queens Park Rangers (QPR) are absolutely flying in the Championship now, with as good a chance of returning to the Premier League as any since the Hoops suffered relegation the end of the 2014/15 campaign.
Dieng — in goal for Senegal’s most recent game, against Iran, the last of their pre-World Cup friendly matches — has started every game for QPR, helping lift them to second on the log. Cisse would struggle to overlook that form, unless he’s prepared to stay loyal to Mendy, a more trusted lieutenant, rather than commit to a course of meritocracy.
Should that consideration be extended to Mendy, he’d do well to shake off the rust and grab it with both hands.
The World Cup, after all, would be a fine platform on which to make a case for reinstatement in the Chelsea goal, especially with Arrizabalaga in a race against time to be restored to a Spain squad that could even afford to overlook Manchester United’s David De Gea.
For now, though, Mendy — who, by the way, hasn’t played for Senegal at all since June — can only watch Arrizabalaga from the bench, while hoping for his own chance to impress Potter. And, tough as it may be, given the circumstances, he’d also do well to keep himself in shape – physically and mentally – for what demands the World Cup, with the reigning African champions, might bring.
Enn Y. Frimpong – Ink & Kicks