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Ferland Mendy: The Defensive Dynamo

An Elite Lockdown Specialist With Injury Problems

Real Madrid CF v Atletico Madrid - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

As Real Madrid weigh left back options, The Real Deal will analyze top talents through in-depth player comparisons. Our first analysis was of Fran Garcia vs Miguel Gutièrrez.

Continuing our left back analysis series, we examine Real Madrid’s lockdown LB Ferland Mendy. Purchased for €50m in summer 2019, Mendy instantly upgraded a declining Marcelo and has been pivotal in multiple league titles and the 2021/22 Champions League victory.

However, injuries have hampered Mendy’s time in Madrid. And his occasional struggles in possession pale in contrast to Marcelo’s flair.

How good is Mendy? Should Madrid keep him long-term? Using statistics from this season and film from his last 4 full campaigns, let’s assess Mendy’s strengths, weaknesses, fit at Madrid, and place in the pantheon of great modern left backs.

In upcoming installments, we’ll study:

  • Alphonso Davies
  • Marcelo
  • Jordi Alba
  • Andy Robertson

Data courtesy @fbref and @WhoScored

Find us on X, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok at @realdealpods for more takes and banter between content we release on the Managing Madrid website and spotify feed!


DEFENSE: A Lockdown Specialist

Ferland Mendy is a LOCKDOWN defender. It’s no exaggeration to say Mendy is one of the best ever 1v1 defenders we’ve seen at his position. The Frenchman has phenomenal speed, agility, awareness and reflexes that allow him to lock down attackers 1v1.

Mendy was a huge part of Zidane’s lockdown defense in the 19/20 season that conceded the fewest goals of any Real Madrid team in La Liga history. He was also amazing in the Champions League win in 2021/22; Madridistas will recall teams primarily found success attacking the gap between Carvajal and Militao on Real Madrid’s right hand side because of Mendy’s positional awareness and 1v1 defensive ability.

Mendy locks down opposing wingers.

Statistically, Mendy’s dominance in tackling is such that.. teams don’t really go at him? Over the last 365 days, he’s only won 1.04 tackles p90, which places him in the 3rd percentile of all full backs.

This is a common phenomenon in top level sports period. The best defenders are often avoided entirely because of the way they break down attacks. Mendy is a brick wall against wingers. He’s steadily completed less tackles over the years, indicative of how players avoid him unless they have a ready-made situational advantage (numerical or spatial) that invites them to dribble, but his success rate against dribblers is more or less the same. Wingers have learned to avoid him.

Mendy’s tackles (against all players, not just dribblers) and challenge success rate against dribblers:

19/20: 1.63 tackles, 62.5% success rate

20/21: 1.11 tackles, 48.8% success rate

21/22: 1.23 tackles, 69.6% success rate

22/23: 1.28 tackles, 65.2% success rate

23/24: 0.93 tackles, 66.7% success rate

Mendy averages about 1 interception per game, around the 50th percentile of all left backs.

His supreme 1v1 skills make him a defensive cornerstone for Madrid, and are the main reason that he is a useful rotation piece even in the event of signing a new left back.

CONSERVATIVE OFFENSIVE PRESENCE

While defensively elite, Mendy is a more restrained attacking fullback. He’s interesting because he is capable of being involved and retaining possession, but despite having the athleticism and IQ to get forward, his technique and vision limit aggressive chance creation.

Mendy’s pass volume and accuracy reflect how he’s deployed more conservatively. During their heyday in the threepeat years, Marcelo and Carvajal averaged over 60 passes per game. Carvajal, more conservative, was in the whereabouts of 84-85% pass accuracy. Marcelo had a license to take risks and often broke down deep blocks, so he was closer to 80% pass accuracy.

Mendy’s passing volume and accuracy reflect his conservative deployment. He consistently attempts and completes fewer passes than Marcelo did during his creative prime. And his accuracy rate typically exceeds even Carvajal’s more cautious distribution.

NOTE: Carvajal has been passing less each of the past 3 seasons, and is down to 52 passes p90 now, but he was at or above 63 passes p90 up till the end of 20/21. He’s always completed ~ a steady 85% of his passes.

Compare that to Mendy:

19/20: 52.4 completions, 85% accuracy

20/21: 53.9 completions, 88.2% accuracy

21/22: 57.6 completions, 90.3% accuracy

22/23: 57.6 completions, 92.9% accuracy

23/24: 59.9 completions, 93.7% accuracy

His development shows increasing involvement and reliable ball retention, and self-awareness of his limitations. But Mendy lacks risk-taking or incisive passing. His technique can still look awkward, with “Zinedine-Mendy” moments of improbably escaping traps.

The numerous situations where the team looks more free-flowing and attacks better with Eduardo Camavinga at left back suggest that Mendy’s conservatism is at least partly a function of his limitations.

Mendy’s progression metrics reflect his conservative role, even when his usage is higher.

Progressive Passing:

19/20: 3.01

20/21: 3.66

21/22: 4.32

22/23: 4.15

23/24: 4.03

Marcelo in 2017/18 (the last season of his physical prime) averaged 10.1 progressive passes. Carvajal used to be closer to 5-6 a few years ago, and has tapered off the last few years.

Receptions, and Progressive Receptions:

19/20: 48.3, 6.46

20/21: 49.9, 5.97

21/22: 51.9, 4.88

22/23: 50.7, 4.47

23/24: 50.6, 5.27

Mendy received the most balls in high and wide situations under Zidane’s more positional, control-oriented system that necessitated the involvement of the full backs. Under Ancelotti, it feels like he hasn’t been asked to take as many high and wide positions, and his progressive receptions have gone down, though he receives the ball just as often.

Marcelo, in comparison, received the ball around 65 times per game in 2017/18, and averaged a whopping 10 progressive receptions. Carvajal averages a comparable or slightly higher number of receptions and more progressive receptions as well most seasons.

In summary, Mendy doesn’t match the best creative left backs with his ball progression. His reception volume is steady but he has not displayed tremendous instincts to attack space in advanced areas, and has often been used more conservatively as a result.

USAGE RATE:

Carvajal averaged 80-90 touches per game for most of his prime, before dropping off the last few seasons under Ancelotti. Marcelo also averaged 80-90 touches per game in his prime and even after his physical prime when he was declining.

Mendy, however, has been closer to 70 touches per game, and takes a lower proportion of his touches in the attacking 3rd than Marcelo and Carvajal.

Mendy Touches p90:

19/20: 72.2

20/21: 70.1

21/22: 73.3

22/23: 68.9

23/24: 71.5

Here’s Mendy’s touchmap contrasted with prime Marcelo’s touchmap for comparison. One can see how it took the team a few years to use Mendy more conservatively in line with his abilities.

Under Zidane, Mendy was still asked to hold similar high positions as Marcelo to maintain the team’s positional structure to control games.

BALL-CARRYING:

Another area where Mendy is shown to be more conservative. Marcelo averaged 50-60 carries even after his prime (closer to 60 in his prime I’d imagine, 57.7 in 2017/18 along with 3.9 progressive carries). Carvajal was closer to 50 at the turn of the decade along with 3 progressive carries, but is down to 40 carries p90 and 1-1.5 progressive carries nowadays.

Mendy Over the Years, p90:

19/20: 43.5 carries, 3.25 progressive carries

20/21: 46 carries, 3.15 progressive carries

21/22: 45.6 carries, 2.88 progressive carries

22/23: 44 carries, 1.6 progressive carries

23/24: 45.4 carries, 1.09 progressive carries

This is also an area where we see the contrast in Zidane and Ancelotti’s usage of Mendy. Zidane had no choice but to involve him within his more control-oriented, positional system. Carlo has de-emphasized Mendy and asked him to cover while Vinicius has increasingly occupied the flanks high and wide.

Mendy’s ball-carrying isn’t terrible. With enough open space, he has the awareness, turn of pace, and technique to attack and keep the ball. But he’s not as good at this as, say, Eduardo Camavinga, or many of the games premier left backs, and having him carry the ball forward too much can compromise the team’s transition defensive structure.

DRIBBLING

The de-emphasizing of Mendy within the Real Madrid offense is also seen in his take-on metrics.

Mendy’s successful take-ons and success rate:

19/20: 2.28, 69.1% success rate

20/21: 1.79, 74.1% success rate

21/22: 1.61, 62.2% success rate

22/23: 1.12, 63.6% success rate

23/24: 0.93, 57.1% success rate

Again, Mendy’s ability to take-on defenders isn’t terrible because he has the technique and speed to beat players in certain situations. The “Zinedine-Mendy” moments exist because he occasionally has insane reflexes to get out of the press.

But he’s hardly some dribbling maestro, and can’t necessarily create in this manner against tough deep blocks, and his reduction in attempts is a reflection of that. Here are Marcelo’s take-on areas for comparison:

HEALTH CONCERNS & CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Ferland Mendy is a phenomenal defensive left back. He has his flaws offensively, but even when he had a larger offensive role under Zidane, was enough to help Real Madrid achieve two solid league finishes in 19/20 and 20/21. He’s then shifted to having a more defensive role under Ancelotti, and helped secure the 21/22 Champions League.

Mendy is a godsend against elite offensive wingers. Beating him is really difficult, and not advisable, to the point where opposition attackers actually avoid him. This is invaluable and quite rare in football, and alone makes him a profile that Real Madrid want to keep.

Even if he’s rotated with a more offensive full back like Fran Garcia or Alphonso Davies, he will have his uses.

The main concern that may tilt the cost-benefit analysis against him is his injury history. He’s steadily gotten more injured since his first season. The trajectory is not promising.

Mendy’s Games Missed Due to Injury per Transfermarkt:

19/20: 6

20/21: 12

21/22: 14

22/23: 23

23/24: 6

Mendy was thought to be hurt again in December against Villarreal, but has recovered from that knock and played solid minutes since January.

Considering his trajectory, his availability till the end of the season may dictate his future at Real Madrid. Regardless, his unique defensive brilliance remains undisputed. Here’s to hoping Mendy can stay fit and continue his Real Madrid dream!

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