Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Edouard Mendy: From unemployment to the next Petr Cech, Chelsea's new goalkeeper takes circuitous route to the top

Senegalese stopper has been signed after the continued struggles of Kepa Arrizabalaga - and the two players have experienced vastly different career paths

Edouard Mendy arrives at Chelsea after the best spell of his career for Rennes during the abandoned Ligue 1 season. Reuters
Edouard Mendy arrives at Chelsea after the best spell of his career for Rennes during the abandoned Ligue 1 season. Reuters

At just about the same age that Kepa Arrizabalaga was taking on the burden of the heaviest price-tag ever attached to a goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy was, with a sigh of relief, removing his name from the register of France’s unemployed.

The goalkeeper Chelsea have identified as the solution to their pressing Kepa crisis could hardly have a more different backstory than the man he is earmarked to replace.

Mendy, who said farewell at the weekend to his teammates at Rennes, where his career had soared after some low points in his early 20s, is expected to confirm his move to Stamford Bridge imminently.

Chelsea have a goalkeeping problem, one that was all but openly acknowledged by the manager Frank Lampard after Arrizabalaga’s errors in the two opening games of the Premier League season, the latest costing the second goal in the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool.

But the pursuit of Mendy is not a panicked reaction, a rushed recruitment near the end of a transfer window, to a sudden slump in form by Arrizabalaga, who cost over €80 million (Dh345m) from Athletic Bilbao in 2018.

The Senegal international goalkeeper has been on Chelsea’s radar for well over a year, recommended by Petr Cech, a totem between the posts for Chelsea for 11 seasons and now the club’s Technical and Performance Advisor. Cech, a former Rennes player, is an informed guide to Mendy’s talents and his suitability for English football, while Christophe Lollichon, the Chelsea goalkeeping coach and formerly in the same job at Rennes, has also sung the praises of Mendy.

Shortly after Mendy joined Rennes from Stade de Reims in the summer of 2019, Lollichon told L’Équipe of the six-foot-five Senegalese: “He is the best Rennes have had since Cech. He has all the assets of a modern keeper. He has the height, the agility and he’s extremely proactive. He never hides from aerial challenges, will not panic when he receives the ball under pressure and he commands the space when his defensive line is set high up the pitch.” Lollichon also predicted: “He’s probably made for English football, one day.”

Mendy himself was first told he was bound for England as long ago as 2013. He was 22, and his career had hit a setback. He had been playing for Cherbourg, in the third tier of French football, when the club were demoted for administrative irregularities. He was assured by his representatives that a move to England, probably to the Football League, was likely. It never materialised.

Mendy instead found himself queueing up at the job centre, unemployed. He kept up his football by training at Le Havre, close to his birthplace and to his parents’ home, where he had moved back.

Mendy had no competitive action for a year, a potentially damaging interruption in any career, and especially for a player in his early 20s, a key stage in professional development.

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By way of comparison, the precocious Arrizabalaga was established in the Athletic Bilbao side and had received his first call-up for Spain’s senior squad at the age of 22. Within 18 months he was making his Chelsea debut, having set that record-breaking transfer fee.

Mendy’s climb back up the ladder from his low point began at Olympique Marseille, who took him on, with a basic junior salary, as their fourth-choice keeper in 2014. He played just eight matches for the Marseille reserves that season - none for the first team - but benefited from expert coaching and regained his confidence.

“I really matured there and worked liked crazy,” Mendy told L’Équipe. “My career path, with all the challenges, has made me the goalkeeper I am.”

It was not until Mendy was 26 that he made his first appearance in France’s top division, having won promotion with Stade de Reims, who he joined from Marseille six summers ago.

A brilliant campaign in Ligue 1 earned his transfer to Rennes, for a modest €5m. By the time his debut season there was abandoned in March, because of the pandemic, he was last line of the joint-meanest defence in France’s top tier, and Rennes were on their way to celebrating a first qualification for the Champions League.

His international career was well under way, too, though that has been another slow-burner. Born in France to a father from Guinea-Bissau and a Senegalese mother, he turned out in an unofficial friendly for Guinea-Bissau before committing to Senegal. He went to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations as their first-choice but injury in the group stage kept him out of the rest of a tournament that finished with Senegal as runners-up.

Rennes will miss him, but wish him well. “He’s been a leader in the dressing room,” said Julien Stephan, the Rennes coach, “and a model professional.”

Updated: September 23, 2020 02:19 PM

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