As Lewis Dunk sunk dejectedly to his knees, a gleeful Benjamin Mendy reached for his phone.
Brighton and Hove Albion centre-back Dunk had just inadvertently ensured his team’s first Premier League game would end in defeat, nodding Fernandinho’s cross into his own net to cap a 2-0 opening-day win for Manchester City in 2017-18.
Mendy, one of the most eye-catching signings of Pep Guardiola’s lavish pre-season overhaul, was nursing a pre-existing injury and unable to feature, leaving him to hold court on social media.
“Bullet header,” he tweeted, followed by a trio of crying-with-laughter emojis.
Without kicking a ball, Mendy became the story of City’s opening weekend – alternatively hailed and scorned in his replies, while ex-England duo Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard spoke solemnly and with furrowed brows in the BT Sport studio over a “cheap shot”.
— Benjamin Mendy (@benmendy23) August 12, 2017
Fast forward to this weekend, three major trophies into the Guardiola era and with another three still up for grabs in the near future, and Mendy is the joke that many City fans no longer find funny.
Recuperating as his team-mates go to work of a weekend, as he was on that sunlit afternoon in August 2017, has become Mendy’s default due to wretched luck with injuries and two bouts of knee surgery.
But delight over antics such as hobbling on to the field to celebrate Raheem Sterling’s late winner against Southampton last season has gradually turned to frustration.
Mendy was reprimanded by Guardiola for turning up late to training after attending the heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin last September and, although his manager insisted there was no problem, the 24-year-old being filmed in a Manchester nightclub at 3:30am last Saturday morning having not been selected for City’s early kick-off at Fulham was not an ideal look.
Oleksandr ZInchenko once appeared fodder for the City Football Group conveyor belt but the Ukraine international has rejected opportunities to leave and knuckled down impressively to become Guardiola’s first choice at left-back. Fans have warmed to the 22-year-old’s selfless commitment to the cause. In some respects, he has become the anti-Mendy.
Had the converted attacking midfielder not pulled a hamstring against Cardiff City on Wednesday, Mendy’s chances of starting at Wembley would have been slim. But Guardiola will now be tempted to see what a player with obvious star quality can contribute to a crunch period.
On the opening weekend of this season, Mendy bombed relentlessly inside Sterling on the City left, tearing holes in the Arsenal defence and settling up Bernardo Silva’s points-sealing goal. Next up in the 6-1 rout of Huddersfield Town, he operated as an auxiliary left-winger and allowed Guardiola to pack attackers into a side featuring a three-man defence.
In Mendy’s absence, Guardiola has largely reverted to his tried-and-trusted 4-3-3, with occasional exceptions. Results demonstrate the reverting to type has gone very well, but Mendy in full flight – however fleetingly this has been spotted – gives City an extra dimension.
Across just 810 minutes of Premier League action this term, he has five assists. Among players to have played 500 minutes or more, Mendy’s record of an assist every 162 minutes is unmatched. It also means he has created more goals than Ilkay Gundogan and City’s record signing Riyad Mahrez, who have each enjoyed largely uninterrupted campaigns.
Imagine what Mendy might have accomplished had his body allowed him to become an established Premier League regular, a distinction the Brighton player he mocked now unquestionably enjoys.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 15, 2018
Dunk was an ever-present for Chris Hughton’s men last season and has only missed out twice – once through suspension – this time around.
Trying to blunt the teeth of the Shark Team, to borrow Mendy’s moniker for a relentless City attack, will not intimidate the 27-year-old or his centre-back partner Shane Duffy. Dunk has made 87 blocks in the Premier League since August 2017; only Duffy on 88 has more.
Dunk was rewarded with an international debut when England took on the United States last November and, for all the justifiable enthusiasm around Gareth Southgate’s side, centre-back is not position when the Three Lions are amply stocked.
Opportunity knocks for Dunk and impressing on a showpiece Wembley occasion would enhance a hard-earned reputation. Even if the Seagulls slip below the relegation line in May, it is hard to imagine Dunk not plying his trade in the Premier League next season.
The same cannot be said for Mendy, who must make sure he is fully loaded for a shot in what might be his last-chance saloon under Guardiola.
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