Nampalys Mendy: Leicester's latest French gem who could replace Kante
The champagne popped open at Leicester's Premier League title celebrations hadn't gone flat before N'Golo Kante was being linked with a move away from the King Power Stadium in May. Claudio Ranieri has a plan, however, and it involves a player he once labelled “our Makelele”.
The man he was referring to was Nampalys Mendy, a rumoured £12 million arrival for the Foxes. Ranieri worked with the 23-year-old midfielder at Monaco and, while they didn't part on the greatest of terms, the Italian never spoke ill of the Frenchman and it obviously hurt him to say goodbye.
- Born: June 23, 1992
- Place of birth: La Seyne-sur-Mer
- Height: 5ft 6in
- Position: Central midfield
- Current club: Nice (121 apps, 1 goal)
- Former club(s): Monaco
"I don't understand his attitude," Ranieri told L'Equipe at the time. "As soon as I saw him play, I said here is our [Claude] Makelele. I trusted him and I played him. I think he will miss out a great deal. But it's his life, not mine. He has preferred to listen to his brother and agent and not his coach. It's a shame."
The source of Ranieri's disappointment was Mendy's decision to let his contract at Monaco run down after just 32 appearances. In hindsight, the then-20-year-old seems to have known exactly what he was doing.
Monaco’s promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2013 signalled a change in philosophy within the club. Jeremy Toulalan and Joao Moutinho were brought into the midfield and joined the likes of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez in a new-look squad. Mendy, meanwhile, opted to join Nice, and the diminutive enforcer has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Leading by example
After just two seasons he became vice-captain at the Allianz Riviera, with Mathieu Bodmer's frequent injury troubles seeing Mendy promoted to the top position
Nice gave Mendy the platform to grow on the pitch. After just two seasons he became vice-captain at the Allianz Riviera, with Mathieu Bodmer's frequent injury troubles seeing Mendy promoted to the top position – not that he needed an armband to demonstrate his leadership credentials.
"There are two types of leaders," said Sebastien Vitiello, Mendy’s coach at RC Toulon’s U13 and U15 level. "There are those that command their team-mates, who shout and give instructions. Mendy: he doesn’t need to. He’s shy, but he's a leader on the pitch. Just a look or a gesture is enough for others to understand."
Leaving a Champions League-chasing club in Monaco was a risk, but Mendy was joining an upwardly mobile one that, in Claude Puel, had a coach who was eager to rebuild his reputation in charge.
It’s easy to see why Mendy has been compared to Makelele throughout his career. Quick across the ground, he doesn’t rush into tackles but tries to read the game and nip in to make interceptions while remaining on his feet.
He's aggressive without being dirty, tough despite his size (5ft 6in) and technically excellent. He knows his role, knows his team’s tactics and does everything he can to help his side win. There aren't many players in Ligue 1 who can match those qualities, and Mendy has become one of the best defensive midfielders in France over the last couple of years.
He may not be the same energetic, tough-tackling, box-to-box force as Kante; Mendy's game is more controlled and measured, with everything he does done with a sense of tranquillity
Mendy’s reputation has been growing for years. Although he's still only 23 years old, it feels as if he's been around for much longer than he has, which is testament to the maturity with which he plays. Perhaps that's why his Nice team-mates decided to give him the nickname "Papy": while it's short for Nampalys, it also means Grandpa.
Manchester United were linked with the midfielder when he was a free agent back in 2013, while Leicester were reportedly keeping tabs on him before they signed Kante from Caen. If the current France international does indeed move on this summer, Mendy would be the perfect player to step into his shoes. Ranieri's side need the competition in central midfield anyway, though, with a tough Champions League campaign ahead.
Mendy isn't the same energetic, tough-tackling, box-to-box force as Kante – then again, who is? His game is more controlled and measured, with everything he does undertook with a sense of tranquillity.
He does share some of his compatriot's qualities, though, namely his tenacity, lung power and reading of the game. Mendy frequently leaps into action, winning the ball back for his team before moving it on with minimum fuss. While he looks small, his impressive strength means he's rarely bullied out of possession.
Moving to the Premier League would throw up a number of challenges for Mendy. It can take a while for players to adjust to the speed of England's top flight, and he'd also need to improve his composure in the final third.
The young midfielder won't look to take over Ranieri's team, but his influence will be sizeable if subtle. He's recorded only one assist in three seasons at Nice, but he's often been the pass before the pass, sitting deep and pushing the ball forward to team-mates in advanced areas.
He's a player Ranieri knows well; the Italian trusted him in Ligue 2 and wanted him in Ligue 1. Mendy's developed a great deal since then, providing the platform from which the superb Hatem Ben Arfa flourished for Nice last term.
Leicester fans will be understandably dismayed if they lose one-man wrecking machine Kante, but while Mendy doesn't replace everything the 25-year-old brought to the title-winning team last term, his signing would be an excellent place to start in the midfield rebuild.