'Man City are the big shark - when teams swim with us we gobble them up' - Benjamin Mendy
Picture the scene: Monaco have been crowned French champions for the first time in 17 years and Benjamin Mendy, Kylian Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva and the club’s other coveted rising stars are sat around a table together, eating, reflecting on a remarkable season and playing a game probably best described as “Where are you going?”.
“We started to have this game where we’d be asking each other, ‘So where are you going then?’” Mendy explains, grinning at the recollection. “And everyone would lie. Some would say, ‘Oh, I’m going to Chelsea me’, others would go, ‘No, no, I’m off to Paris St-Germain’. Everyone was making up these stories. But when the calls came in and we all did go off to sign for other clubs, we’d agreed beforehand that we’d send each other Whatsapp pictures of ourselves at the point of signing, with the shirt aloft.
“Bernardo ended up being the first one. The rest of us were on holiday when we suddenly got this round robin photo from him signing for Manchester City, which was a surprise because he was the only one who had never said where he was going or what his plans were! And then he knocked us all over with that picture – ‘I’ve done it, here I am’. After that it was like dominos falling.”
Mendy would have to wait a while longer to get his own move to City as negotiations dragged on before Monaco eventually released the France left back for £52 million, a world record fee for a defender, in the final week of July. But most would agree he has been well worth the wait. Mendy’s City adventure is only two months old and yet he has already achieved cult status among supporters revelling in the emergence of a genuine star on and off the pitch.
A plentiful stream of side-splitting posts on Twitter and Instagram have turned him into a social media sensation and the only thing more razor sharp than the 23-year-old’s wit are those persistent raids down City’s left side that, combined with Kyle Walker’s presence on the opposite flank, have revolutionised the club’s playing style under Pep Guardiola this season and catapulted them to the top of the Premier League. Bottom club Crystal Palace are the visitors to the Etihad Stadium this Saturday afternoon and you really have to fear for Roy Hodgson’s team.
And yet Mendy, leaning in for dramatic effect and deliberately slowing his words, has something he wants to tell the City faithful. “I would like to pass a message on to the supporters – you ain’t seen nothing yet!” he says. On the field - and off.
Mendy is the ultimate dressing room prankster and Walker, for one, had better watch out. “Every time I get in my car I sit and sift through pictures and I saw that one of Kyle looking like he’d been taken down by a sniper against Liverpool,” Mendy says.
“So I stuck it on Twitter but then Kyle got me back. I got nutmegged against Feyenoord in the Champions League so he put a picture of that out and told me, ‘There you go. 1-1. Right back at you’.” So will you have reclaimed the lead soon enough? “Yeah, but, ssshhh, don’t tell him!”
At the moment, though, Mendy is preoccupied with playfully lobbying EA Sports for a improved rating on their popular Fifa video game. He jokingly pondered whether the game’s creators had actually watched any of Monaco’s matches on television last season when they settled on a modest rating of 78 out of 100.
“Maybe I’m 82, 83 now,” he says, laughing, although he is equally twitched by his resemblance to a former England striker on the latest version of the game. “Some friends called me up and said, ‘Look at the face you’re pulling, you look like Emile Heskey!’” he said.
Mendy’s mischievous sense of humour did get him into a spot of bother when former England players Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard accused him of disrespecting Lewis Dunk after he had light-heartedly described the Brighton player’s own goal against City as a “bullet header”, complete with crying and laughing emojis.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have tweeted it there and then,” he says. “But that’s the way I am, I like to share things automatically. Maybe the sarcasm was too much. It wasn’t meant to be said with any bad intent at all and I was pulled up on it.”
Spend an hour in the company of this charming, larger than life character and it is immediately apparent that he is a natural showman but one with his heart very much in the right place.
Who could forget his decision to impose an image of the worker bee on his bag as he prepared to fly to Manchester to sign for City, a thoughtful show of support for the victims of the city’s terror attack in May. “I got that bag a few days before,” he said. “I knew the worker bee was the symbol of Manchester and thought it would send a message of solidarity to the people who were suffering.”
You get a glimpse of Mendy’s infectiously impish ways when he beckons this interviewer and the translator to come closer so we can take a peek at that day’s antics in the City canteen and reveals a video of himself posing as a Spanish speaking waiter serving up lunch for City’s Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi. “Chicken, rice, lemon, there you go Sir ... bon appetit”.
There was a time, though, when Mendy did not know when to stop larking around and when to get serious. He joined Le Havre from his local Parisian side, Palaiseau, at 13 but was told bluntly he would not last long if he did not wise up.
“I was always messing around,” Mendy said. “In my first season at Le Havre they said, ‘Sort it out or you’re on your bike’. It was a big wake up call.”
It was under Leonardo Jardim at Monaco last season that Mendy rose to prominence but he credits his former Marseille coach, Marcelo Bielsa, one of football’s great obsessives, with changing his state of mind, even if it did take a while and some curious beginnings for the message to get through.
“I would have breakfast and then turn up on instruction to this blacked out room and there’d be no one there,” Mendy recalled. “There would just be a video running for an hour or so. So I’d sit on the back row and go to sleep and he allowed me to do that for a long time.
"After a while I thought, ‘This is a bit strange’ so eventually I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’ll watch the video.’ So I did it once, then the second time thought, ‘Yeah ok’. The third time I’m interested and by the fourth time it was me there, knocking on the door saying, ‘Can I watch more videos?’
“Guardiola is from the same school as Bielsa, they’re cut from the same cloth. This transition from the world of Bielsa to the world of Guardiola for me is a great thing. Guardiola is one of those people who only talks about football - you say obsession, I say it’s love.”
Mendy admits he made it a mission to win over Guardiola when Monaco were paired with City in the Champions League Round of 16 in February. “After the game at the Etihad I was in anti-doping control with Kevin De Bruyne and had the opportunity then to ask him lots of questions,” Mendy revealed. “I knew at that point it was going to be my destination. And yes, Kevin asked me straight – ‘When are you coming to join us?’ And I said, ‘As soon as they come and ask for me!’”
Mendy likes to refer to City as #sharkteam on Twitter. “We’re the big shark and when teams swim up alongside us we gobble them up,” he says, but for all the focus on the club’s glittering attacking talent, from Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, to Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, the two Silvas, David and Bernardo, and De Bruyne, no one should underestimate Mendy and Walker’s importance to it all. Mendy has already made more crosses (27) in three league games than either Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov, City’s left backs last season, managed in the entirety of the previous campaign.
“The thing is, I have no limits to the energy I can give,” he said. “Even if it’s the 97th minute, I’m going to be there, running down the sides, getting that last cross in. If we are serious, with a team like this, there are no limits really.”
The spirit and camaraderie in the camp is strong, but while Mendy more than plays his part in that, he reserves special mention for Sergio Aguero. “Kun Aguero, he is a hero within the team, there’s respect for everyone, but he’s truly respected by all the players, irrespective of age,” Mendy said. “Look at the 6-0 win against Watford - we won a penalty and everyone knows Sergio takes our penalties but he said, ‘No, let Raheem take it’. Kun doesn’t just want to be the star himself. He wants all the players to shine, everyone to be brilliant.”