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Benjamin Mendy

There was a noticeable absentee as Manchester City’s players bounced down the steps of their parade bus around the back of the town hall on May 20. The adorning thousands lining the streets of Deansgate were missing one of their favourites.

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Benjamin Mendy, once the most expensive full back in history, was elsewhere. In Barcelona, more specifically, undergoing an arthroscopy to fight the constant meniscus problem in his knee. 

The left back had started just one Premier League game since November and merely watched on as City thrillingly held off Liverpool’s sustained challenge. 

Benjamin Mendy's time in and out of the Man City team summed up Pep Guardiola's problems

Benjamin Mendy’s time in and out of the Man City team summed up Pep Guardiola’s problems

Mendy’s battles have summed up Pep Guardiola’s constant quandary in the full back positions, an area his game plans rely upon so heavily. They have had to get creative, filing down square pegs to fit their round holes. Mendy has barely played, while on the other side Kyle Walker lacked the sort of competition that could elevate his game further until Joao Cancelo’s summer arrival from Juventus.

City go to Anfield with questions to answer, different riddles to solve – particularly on the left. Cancelo can play on the left, Mendy seems ready on the surface but lacks consistent starts. Aymeric Laporte has played there against Liverpool but is out for a while yet.

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Liverpool’s attitude to those areas, deemed equally as important for both teams, is sticking with the two undroppable forces of nature, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. City, meanwhile, have been inventive through necessity.

It has brought surprising results over the last three years and involves no fewer than 16 players operating in the two positions. After winger Jesus Navas had filled in on the right, Guardiola shocked his coaching staff when turning Fabian Delph into a defender, one who was integral during the record-breaking Centurions campaign.

Delph’s form dipped significantly last year and his time was eventually up after a calamitous display in defeat at Leicester, at least partially at fault for both goals and then sent off. Prior to that, though, he had served his purpose, acting as an able stopgap.

His replacement, Oleksandr Zinchenko, was told in the summer of 2018 that he was free to leave amid interest, and the offer of a significantly improved salary, from Wolves. He refused and within months became the club’s premier left back, earning a new contract that increased his wages at least five-fold. That City are distressed by Zinchenko’s knee injury in some way encapsulates the winding road Guardiola has been on in a position he reveres.

At Bayern Munich he inverted the full backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba. Before that, at Barcelona, he utilised the touchline energy of Alves, who would jilt Guardiola in 2017 when it looked certain he would sign for City. 

In his three years at City Guardiola has spent £200m on full backs but it's not always worked

In his three years at City Guardiola has spent £200m on full backs but it's not always worked

In his three years at City Guardiola has spent £200m on full backs but it’s not always worked

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Although not exclusively, and often reserved for games in which they enjoy complete domination, Guardiola asks his full backs to move into central midfield when possession is on the other flank. In other high-profile matches, like tomorrow, they generally hold their position and act more traditionally.

Mendy was an essential ingredient to his plan in England – someone who could maraud down the left and allow Raheem Sterling to move inside – but injuries have curtailed him so far. 

Last season, and for the first time in his career, physical setbacks were having a troubling mental effect on Mendy, someone so jovial and carefree. Mendy forever appeared on the cusp of a comeback but would frequently train all week without pain before problematic swelling would scupper him at the last minute.

The issue was so severe that bending his left knee became almost impossible. That was the case in April when, in his frustration at fitness thwarting him again before a trip to Fulham, Mendy was spotted clubbing and then publicly rebuked by his manager.

Guardiola often references that City have acted ‘without a left back for two years’. Given how much emphasis he places on full backs, it does make their triumphs all the more striking.

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To date, Mendy has still only started 17 league games in two-and-a-half years since his £52million move from Monaco. He is yet to lose any of his 31 appearances for the club in all competitions. City have nursed him back after a summer spent rehabilitating rather than holidaying and there is hope the 25-year-old has turned a corner. 

At one stage, Guardiola surprised his staff by turning Fabian Delph into a makeshift wing back

At one stage, Guardiola surprised his staff by turning Fabian Delph into a makeshift wing back

At one stage, Guardiola surprised his staff by turning Fabian Delph into a makeshift wing back

Although a regular forfeiter for minor training ground indiscretions – largely timekeeping – he is trying to make a fist of this opportunity. That, among other financial reasons, is why City turned away from a deal to sign Ben Chilwell from Leicester earlier in the year. Angelino re-joined from PSV Eindhoven as third choice instead. They are still keeping an eye on the transfer market.

Despite spending £200m on full backs in Guardiola’s time at the Etihad Stadium – definitely required, given the ageing set they had in his first season – the situation is far from perfect. It has really stretched his managerial capabilities, resourcefully plugging gaps for months on end without anyone really noticing.

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He has big calls to make at Anfield against an opposition he seems to have tried every conceivable combination possible against since pitching up here in 2016. It is a fixture that can bring out the best and worst in him.

Cancelo overtook Mendy as the game’s most expensive defender last summer, joining for £60m from Juventus. Danilo, viewed in hindsight as a disastrous signing, went the other way for £34m. That looks smart business.

Danilo just did not work out. They had backed off signing Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand in 2017 because the Brazilian was seen as more versatile, capable of covering both Mendy and Walker. His debut, as a left wing-back away at Brighton, indicated he barely used his left leg for standing, let alone anything else. 

On Sunday, Guardiola will face a Liverpool side who boast two of the league's best full backs

On Sunday, Guardiola will face a Liverpool side who boast two of the league's best full backs

On Sunday, Guardiola will face a Liverpool side who boast two of the league’s best full backs

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Danilo form and fitness were inconsistent, barely providing Walker – an emergency goalkeeper during the draw at Atalanta on Wednesday – with the sort of rivalry Guardiola knows he craves. Sources put Walker’s significant dip in form last Christmas down to a lack of rotation and fatigue that, ironically, saw him lose his place to Danilo for the crucial 2-1 victory over Liverpool last January.

Cancelo, whose personal story is pierced by tragedy after the death of his mother in a car accident when he was only 18, poses a different challenge. A polished right back who flourishes going forward, he will fight Walker for that spot. Some believe he will eventually usurp the 29-year-old, although Walker’s defensive attributes are stronger.

Walker, interestingly, has generally been allowed not to heed Guardiola’s tactical messages because of his endurance, physicality and explosive pace. Walker is best when raiding, as he did when scoring the winner against Southampton last weekend. 

Coaches are still paying particular attention to improving his distribution, however, pointing towards a pursuit of perfection for a player who has been so important in lifting consecutive league titles. Winning a third, a feat not achieved since 2001, would owe much to Guardiola’s management of the full backs.