Jamie Carragher, in one of many back and forths with Gary Neville, once said, “Nobody wants to grow up and become a Gary Neville.” Of course, he was talking about how the role of a Fullback was a thankless task. There have been numerous such quips said about fullbacks. “A fullback is nothing but a failed winger” is another one.
However, in modern football, the role of a fullback has been turned on its head. Once regarded as a utility position for technically limited players, the position has blossomed into something else entirely.
Liverpool fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are the creative fulcrums of the side. Joshua Kimmich has been a chance-creating machine for club and country from the Right-Back position. The role has become as focused on attacking as it used to be on defending. It could be argued that the attacking side almost outweighs the defensive.
This has led to a revolution of sorts for the fullback position. At the forefront of that revolution is PSG’s 19-year-old dynamic Left-Back, Nuno Mendes.
PLAYING CAREER SO FAR
Nuno Mendes comes from a famed line of Sporting Lisbon youth academy exports. The Portuguese titans have always been at the frontline when it comes to giving a chance to the youth. Of course, the jewel in their crown remains Cristiano Ronaldo, but players like Luis Figo, Ricardo Quaresma, Nani and many more point to the elite quality of their academy.
This propensity of Sporting Lisbon giving a chance to youngsters led to the rapid rise of Nuno Mendes.
Mendes appeared in nine games in the 2019-20 season, mostly providing backup to the more experienced Marcos Acuna. Following the departure of Acuna to Sevilla in the summer of 2020, the club decided to promote Nuno Mendes to the first-choice role instead of looking outside for options. Mendes, aged only 18 at the time, took this opportunity with both hands and ran away with it. He hasn’t looked back since in a career that has gone from strength to strength at a pace as rapid as Nuno Mendes plays that game at.
Mendes played 29 games for the club in the 2020-21 season as they stormed to the title in breathtaking fashion, going nearly the whole season unbeaten. Consistently eye-catching performances from mostly the wing-back position led to a soaring stock of Mendes.
Nuno Mendes 2020/21:
🦁35 games for Sporting CP
🏆Taça da Liga
⭐️Primeira Liga Team of the Season
✍️contract extension with a buyout clause of 70M€
🇵🇹senior international debut
✅Euro 2020 call up
He made his professional debut one year ago. What a talent! pic.twitter.com/vURDEcIURR
— Football Talent Scout – Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) June 9, 2021
He was called up by Portugal U21s shortly after his debut. True to form, his ascent in the international set-up mirrored his domestic rise. He was a full international for the senior team just six months after debuting for the U21s, completing the full game against Azerbaijan in the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers. Now primed to take over the starting LB spot at a stacked Paris Saint Germain side, Nuno Mendes’ rise knows no bounds.
The first-choice option for club and country at just 18-years-old, to say that Mendes has had a blistering start to his career would be an understatement.
Nuno Mendes mostly appeared as a left-sided wing-back in manager Ruben Amorim’s aggressive, pressing oriented 5-2-3 formation. This meant that Mendes’ remit was to be an attacking outlet out wide on the left as he had three CBs covering for him at the back. This role suited his forward-thinking game which is reflected in the stats too.
Mendes averaged 1.2 key passes/90, an appreciable figure for a wing-back. The majority of his key passes were long balls which points to two things- he is an able crosser of the ball, in the mould of Alexander-Arnold, and he could do more with involving himself in the buildup to get the short pass rate upwards.
In the 2020-21 season, he averaged a shade over 40 passes/90. This is a result of this more chance-creation oriented game but could be worked upon by a coach who prefers a patient buildup.
Mendes had just two goal contributions in the season gone by: a goal and assist each. However, the end product is something that can be worked upon as he is still at the start of his career, having not made even 50 senior appearances. Moreover, his role in the Sporting system asks him to prioritise ball progression instead of being the one to be at the end of that attack. Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching has proved to be a boon in this regard. The Argentine manager is known for having swashbuckling fullbacks full of athleticism. Players like Danny Rose at Spurs had the best spells of their careers under Pochettino. With Mendes’ potential, PSG fans could be in for a fun ride.
On the defensive side, Mendes would probably benefit from having more games under his belt. He has impressed defensively mainly due to his athletic gifts so far in his career. He has a breakneck recovery speed and is proficient in aerial duels. These factors help him get out of sticky situations. He has a less-than-ideal tackle success rate of 69% and an aerial success rate of about 50%. However, the starting signs of anticipation and positional know-how can already be seen in his game. With some tactical coaching and further games under his belt, he has the attributes to be a complete modern full-back. Till then, he joins a perfect team in PSG that will allow him more freedom in attack than defence. He might not be trusted to play the bigger games upon joining.
WHAT THE STATS DON’T TELL
Nuno Mendes is the ideal example of a player about whom the stats don’t tell the whole story. Figures like 69% tackle success, one goal and one assist in 29 league matches mask the impact that he has on his side from game to game.
From the eye test, it becomes clear that Nuno Mendes’ footballing brain already belies his tender age. Be it moving forward with the ball or sniffing out counter-attacks before they happen, Mendes has an acute idea of spaces on the football pitch. His footballing education at Sporting started at the age of ten, as an attacking midfielder. This has helped him know about the nitty-gritty of space and time in football.
He has a knack for taking his time on the ball and releasing it at the opportune moment, also known as ‘pausa’, wherein his patience can open up spaces in the opposition defence. Furthermore, his ability to find the open man regardless of the pressure he is under is immeasurable through data. Instant switch of play with a crossfield pass has already become a speciality of his. Another particularly interesting facet of his game is his ability to create dangerous situations from throw-ins. He has a bullet throw in him and that is often effectively utilised by Sporting to get out of sticky situations.
WHAT MAKES HIM SPECIAL
He has shown the ability to raise his game to the level he is playing at. Becoming a full-time international after barely 30 senior appearances doesn’t happen without being strong-willed and determined. He has taken every career step without looking overawed at his surroundings, indicating a steeliness to his personality.
✨ ɪᴛ’s ᴀ ᴋɪɴᴅ ᴏғ ᴍᴀɢɪᴄ ✨
@nunomendes_35 | #MadeInSporting pic.twitter.com/otsiOopeNw
— Sporting CP English (@SportingCP_en) September 1, 2020
Being selected for the EURO 2020 squad already shows how much his coaches and teammates believe in his ability. His senior from the Sporting academy, Cristiano Ronaldo, is the personification of a driven mentality and Nuno Mendes has shown a similar proclivity towards constantly improving his game.
The move to PSG is the just reward for the progress he has shown so far in his career. If his career is anything to go by, he will raise his standard of play to match the players around him. On current ability, PSG might just have the highest standard of playing squad in all of football.
While Mendes has barely played one full season of senior professional football, the ability he has shown made it highly unlikely that he remained a Sporting Lisbon player much longer. Elite clubs like Manchester City and Real Madrid had already registered a concrete interest in him. Although he signed a new contract at Sporting in December, his irresistible physical gifts and boundless ceiling has ensured that PSG made a move to sign him.
Their manager Mauricio Pochettino has already been instrumental in the rise of two great fullbacks in Kyle Walker and Danny Rose so a move there is a good next step for Nuno Mendes. Moreover, PSG are guaranteed to improve their squad even further as they look for the elusive UCL title. Playing with elites will accelerate Nuno Mendes’ development.
If Mendes’ career so far is an indicator, if he sees an opportunity to be had, he’ll run away with it for sure. While his signing at PSG might go under the radar due to other big names, his capture could turn out to be the biggest steal in the coming years when he is marshalling the PSG defence as their leader in a few years’ time.