Davinson Sanchez: Could he be a future Virgil van Dijk?
In 2017 Davinson Sanchez joined the growing list of central defenders to make the switch from Ajax to Tottenham Hotspur. Following in the footsteps of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, Sanchez joined Spurs for what seemed a huge transfer fee for a 21-year-old of £42 million.
With much talk recently about the transformation that Virgil van Dijk has made to the Liverpool defence, this piece will profile Sanchez and examine whether the young Colombian could prove to be equal value for money in the coming years.
Rarely has a defender had such a transformative effect on a side than Van Dijk has at Liverpool. Top clubs will surely be on the lookout for players of a similar profile who can make a similar impact as the complete Dutchman. Could the Colombian international fit a similar mould?
When Sanchez arrived in North London, he came fresh off the back of an impressive run to the Europa League final with a resurgent Ajax. This followed being named player of the season at the Amsterdam Arena. The consensus at the time from an English media perspective was that Spurs had grossly overpaid for a kid who had one season of top flight experience in a inferior league.
This judgement was probably also clouded by the fact that Jose Mourinho had deliberately targeted him in the 2017 Europa League final. Manchester United left him on the ball to stop Matthijs de Ligt (Sanchez’s defensive partner) from building Ajax attacks. The first opportunity an English audience had got a chance to see what he was all about was him having a somewhat torrid evening in Stockholm.
Spurs however were not deterred and parted way with their cash – not something that they do lightly – and he was soon making his debut for the North Londoners. It soon became apparent that Sanchez was not only a prospect for the future, but a signing for the here and now. He went on to make 31 Premier League appearances for Spurs in 2017/18.
This was an impressive feat for a young central defender being thrust into a team competing for honours on all fronts. Sanchez turned out to be pivotal in a Spurs side that finished third and reached the Champions League last 16.
In the 2017/18 Premier League Tottenham conceded just 9.4 shots a game (Van Dijk’s Liverpool a measly 7.4). Sanchez slotted easily into a tremendous Spurs defensive line, both as a part of a back three and four. His performances minimised the impact of losing Toby Alderweireld for much of the season due to injury and contractual issues.
Stylistically, Tottenham are an aggressive front-foot team who generally like to dominate the ball and play in the opposition half. Central defenders must therefore possess a broad skill set on both sides of the ball for the system to function effectively.
For this reason, defenders at Spurs (like Van Dijk at Liverpool) must be excellent ground defenders, capable of defending large spaces in behind as Spurs are often camped in their opponents half. With full-backs stationed high up the pitch they must also be adept at defending outside the width of the penalty area in full back positions.
They must be excellent in transition and defending counter-attacks where 1v1s at high speed are contested, making recovery runs, and defending low crosses whilst running at pace towards their own goal.
Possession-dominant teams like Spurs are often targeted with long balls and set-pieces. Being able to defend these types of attacks becomes even more important for Spurs’ centre-backs.
They must have good qualities in bringing the ball out of defence. This includes driving into midfield with the ball, playing forward passes that break lines or long diagonal switches. They must also be excellent at receiving the ball close to their own goal, and retaining or progressing the ball.
With Liverpool, Van Dijk was the perfect stylistic fit. Did Spurs get the right player when they signed Sanchez, and will he go on to hit the same heights as he matures and reaches his peak?
Davinson Sanchez absolutely loves defending. He is aggressive, proactive and positively exuberant in the way he goes about his business. Here we can see just some of the situations that Sanchez is faced with on a regular basis.
Here Sanchez demonstrates his proactive and aggressive style of defending, as he steps up on the defensive transition to close down and win the ball back from in the opposition half. There is risk attached to this element of his game. With vast space left behind him, he leaves his position as the last man to win the ball, although he does begin to close down the space before the opponent has turned. A more ruthless team than Swansea may see this as a weakness to be exposed, possibly with up, back and through combinations.
Once again Sanchez finds himself as the last man defending against a transition. Here he shows good anticipation of the counterattack and makes a positive decision to intercept the ball.
His pace coupled with quick decision making means he is an ideal player to leave as the last man, as he can cover an awful lot of ground and does not tend to get caught between two minds. In these situations he is very much drawn towards attacking the ball. Here, he leaves the free player (circled) to go and mop up the counter-attack. This approach requires flawless decision making with no cover in behind.
As mentioned earlier, playing as a centre-back for a dominant team such as Spurs means being comfortable defending outside the width of the penalty area, often isolated 1v1 against opponents. Spurs are superb at preventing counter-attacks, but on the occasions when the opposition play through or over the initial wave of pressure they must be ready to defend large spaces.
Here Sanchez is covering the right back area of the pitch, isolated 1v1 with right-back Serge Aurier still recovering. He does well to force the opponent down the line where he initiates contact and uses his strength to knock him off the ball and win possession back.
As with any young defender, marking and covering mistakes will happen, particularly when faced with the unpredictable and clever movement of experienced elite forwards. In this scenario Sanchez is positioned poorly which allows a through ball to break the last line, despite the compact positioning of Spurs block.
Sanchez is marking his opponent too far on the outside shoulder, which allows him to slip behind him on the blindside. If he marks the opponent ever so slightly on the outside shoulder he can keep him within his eye-line whilst also blocking off the run into the channel.
Fortunately for Sanchez, he is very quick across the ground with excellent acceleration, so in this instance he recovers back in time. In order for him to reach the level of the elite defenders such as van Dijk, developing his initial positioning is imperative. This will of course improve as he develops: he is still a relative newcomer to this level of competition of course.
Statistically speaking, there is a suggestion that there may be work to do in order to elevate his game. It also must be stressed that using statistics to evaluate defenders is notoriously difficult.
Sanchez loves a tackle. In 2017/18 he averaged 2.1 tackles per 90, but he does get beaten a fair amount of the time. Last season he was successful in 62% of his tackles, so it might be a concern to Mauricio Pochettino that he gets beaten a in a third of his attempts.
In contrast, since Van Dijk joined Liverpool he has lost just 1 of his 34 attempted tackles (averaging half as many per 90, which may point to superior initial positioning). This success rate is something that Sanchez may have to improve in order to be considered one of the elite defenders in the game.
Standing at 6″2′, he is tall without being a giant of a defender. The statistics show that Sanchez is actually beaten in the air regularly, which is an area of his game he should look to improve on. This season he has lost more aerial duels than he has won with just 42% successful attempts, and last season this was just over half at 54%.
Contrast this with a dominant Van Dijk, who since joining Liverpool has won over 70% of his duels, and it becomes clear the Colombian needs to up his game in this department. These statistics will no doubt be known to opponents, so he may well be heading for an aerial bombardment in the future.
It is not a novel idea any more that central defenders must be good with the ball in the attacking phases of the game. This is no different for Sanchez at Spurs. Whether as part of a back three or four, Sanchez is tasked to some degree with bringing the ball out from the back and helping Spurs maintain and progress possession.
It is fair to say that alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, he is the least adept ball-player of the three. Just as Mourinho did in the Europa League final, it is not unusual to see teams attempt to funnel Spurs’ play through Sanchez. It is not that Sanchez is bad with the ball – his passing accuracy in the Premier League hovers around the 90% mark – but he does not progress the ball quite as well as his counterparts.
Whereas Jan Vertonghen is excellent at driving with the ball into midfield and playing disguised diagonals into the final third, and Toby Alderweireld can land the ball on a 2p coin from 70 yards away, Sanchez is far more conservative with his choices. He will often opt to play the more obvious pass, often to the right-back or to the nearest showing midfielder. In this regard, he can easily be lulled into pressing traps.
During his time at Spurs, he has shown progression as a player when Spurs are in possession, which bodes well for his future development. He will willingly accept the ball in pressured situations and has some ability to play himself out of pressure using his individual ability.
Below is an example that shows him receiving the ball from the goalkeeper where he goes on to outplay his opponent and set up a dangerous attack. This is something which would be encouraging to see more of in the future.
This example also shows where he could improve, as he receives the ball with a closed body shape, and has no prior knowledge of the space behind him. Because of his back-to-goal body shape, he invites an opponent to press, which he manages to evade by dribbling. Using an open body shape, he could have received the ball with more comfort than he actually did.
He has expanded his repertoire in his passing by increasingly looking to play more penetrating forward passes that break lines of pressure. He does however have the tendency to telegraph these passes which can be intercepted easily. It is not uncommon for Spurs’ advanced midfielders to show for the ball in the half-space, but Sanchez’s passes are often easily intercepted in these areas.
Davinson Sanchez is clearly a very talented young centre-back. He has put in excellent performances throughout his career earning himself a move to a Champions League side in Spurs. In this time, Spurs have maintained an excellent defensive record with him a regular in the team. Although there have been a few wobbles this season, they are probably more indicative of a central midfield issue than his own failings.
The question however is what is his ceiling? At just 22 years of age, he has a few more years of development ahead of him to fully realise his potential, and in Mauricio Pochettino has a coach who has consistently shown himself to be an elite developer of talent. He is still raw and needs to work at elements of his game if he is to push himself to be one of the leading centre-backs in the game.
Defensively he needs to tighten the screw on the ground and in the air. He will need to win more of the tackles he attempts, or improve his initial positioning so that tackles become less necessary. He will also rapidly need to improve his play in the air.
With his proactive and aggressive approach to defending, he will also need to improve his decision making from very good to almost impeccable to challenge the worlds top defenders. His approach can be ruthlessly exposed by better players if he does not make more consistently good decisions.
We also will need to see evidence of him becoming a leader in the Spurs defensive line, similar to Van Dijk at Anfield. This is something that will take time, particularly working alongside Vertonghen and Alderweireld who take on leadership responsibilities. It may be interesting to watch him in the early stages of cup competitions alongside more inexperienced defenders to understand how he fares in this capacity. One thing that is noticeable is that he does seem to respond to setbacks exceptionally well, and doesn’t let mistakes get to him.
On the ball, he will likely need to see a big development in his game to be seen as one of the best. He is certainly competent, but he will need to move the dial a pretty long way to be up there with the best in the business. This will likely be towards a ball-carrying centre-back who drives into midfield with the ball and attracts players towards him before finding a free player.
It is unlikely we will see him develop into a elite passer of the ball, playing long diagonals or regular line breaking ground passes into the final third from the back, as there has been little evidence of this yet in his career.
It is probably fair to say that Sanchez, whilst already a very competent central defender who can play a bit, may not reach the levels of players like Van Dijk. It will be an exceptional leap for him in his game, defensively and offensively, to turn himself into a player of equal value to that of Van Dijk. Whilst we can expect his game to develop as he reaches his peak years, one would suspect that Sanchez’s ceiling is probably of an excellent, but not world-class centre-back.
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