Tottenham Hotspur have made their long-awaited first signing of the summer in Davinson Sanchez. They paid a high amount for a player with only one season in Europe because Sanchez outlined himself as the finest Ajax defensive recruit since Toby Alderweireld.

  • By Chaka Simbeye
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When Mauricio Pochettino was 14-years-old, Marcelo Bielsa made the unorthodox decision to stop by his parents house to look at his legs while he slept before signing him for Newells Old Boys. Pochettino has made up a branch on Bielsa’s coaching tree since but it is another branch which proved pivotal in the development of the Argentine’s latest signing. Juan Carlos Osorio was managing Atletico Nacional when Davinson Sanchez was a struggling defensive midfielder before seeing the then 17-year-old and deciding a positional change to centre-back would be beneficial. The current Mexican National Team coach did not stay long enough to reap the benefits of his decision but his successor Reinaldo Rueda inherited a vital piece of a Copa Libertadores winning side.

“I used to play in the midfield, did not you believe me? It’s really true, so it’s not a matter of training in me,” Sanchez told the Algemeen Dagblad in September last year. “My former trainer Juan Carlos Osorio at Atlético Nacional said one day, ‘Look at your body man. And watch how fast you are. You’ll be a centre-back. That position has a lot more future for you.”

By the age of 19, Sanchez won seven trophies with his club and accrued the second most interceptions in a Copa Libertadores winning campaign as the Colombian could’ve made it nine at 20-years-old if Ajax managed to win the Eredivisie and Europa League last season after drawing it out to the final day in both. He joined Ajax with fellow Colombian Mateo Casierra and managed to win the Ajax’ Player of the Year award after only one season . Last month, when comparing Sanchez and compatriot Yery Mina who has also caught the admiring glances of Barcelona, Sanchez’ former coach Rueda was not short of adjectives to describe the Ajax man.

“Although he is younger than Yerry Mina, Davinson Sánchez is amazing, extraordinary. He demonstrated it with us and now he is doing it internationally,” Rueda exclaimed in an interview at ‘”Maybe the affection part betrays me because I participated in that consolidation, transition and projection of Davinson Sánchez, and because I have also known more intimately his character, his conviction and technical condition.”

Tottenham have struggled to find depth at centre-back with Vlad Chiriches, Federico Fazio and Kevin Wimmer all being bought to back-up Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld to little effect. They will look to a third centre-back from Ajax to facilitate switches in between a back three and back four while also providing youth and depth in the position. Stylistically, Pochettino is obtaining the Bielsa prototype defender which is why the Colombian settled so quickly in Peter Bosz’ high-pressing system at Ajax.

At the beginning of his career in Europe, Ajax fans were caught unaware of his awe-inspiring recovery speed as he charged back to make perfectly timed challenges on Richairo Zivkovic at home to Utrecht, Sheraldo Becker away to ADO Den Haag and against Groningen at home. He settled due to having a Spanish speaking goalkeeper in Andre Onana while Bosz decided to play the experienced Nick Viergever next to Sanchez in order to be the leader of the defence. His distribution also became an integral facet of Ajax’ more direct attacking sequences under Bosz.

In the Eredivisie, teams man-marked the Ajax midfielders and gave the Ajax defenders space to distribute the ball in seemingly safe zones. Sanchez thrived in driving the ball next to the deepest-lying midfielder Schone in the midfield line and threading the ball into Ziyech and Dolberg in pockets through thin passing channels. Against ADO, he played the ball to Dolberg who flicked through for Ziyech to get in behind and score. The young Colombian also possesses the ability to drive the ball as against Celta Vigo, he made a mazy run from the defensive third to the final third.

In those moments, the remnants from his past as a defensive midfielder prove vital as he can be daring with his passes if given the time and space. However, there are some shortcomings in his game as he is much better at attacking set-pieces than he is at defending them. In the early stages of his Ajax career, he lost his markers during set-pieces against Rostov and Celta Vigo which led directly to goals as the trend had been prevalent throughout last season. Sanchez also developed a co-dependence with his right-back Joel Veltman during his time at the club.

To be effective in a high pressing system with a high-line, a centre-back needs to possess a great sense of anticipation and awareness which Sanchez has. He frequently charges forward to make timely challenges on attackers to win back possession but when he charged forward, Veltman would frequently slide into his centre-back position to cover for him. Veltman struggled against the much quicker and more skillful wingers which meant Sanchez had to cover for him in those situations.

In a match at home to Heerenveen last season, Veltman was drawn closer to the touchline by his opposition fullback which isolated Sanchez as Sam Larsson frequently targeted his half-space as the Swede was effective at doing so as Sanchez was unable to cover the space. Sanchez also depended on Schone’s ability to work the ball in tight areas in the deeper midfield area as in the Europa League Quarter-Final 2nd Leg against Schalke, he put in his worst performance of the season as his passing option into Schone was less available.

Although in the Semi-Final against Lyon, he was one of Ajax’ top performers over two legs as he finished the first leg with an 85% pass succession rate and 5 interceptions. Ajax lost 4-1 in the second-leg but he used his great anticipation as a defensive colossus to close down many Lyon counter-attacks and was vital in helping them get over the line after the sending off of Nick Viergever. In the Europa League final against Manchester United, he chased down Jesse Lingard to make a last ditch intervention to little surprise of Ajax fans who had seen him do it in a much tidier fashion throughout the season.

Sanchez scored a goal recently against Nice which was also of little surprise as he scored 6 last season, mostly headers from corners but one strike from range at home to Heracles. He also accrued two assists as he once set up Viergever at home to Heerenveen by heading a Ziyech corner into his path. Ajax fans enjoyed his arm-gyrating celebration dance routines when he scored as he created an essential bond with the fanbase during Ajax’ Eredivisie and Europa League campaigns. Bosz and his coaching staff regularly worked with Sanchez at attacking set-pieces.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Bosz told Ajax’ website last December. “We train with Carlo l’Ami [Ajax’ goalkeeping coach]. A lot of corners and attacking standard situations. In addition, Sánchez is a player who is looking for the ball. It’s not like he’s standing somewhere and waiting for the ball. He’s really moving. ”

Ajax fans believed he was the best defensive recruit since Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld while he could be Pochettino’s most stylistically suitable centre-back recruit since Tottenham enticed the Belgian into snubbing Southampton so he could make the move from Atletico Madrid to White Hart Lane. Barcelona were interested in Sanchez before he joined Ajax as their decision to purchase him for Barcelona B was said to be the telling factor in his decision. They were even rumoured to still be interested in the 21-year-old just months into his career at Ajax.

Bielsa proved integral in the development of Pochettino as a player and a manager while another student of Bielsa was crucial in Sanchez’ fledgling career. Ajax bought him for approximately 5 million euros and were ensured to sell him for a profit after a few weeks of the youngster playing in Europe. Sanchez was molded to play in a ferociously high-pressing system with a high defensive line while former centre-back Pochettino must also work to integrate and develop the youngster who is still at the start of what should prove to be a fine career.

Chaka Simbeye (62 Posts)