If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). In the hopefully regular ‘One man, One game’ feature, I do just that.
We should start by dispelling a myth. Two myths, even. The first is what Jose Mourinho actually thinks of Davinson Sanchez’s ball-playing ability, which has been slightly overblown. The quote on the matter, as translated from the Tribuna Expresso, read “We let them go out to play, but blocking the right center, De Ligt, and letting the ball go to the left, Sanchez, who had more difficulties”.
I don’t read that quite the same as United targeting Sanchez as a specific weak point in the side, rather that United could limit Ajax’s build-up to an extent and that the better player to limit was De Ligt. Sanchez did indeed have difficulties, which is not exactly the same as that he has difficulties. (I’m also slightly suspicious about a manager talking through their tactical plans after the game has been won – it’s easy to spin things, whether by manager or by press, as genius decisions in hindsight of victory).
It’s also so misleading it should be expecting a visit from the Advertising Standards Agency.
Ajax’s midfield was horrifically static throughout the match, and there was a similar lack of options open to both De Ligt and Sanchez when they got on the ball. While United did block off the Sanchez-to-De Ligt passing lane fairly often, it was not particularly vigorously prowled. If anything, Ajax seemed fairly happy to ‘play into Mourinho’s trap’, as I’m sure he would frame it.
Here are their respective pass maps. Notice just how many of De Ligt’s passes were square to an area where Sanchez would be (and indeed was) standing.
Here’s how the situation would go. The ball would be with De Ligt. He would look up, see nothing particular on, and pass sideways to Sanchez. Maybe he wouldn’t even look up, and just give it to the slightly older player. Sanchez would see the same lack of options, but move forwards with the ball and try to pass it on in midfield.
Here, Rashford is initially blocking the passing lane to De Ligt, though the two centre-backs can get around it if they want to. De Ligt passes immediately back to Sanchez, with no pressure on him (and Rashford isn’t overeager in rushing to close the passing lane again). Sanchez then has to pick a different pass option for himself.
But yes, as Mourinho said, Sanchez did have some difficulties. Several of his passes were loose in execution and several more were poor choices; a couple more were good choices but telegraphed and intercepted. He also seemed pretty hesitant to make a pass with a degree of risk, and that hesitation generally meant that the window for said pass closed by the time he had decided he wanted to play it.
For the most part, he had very little to work with in front of him, though (a problem which often occurs when centre-backs advance with the ball, and I advise you to read this Twitter thread on the matter, although it was exacerbated by Ajax playing badly).
Sanchez also struggled to play himself out of pressure by Rashford in one instance and Fellaini in another, and it’s clear that while he is generally competent technically he isn’t a ball-player. But neither is he bad. Some passes were genuinely nice, and by actually stepping up and driving forward with the ball he offered more in build-up than De Ligt did.
United didn’t offer huge amounts in attack which would test Sanchez’s positioning or awareness. He was generally fine, which (in a one game sample) is a good thing through the benefit of not being a red flag.
However, there was one moment which could be said to be a test of awareness, and Sanchez failed badly. Having mucked up a chest back to his keeper he dithered between shielding and clearing it, oblivious to Rashford’s approach behind him. In the end, he completely lucked into remaining with the ball, Rashford’s attempted tackle bobbling fortunately away from goal.
I’m inclined to say that, yes, this was a dodgy moment, but that it may have been a bit of a one-off that isn’t representative of his general awareness. It’s different to a man ghosting in behind because he has blinkers on, and it may be more useful as evidence of Sanchez’s trouble with decision-making.
As dissatisfying as it is to say this, judging his positioning from this game yields no more than a general vibe. He seemed broadly fine; if he was off, it was by small margins. If he was out of position by bigger margins, it was due to a conscious decision (he stuck tight to a United forward when a knock-down to Lingard would spring a dangerous break – the smart thing to do would have been to have backed off the forward as they went up for the ball and be ready to close down and chase Lingard). Or, alternatively, it was because he had a tendency in the game to stand still; not playing to the whistle in the first half, not getting back into position after driving upfield at other times.
While these are his faults, he also demonstrated skills. He was a strong header of the ball (although occasionally his choice of direction was not ideal). He is clearly fast, which is always nice, and he put in a couple of well-timed tackles, a feature which I’m inclined to believe is a genuine part of his game.
With his move to Tottenham now confirmed and in my mind, I imagine that Pochettino will bash the ball-watching out of him, and Spurs’ system is generally a kind one to centre-backs. If there are any deficiencies in his awareness or positioning – and my jury is still out on that one, though swinging towards ‘flawed’, based on the game – then the system should broadly help to cover them. The better movement of Tottenham’s midfield should also offer him better options on the ball, and help make him feel more comfortable in picking them out.
Spurs like to push their back-line up, so Sanchez’s speed could be handy if some opponent manages to get in behind the defence – I’m not sure how fast Alderweireld and Vertonghen are, but I don’t get the vibe that they’re exactly speedsters. I think it’s clear too that Pochettino likes a certain physicality in his side and as well as Sanchez’s presence in the air he gave both Lingard and Pogba nice little (legal, just) nudges as they were about to shoot. I like that in a CB, and I imagine it fits with the snipyness which is already at Spurs.
I’ve got to say that those last two paragraphs are attempts to talk myself into the £42m fee that Spurs are rumoured to be paying for him. Sanchez is young, 21, and even based on this one match had clear ability in terms of tackling, aerials, some confidence on the ball, general physicality, and probably positioning at a decent level too.
But he also showed consistent problems in decision-making, as well as worries about the finer details of positioning, awareness, and technical execution. £42m is not a price a team pays for someone to sit on the bench, and at 21 he has potential and resale value. But £42m’s worth? If we’re counting on inflation to carry on, then I guess so, but for footballing reasons I’m not sure I’d be too sure.
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