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Scout Report

Scout Report: Davinson Sanchez | Ajax’s Polished Defender

Steven Davies writes a detailed scout report about Davinson Sanchez, Ajax’s polished defender.

Following the departure of Ajax coach, Frank de Boer at the end of the ultimately disappointing 2015-16 campaign and the subsequent appointment of Peter Bosz as his successor on 25th May 2016, sweeping changes were made in many areas of the club including how talent was identified and where the search for that talent was to be concentrated.

The de Boer era and by extension Johan Cruyff’s so called ‘Velvet Revolution’ had seen the club return to its roots – refocusing its energies into developing the best young talent from across the continent via the club’s acclaimed academy – De Toekomst, after the dawning of the 21st Century had seen the four-time European champions fail to keep pace with cashed-up clubs from the likes of Spain, Italy, Germany and England.

Yet, despite delivering four successive Eredivisie titles between 2011 and 2014, de Boer’s side would consistently fail to progress to the latter stages of European competition, while the fact that the club were powerless to prevent their best and brightest from leaving the club on an annual basis made the job of Ajax’s ambitious young coach doubly difficult as de Boer continuously had to rebuild his side every summer. This in turn often resulted in early exits from European competition when participation in the qualifying rounds were required.

A case in point being the sale of Christian Eriksen, whose departure for Tottenham Hotspur on 30th August 2013 at the age of just 21 – the young Dane having only made his first team debut against NAC Breda three years earlier on 17th January 2010, ultimately proved the undoing of Cruyff’s masterplan as the modern game triumphed over the idyllic vision of one of football’s true legends.

Fast forward two barren years back in the shadow of Dutch football’s 21st Century powerhouse – PSV Eindhoven, and both de Boer and the ideas of Cruyff are a thing of the past with the club boldly pressing on in a new direction with Peter Bosz at the helm.

In a season that began with Bosz fielding much the same side that had choked on the final day of the 2015-16 campaign – only managing a draw at the eventually relegated De Graafschap, allowing Phillip Cocu’s men to claim their second title in as many years, the new coach quickly set about dispensing with many of the talented yet precocious generation of players de Boer had promoted to the first team over the past eighteen months – despite the likes of Anwar El Ghazi, Riechedly Bazoer and Mitchell Dijks being considered some of the brightest talents in Dutch football, following a horrendous start to his reign in Amsterdam that saw many calling for his head as the club won just twice in their opening seven games – a wretched run of form which not only included an embarrassing home defeat to lowly Willem II on 20th August but also a thrashing at the hands of FC Rostov in the 2nd leg of their UEFA Champions League playoff with the little-known Russians four days later.

Another player to face the chop was Dutch international, Jairo Riedewald. His customary berth at centre half was initially taken by the good form of the previously underappreciated, Nick Viergever prior to the emergence of 17-year-old defensive phenomenon, Matthijs de Ligt later in the campaign, as well as a 20-year-old new arrival from Caloto in Colombia – Davinson Sanchez, in whom Bosz would place an immense amount of faith and instil into his rapidly evolving side from the word go.

The summer captures of both Sanchez and compatriot, Mateo Cassierra  coupled with the subsequent signing of Brazilian wonder kid, David Neres the following January from Sao Paulo – which saw the club break the league transfer record for a fee paid for a foreign player, by shelling out a reported €12 million on the then 19-year-old starlet, would mark a shift in the club’s talent identification process. Ajax looked away from their more traditional hunting grounds of Europe and Africa and instead focused their attention on the brightest young stars South America had to offer.

Who is Davinson Sanchez?

Born on 12th June 1996, Davinson Sanchez Mina began his footballing education at America de Cali before later switching to Atletico Nacional where he was handed his senior bow at the age of just 17 by coach, Juan Carlos Osorio on 27th October 2013 in a loss to Boyaca Chico.

Despite his tender age, Sanchez would not only go on to rack up nearly half a century of appearances in the colours of Nacional between 2013 and 2016 but would also represent his country at both U-17 and U-20 level before being called up to José Pékerman’s senior squad in February 2016. He made the switch to Amsterdam later in the year – opting to join Ajax over the likes of Barcelona due to a desire to continue to play first team football, after which he would make his full international bow in a 3-0 defeat in Argentina in a World Cup qualifier on 16th November.

Talent Radar Accolades

With a €5 million fee having been agreed between the two clubs, the talented young Colombian then signed off in style by lifting the 2016 Copa Libertadores as Nacional overcame Ecuadorian outfit, Independiente del Valle before linking up with the Amsterdam giants on a five year deal in June 2016.

Despite making a shaky start at the heart of Ajax’s new-look rear guard as the side squandered a 2-1 lead late on against Roda JC at the Amsterdam ArenA on 13th August 2016, the faith new Ajax coach, Peter Bosz would place in his Colombian recruit would ultimately reap dividends. The side – having overcome their early season growing pains, would then embark on a twenty match unbeaten streak that stretched from the end of August to the beginning of December to reassert themselves into the Eredivisie title picture. They also banished memories of recent disappointment on the European stage by sealing progression to the latter stages of the UEFA Europa League – winning four and drawing two of their six games in Group G before dispatching first, Polish champions, Legia Warsaw in the Round of 32 and then reigning Danish champions, FC Copenhagen in  the last 16 of the competition, and Schalke 04 in an enthralling quarter final tie.

Davinson Sanchez in action against Copenhagen in the Europa League Round of 16 (Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Following his belated arrival due to his Copa Libertadores commitments with Nacional, the talented 20-year-old would make the right side of Ajax’s central defensive pairing his own – racking up 37 appearances and five goals in all competitions to date.

What is his Style of Play?

Ajax, are a club synonymous with ‘Total Football’ – a tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any of their team mates which was made famous by a Rinus Michels-coached Netherlands side littered with Ajax players during the 1974 FIFA World Cup held in Germany. The Johan Cruyff-inspired Dutch came within a whisker of becoming World Champions – narrowly losing out to the hosts in the final held at the Olympiastadion in Munich on 7th July 1974.

Despite the Dutch ultimately coming up short in the final, the footballing world was captivated by this new, dynamic style of play with the likes of Barcelona in particular adopting and later adapting it to suit their own needs in the development of their young players.

This footballing ethos has endured for over forty years in Amsterdam and plays a key role in the identification of talent both home and abroad when the club reels in its expansive scouting net each year.

As such, Davinson Sanchez is the epitome of what Ajax look for in a centre half.

Ajax’s style of play is possession based with high ball circulation beginning with the goalkeeper and back four. It is an ethos which involves a great deal of movement off the ball and numerous small passes via triangles of various sizes that systematically isolate and eliminate opposing players with the overall aim of forcing the opposition closer and closer to their own goal until the weight of pressure finally proves too much. When defending, the club’s style switches to a pressing game to ensure both a quick turn-over of possession and a swift resumption of the attack.

Within the above system, players are schooled in the art of moving into other positions when the opportunity arises while their colleagues are conditioned to fill in for their team mates when such instances occur to provide defensive cover should an attack then break down.

All of which suits the 20-year-old Colombian centre half down to the ground perfectly.

What are his Strengths?

With a pass success percentage of nearly 90% in the league this season, Sanchez is clearly adept at retaining the ball and is often the first port of call for goalkeeper, Andre Onana when starting a fresh attack.

Despite standing at just 1.87m tall, the young Colombian is a dominant header of the ball in his defensive capacity and also provides an aerial threat from corners and set pieces. This ability was clearly illustrated by the brace of headed goals Sanchez buried to get off the mark for his new club – the 20-year-old setting his side on the road to a 5-1 demolition of visitors, PEC Zwolle on 24th September. He headed home a Davy Klaassen flick-on from a Hakim Ziyech corner from close range in the 8th minute before later out-muscling Dirk Marcellis to head home his second direct from a Ziyech corner from the left seven minutes before the break.

However, his goal-scoring attributes do not end with just a formidable heading ability as was proven during Ajax’s 4-1 victory over AZ Alkmaar on 5th April. Having initially controlled a Ziyech corner from the left by heading the ball into the ground, the 20-year-old centre half then lashed the ball beyond the reach of AZ’s Dutch international ‘keeper, Tim Krul with a spectacular bicycle kick to put the hosts back into the lead with nineteen minutes to play.

Davinson Sanchez and Joel Veltman of Ajax battle for the ball with Dirk Kuyt of Feyenoord Rotterdam. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

A mobile and athletic centre half, Sanchez is adept at utilising his 83kg frame when required to out-muscle opposing forwards. With an ability to read the play like few his age, he also possesses a deceptive pace that allows him to remain a step ahead of the opposition – an attribute he showcased when beating Leon de Kogel to head the ball to safety after the Go Ahead Eagles forward had seen his spot-kick saved by Andre Onana during the two sides’ meeting at De Adelaarshorst on 28th August. The young Colombian showed the strength of character to make amends after having been adjudged to have clipped the heels of Marcel Ritzmaier in the area by referee, Pol van Boekel just seconds earlier.

Indeed, despite being an underrated part of his game, Sanchez’s ability to make up ground when placed at a disadvantage to an opposing player is quite remarkable and was clear for all to see when, he was seemingly left for dead on the half way line by Utrecht’s Richairo Zivkovic as the 20-year-old speedster was set clear by an incisive through ball from Sebastien Haller. The 20-year-old Colombian ate up the ground between he and his quarry – managing to not only catch but pass Zivkovic in order to deny the young forward – who was hoping to impress against his parent club, the opportunity to test the reflexes of the previously exposed Andre Onana in the Ajax net, to ultimately deny Zivkovic with a well-timed sliding challenge just inside the area.

Sanchez would again showcase his turn of pace in recovery a few weeks later when catching ADO Den Haag’s lightning-quick forward, Sheraldo Becker. The then 21-year-old had initially broken clear down the left having been released by a well weighted ball from Édouard Duplan on half way to leave the Ajax back line trailing in his wake in the 22nd minute of Ajax’s 2-0 away success in The Hague on 16th October.

Possessing a positional awareness rare in one so young, Sanchez is seldom caught out and, due to his role within the Ajax system is always looking to get on the ball. He provides an outlet for his team mates who find themselves under pressure or their attacking options limited and serves as a conduit between one side of the field and the other with a range of passing that means that, should the opportunity develop downfield, the 20-year-old centre half is not only able to spot it but set the attack in motion.

Clearly, the faith Ajax coach, Peter Bosz has placed in the young centre half since his arrival in the summer of 2016 has paid off with Ajax able to boast the Eredivisie’s joint-best defence (a distinction currently shared with reigning back-to-back champions, PSV Eindhoven) having conceded just 20 goals in their 30 league outings to date at the time of writing.

However, playing for Ajax requires more than just the mastery of one position on the field and, while it could be argued that this is a part of his game that still requires improvement, Sanchez has also proven himself adept at stepping out of his defensive role and contributing to the attack when the opportunity arises.

While it is admittedly difficult for a centre half to accumulate direct assists in a traditional sense, the Ajax style of play affords Sanchez more freedom than many in his position – giving the young defender ample opportunity to spread his attacking wings.

His ability to directly contribute to the attack often goes unnoticed by statisticians who primarily focus on the killer final pass that creates a goal as opposed to the move which results in one – which Sanchez is inevitably almost always a part of.

The best illustration of the above point came in the match in which he was awarded his only ‘official’ assist of the season thus far in Ajax’s five-goal hammering of NEC Nijmegen on 20th November at the Amsterdam ArenA. The young Colombian not only dispossessed Mohamed Rayhi just inside his own half to snuff out a potential attack, but then showcased the vision to turn defence into attack by releasing Bertrand Traore down the right for the Chelsea loanee to stroke in the fourth of Ajax’s goals ten minutes after the break.

However, Sanchez received no credit for his role in Ajax’s opener despite having earlier also stepped into midfield to pick out Kasper Dolberg with an incisive pass through the centre who, following a nice give-and-go with fellow Dane – Lasse Schone, had then fired the home side into the ascendancy in the 19th minute.

What are his Weaknesses?

While his accumulation of six yellow cards in 37 outings in all competitions hardly indicates a lack of discipline, Davinson Sanchez has, on occasion, shown his inexperience with his tendency to charge into all aspects of his game in a full-blooded fashion sometimes leading to more problems than would be the case had the young centre half shown more moderation in his play.

A case in point being his inconsistent performance in Ajax’s 3-0 away success at Go Ahead Eagles on 28th August. Having shown the strength of character to make amends after having been adjudged to have clipped the heels of Marcel Ritzmaier in the area by referee, Pol van Boekel – who then showed the 20-year-old his first yellow card in an Ajax shirt, before the young centre half beat Leon de Kogel to head the ball to safety after the Go Ahead Eagles forward had seen his spot-kick saved by Andre Onana – the young Colombian was then withdrawn during the interval by Ajax coach, Peter Bosz. He was lucky to escape a second booking from van Boekel after not only going through the back of de Kogel in the 27th minute but also volleying Kenny Teijsse in the stomach as the defender cleared Sanchez’s errant first touch on the edge of the host’s box.

However, the fact the young centre half has accumulated just two yellow cards since accruing a third booking in the space of just five games against AZ Alkmaar on 6th November shows that the talented young Colombian possesses the discipline required to play at the highest level.

Additionally, as with all young players, concentration and decision making have, on occasion, been issues for Sanchez – especially over the first half of the campaign. However, these instances – such as his dispossession by AZ Alkmaar’s marauding left back, Ridgeciano Haps during the aforementioned encounter – which would have resulted in the home side doubling their advantage but for Andre Onana coming off his line sharply to shut down the 23-year-old, have proven rare.

The fact that Sanchez identified first team football at Ajax to be more beneficial to his development than playing in the reserves at Barcelona has been borne out by the following incident. He inexplicably opted to play his way out of trouble rather than simply clear his lines or play a simple ball back to his goalkeeper when left facing his own goal after chasing down an incisive pass by AZ’s, Ben Rienstra. Such incidents have occurred in games that mean something and have consequences in terms of league points and media scrutiny will only serve to stand the talented 20-year-old in good stead for what will surely be a bright future at the game’s very highest level.

Read all our scout reports here

Steven Davies

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