Tottenham’s recent 5-2 win against Southampton was notable for the four assists which Harry Kane laid on for Son Heung-min, but the game was also significant for another reason related to Spurs’ distribution. It was the first game in over two years in which Davinson Sanchez provided a ‘second assist’ (the pass played before the assist).
The statistic seems to confirm the commonly-held view of Sanchez’s discomfort on the ball (a perception, it’s worth noting, his current manager seemed to share in the recent All or Nothing documentary about Tottenham’s 2019-20 season).
However, the Colombian’s pass to Kane, prior to Son’s third goal against Southampton, was one of only three ‘second assists’ that he, Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld have provided since the start of last season. In other words, Sanchez is no worse than either of his teammates in this aspect of his play.
The ball to Kane was also significant in its indication that Sanchez does have the ability to ‘break the lines’ with his passing, even under pressure. So, is it time to challenge the belief that Tottenham’s record signing (at the time of his purchase in 2017) isn’t a good passer of the ball?
Firstly, it is worth dwelling on Sanchez’s ‘second assist’ in the Southampton match, not least because it went slightly unnoticed when set against Kane’s contribution in the same game.
In the below picture, Sanchez has control of the ball, but is under pressure from Danny Ings, one of four Southampton players seemingly blocking a ‘vertical’ pass into the feet of a Spurs forward. Matt Doherty provides a passing option to Sanchez’s right, but otherwise, there seems to be nothing on, bar a fairly aimless long ball.
However, in the next image, you can see that Sanchez has elected to play a ball between Moussa Djenepo and Will Smallbone. At this point, the target of the pass is unclear, but Smallbone’s lunge to reach the ball, together with the positioning of Ings and Djenepo, indicates the narrowness of the corridor along which Sanchez is passing.
In the last picture, we see the intended recipient of Sanchez’s pass: Kane. The pace on the Colombian’s ball means that James Ward-Prowse is unable to intercept, allowing Kane to turn and provide the assist for Son’s third goal.
The lack of attention afforded to Sanchez’s pass was understandable in the light of Kane and Son’s heroics, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that had Alderweireld, for example, split the lines in this fashion, the contribution would have been highlighted as an example of the Belgian’s pinpoint passing.
However, despite Alderweireld’s smoother style of play (and there’s little argument that he appears more comfortable on the ball than Sanchez), the facts are equally undeniable: he and Dier have registered as many ‘second assists’ and assists as Sanchez, during Premier League games over the course of last season and the current campaign.
In addition, all three boast a similar passing accuracy over the same period of time (Sanchez finds the target with 88% of his passes, Dier with 87% and Alderweireld with 85%), whilst the Colombian is actually more accurate with his forward passes than either of his teammates, successfully completing 77% of his attempted balls forward: Dier and Alderweireld record figures of 71% and 69%, respectively.
A couple of caveats at this point: Dier has appeared in significantly fewer matches than either Sanchez or Alderweireld over the course of this season and last, meaning his performance is based on a much smaller sample of playing time.
Also, Sanchez’s seemingly impressive figures are probably distorted by the more conservative nature of his passing. For example, it is notable that he attempted only 40% of Alderweireld’s passes to the final third, less than half the number of long passes played by the Belgian and under 20% of his teammate’s through passes.
This caution is perhaps driven by instruction (particularly given Mourinho’s views on the defender’s distribution), but is undoubtedly influenced by the respective skills of the two players: Sanchez is unlikely to ever play the kind of long ball that Alderweireld used to such effect in Dele Alli’s first season at Spurs and, to highlight a more recent example, against Bournemouth last season.
However, Sanchez’s statistics suggest that the pass against Southampton could be more than a lucky one-off. What’s more, with Mourinho seemingly adopting a more progressive passing game, the ball that Sanchez played to ‘break the lines’ might be more suited to Tottenham’s current style of play than the long ball for which Alderweireld (and, to a lesser extent, Dier) is more renowned.
When you also take into account that Sanchez has only played 144 games for Nacional, Ajax and Spurs (compared to the 232 matches which Alli, who is also 24-years-old, has featured in), it’s perhaps unfair to sign-up to the view that the Colombian’s distribution is beyond repair.
Indeed, with Alderweireld seemingly out of favour, it is a perception that Spurs fans will certainly hope can be countered in the coming months.
Statistics and images in this article have been sourced via Wyscout