“It’s because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn,” said Mauricio Pochettino.
It was November 2017 and he’d been asked to explain why new signing Davinson Sanchez had started his Tottenham career so well after arriving just three months prior.
Spurs’ new £36m defender was holding down his place in the team, looking calm and confident and, the manager continued, “The conditions are amazing [for him] to be one of the best centre-halves in the world.”
Sanchez was 21 and in only his second season in Europe, but he had already shown all of the necessary qualities to make Pochettino’s bold prediction seem eminently sensible.
At his best, the Colombian is a joy to watch. His acceleration is as smooth as it is rapid, his anticipation and positioning are redolent of a far more experienced head and he is firm and commanding in one-on-one situations.
As well as hitting the ground running in north London, Sanchez had already won the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional and played in a Europa League final with Ajax. Yet, two years later, it still feels as if he has not quite made that final step up.
Last season, Spurs’ No.6 started just 23 times in the Premier League, down from 31 in his inaugural campaign.
He did play in eight Champions League games – the same as in 2017-18, but towards the business end of the competition, with Pochettino switching to a back four for the biggest knock-out ties, Sanchez watched from the bench as Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld marshalled the defence.
Yet, if his performances at the Copa America are anything to go by, this could be the year that Sanchez cements his place in the Tottenham starting XI and, consequently, as one of the world’s finest defenders.
This summer, playing for his country in Brazil, he looked every bit that world-class centre-back that Pochettino predicted he would become.
Colombia went out on penalties in the quarter finals, but having not conceded a single goal in their four games, their defenders in particular will feel hard done by.
In their opening fixture against Argentina, Sanchez and his centre-back partner Yerry Mina were imperious. They snuffed out the threat of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero with ostensible ease, laying the foundations on which their teammates could build a comfortable 2-0 win.
There were renewed suggestions after that game that Messi does not perform for Argentina, but, speaking to me in the mixed zone after Colombia’s second group game versus Qatar, Sanchez was keen to knock that idea on the head.
“Messi is one of the best players in history,” he pronounced. “You see it in every game he plays. Just from one match, you can’t say, ‘No, this guy doesn’t [turn up] for Argentina.’” The implication, and an entirely fair one, is that it was Sanchez’s own good work that stopped Messi, not a lack of desire on the part of the Barcelona genius.
The tall, elegant Colombian was also full of praise for his defensive partner, who has suffered with injuries and a lack of playing time over the last 18 months. Mina, Sanchez said, “is a simply excellent player and person. He deserves good things. He has been unlucky at Barcelona and Everton.”
Mina and Sanchez combine excellently, owing to their complementary skill sets. In addition to that clean sheet versus Argentina, there were three more shut outs against Qatar, Paraguay and Chile.
Turning out alongside the Toffee’s player in a back four also provides the chance for Sanchez to show Pochettino that he is capable of starting in that system and not just when the Argentine opts to deploy three central defenders.
In both legs of their European tie against Manchester City, in the miraculous return leg against Ajax in Amsterdam and in the final in Madrid, Pochettino chose to employ a back four. In all of those vital games, Sanchez watched from the sidelines.
“[The final] was so hard [to watch],” Sanchez recalled, switching effortlessly from Spanish to English. “You don’t know if another one is coming.” And the nature of the encounter made the experience even more frustrating. “The game changed a lot in the first minute, with the penalty. Then Liverpool started to drop and play on the counterattack.
“Then in the last ten minutes, a corner, the [second ball] and the goal. It was hard to see because [Liverpool] didn’t play like they had played all season. But a final is about this – sometimes you don’t play so well. But then if you win, that’s it.”
Even though he didn't get as many minutes on the pitch as he would have liked last term, Sanchez still feels he is in the right place – in terms of league, club and manager – to improve.
“It’s not for nothing that [the Premier League] put four teams in European finals this year. I can grow a lot there, it’s very competitive. We play against the best forwards in the world every week.”
Pochettino, a former centre-half, is also a rich source of advice and encouragement. “As he was a defender, he’s always telling me ‘You have to do this or that’.
“Because of his capability as a manager, which is simply unique, the only thing one has to do is learn, just apply yourself and keep moving forwards. He has this capacity for management.”
When pushed on whether Pochettino would stay, all Sanchez would offer were the words, “I hope so," but with the new stadium ready and the manager’s number one target, the midfielder Tanguy Ndombele, already through its doors, that outcome looks ever more likely.
Now, to keep Sanchez happy and progressing, the Spurs manager will have to trust him to play as part of a two-man defensive partnership in the biggest games, like Colombia manager Carlos Queiroz did in Brazil.
Alderweireld and Vertonghen are both entering the final 12 months of their current contracts at Spurs, so from the summer of 2020, Sanchez could be the club’s most senior centre-half. This season, as Pochettino looks to make that transition, it will mean Sanchez getting more chances to shine.
It is now up to him to take them.
But if the Colombian keeps using that obvious intelligence, stays humble and remains open to learn, we could well be talking about one of the best centre-halves in the world by the end of the season.