For Davinson Sánchez, it was a time of frustration and pain, when the form that compelled Tottenham to make him their record signing in August 2017 and had broadly sustained him during his first three seasons at the club mysteriously deserted him.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when everything started to fall apart, but most Spurs fans look no further than the afternoon against West Ham in the middle of last October. It was when they saw a 3-0 lead with eight minutes of normal time remaining turn to the ruin of a 3-3 draw, with Sánchez’s own goal for 3-2 the low point in a poor individual performance.
Before that, the 24-year-old had felt like one of José Mourinho’s first-choice centre-halves. The manager had picked him for the majority of his games last season while, this time out, Sánchez had started in six of the club’s eight matches in all competitions, even if there were a few wobbles. Now he was plunged into the deepest of freezes, trusted only to play in the Europa League group stage games against Lask, Antwerp and Ludogorets.
In the Premier League, there would be nine games in which he did not play and, in eight of them, he did not make the match-day squad. When he was on the field in the Europa League, it sometimes made for uncomfortable viewing, particularly in the away game at Lask in early December, although that was surely trumped by his personal nightmare for Colombia in their 6-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Ecuador in mid-November. His confidence was in tatters.
Sánchez was nowhere to be seen when Spurs beat Arsenal 2-0 at home straight after the trip to Austria to face Lask. That was the day when Harry Kane and Son Heung-min shone, Mourinho’s counterattacking gameplan worked to perfection, as did his defensive one, and the club could look down on everybody else from the top of the table.
So much has changed since then, with Spurs slumping before a revival in the last few weeks, but one of the more heartwarming stories has been the comeback of Sánchez. As Spurs prepare for Sunday’s derby against Arsenal at the Emirates, he has re-established himself at the heart of the defence, having started in the previous six league games and nine of 13 overall.
To listen to Sánchez as he explains the renaissance is to gain insight into his professionalism, how he turned the focus inwards to find the answers without recriminations. It also reveals a balance that is essential to prospering at the highest level.
“You cannot be disappointed when the team is doing well [as Spurs were for most of his absence] and you are not involved at all – even if you normally have been and things have changed,” Sánchez says. “You need to keep going and wait for your chance, which is what has happened with me.
“If you are not in the condition to be in the starting XI, you don’t expect to be. You just have to deal with it if your teammates are going better than you and getting more minutes than you. You have to accept it. The only way to change it is by starting from yourself.”
Sánchez had been used to working under Mauricio Pochettino, the manager who oversaw his signing from Ajax for £42m. The Argentinian was tactile, emotional, obsessed by the flow of positive energy and it is surely fair to say his successor has a different approach: more dispassionate and, at times, confrontational. Mourinho has publicly bemoaned individual defensive errors from his players, while he does not hold back during in-house inquests.
“You have to be humble when somebody is, not blaming you, but having to say something isn’t right or correct,” Sánchez says. “You need to be humble and take it. It’s not trying to put it in the bin and forget it. You keep going because if someone is saying something like that to you; it’s because they know you can do a lot better.
“The manager is very direct and wants the best for the team. He is very honest with everybody, from who is involved and doing well to who is not in the best form or needs to work.
“At the moment you have to be perfect in every position – with possession or without possession with movements. We all have to be in that mindset. You feel your teammates pushing you. If it’s not the manager, it’s them.”
Sánchez’s game is built on intensity and toughness, not to mention pace, which often gets him out of trouble. He is effective in the one-on-ones, both in the air and on the ground, although he needs to improve his distribution and eradicate the lapses. Then again, defenders will always make mistakes. The hope is now that he can build upon his run in the team.
“You need to be facing opposition strikers game by game,” Sánchez says. “You can’t start, let’s say, one game, then stop for two or three and then go again. Even if you accept this, your confidence is going to be a bit down. I’ve been involved in a few derbies with Arsenal and they are massive. This one is for pride and to keep fighting for the top four. There are no fans but there is still a lot of pressure.”