From the Handbook: Sandro Tonali
This profile was originally published in the Scouted Football Handbook: Volume II, our second print publication published a year ago. The print version has sold out, but you can buy the digital copy – for the price of a coffee or pint – here. It's well worth a lockdown read.
CAREER IN REVIEW
Go look at photos of Andrea Pirlo in a Brescia shirt and then take a look at Sandro Tonali. There is a striking resemblance there. Already comparisons have been bandied around likening the young Italian to one of the finest midfielders the world has ever seen.
While the likeness is there and the 19-year-old admits he grew up a Milan fan, he recently admitted to admiring Pirlo’s midfield co-star Gennaro Gattuso as a youngster. Meanwhile, his manager at Brescia has likened him to one of Gattuso and Pirlo’s 2006 World Cup winning compatriots: Roma legend Daniele De Rossi.
These are some weighty comparisons that come with enormous expectations. For now, Tonali is shielded out of the limelight while plying his trade in the Italian second division. He was, however, called up to his first senior national team squad this season, bypassing the under-21s in the process.
Previously, the Italian midfielder had made a name for himself playing for his country at the 2018 Under-19 European Championship. There, his crucial role playing at the base of Italy’s midfield propelled the Azzurri to the final which they eventually lost in a gripping 4-3 defeat in extra time.
Since then, he has marked his territory as a first-team regular at Brescia, playing over 2,500 minutes in his second season as a professional. This, added to his total of over 1,500 minutes the season before, is an extremely good sign in a country and league where the culture weighs heavily against giving such enormous opportunities to young players. For comparison, the average age of a starting line-up in Serie B is almost identical to that of the Premier League.
STYLE OF PLAY
Tonali does not just have the Pirlo aesthetic; the long hair, the gait and the occasional shirt tuck; there are some on-field similarities too. The 19-year-old is best suited to the deepest midfield slot that Pirlo became synonymous with somewhere in the midway point of his career.
Like the former Juventus and Milan star, Tonali loves to take up possession in between the two centre-backs and spray passes all over the field. His lofted diagonals are routinely excellent and he is keen to take risks in attempting to break lines through the midfield when in a position to do so. This conservative positioning allows him to provide adequate cover to other midfielders too, giving them license to find avenues to attack further ahead. Meanwhile, it draws a line of pressure towards him that can be easily broken, therefore spreading the defence more thinly further afield. And he has the added value of being able to play effectively with his left foot – again negating the opponent’s attempts to pressure him in possession.
When positioned in a slightly more advanced area of the field, Tonali adequately closes down passing lanes and is mobile enough to prevent himself from being a liability. He is actually quite willing defensively, which is perhaps a product of his childhood spent admiring Gattuso. Like his idol, he can be overzealous at times, giving away cheap and unnecessary fouls. Natuarlly, this leads to a tendency to pick up yellow cards. He has received 12 bookings in 31 Serie B games this season.
Outside of that, Tonali is one of those players that is just really fun to watch. He is calm and simple juxtaposition to the helter skelter pace at which elite football is now played at. The Brescia midfielder is not particularly quick and is rarely tasked with beating his marker. In fact, he does not carry the ball that much all. The Italian operates by needling away at teams with precision rather than speed and movement. He is also a useful corner and set-piece taker. He is a threat direct on goal from free-kicks, although he has some work to do to ever reach the level of someone like Pirlo.
While Tonali has not scored many goals yet in his senior career, this is one aspect of his game where a lot of improvement can be made. The 18-year-old has a wicked right-footed strike in his arsenal, which he has already fired off a few times successfully in Serie B. If he can continue to power in goals from outside the box with reasonably low shot volumes, this will also open up space for attacking team-mates. Playing from deep though, he will not be a high volume goalscorer.
There are just so many little things that make Tonali intriguing. So many intricacies. The Hollywood diagonals are lovely, but the way he scans his surroundings before he takes possession highlight his awareness and composure. His grittiness is admirable, but it can be his simple ten-yard pass between the lines that opens up play for his team.
But he needs to play deep in midfield. Brescia manager Eugenio Corini has toyed with playing him in a role that sees him drift into a wider position. This cramps Tonali’s passing range into a smaller portion of the field. He also does not quite have the speed, nor engine to play in such a role for 90 minutes effectively.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
It seems inevitable that Tonali will be on the move this summer. Naturally, Italy’s biggest clubs are swirling, eager to ensure that the Brescia midfielder does not escape their clutches in the same way Marco Verratti did when he moved from Pescara to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012.
Sandro Tonali is the first Serie B player to receive a call-up to a senior Italy squad since Marco Verratti in 2012
Juventus seem a likely suitor, but Milan should not be discounted. Unlike Juve, they should be able to offer some first-team minutes to the 19-year-old next season. They also have the advantage of being the team he supported as a child. But money talks: it remains to be seen how much of an impact this would really have. A loan from either Juve or Milan to a strong Serie A team of Sampdoria, Atalanta, Torino or Fiorentina’s ilk would also be beneficial. It would be nice to see how he fares in a strong side.
Alternatively, he could remain at Brescia, who look almost certain to be promoted to the top flight. But one wonders how his role would hold up in a newly- promoted side.
Scouted Football Handbook: Volume VI is here. Buy your copy now.