Where Next: Sandro Tonali
Sandro Tonali is one of the most sought-after young players. Stephen Ganavas wonders: at which of Italy's grand old clubs does he fit best?
It's almost certain that by the time next season finally rolls around, Sandro Tonali will be plying his trade at a new club. Currently, that club will very probably be one of Juventus, AC Milan or Internazionale, who are all courting the 19-year-old’s signature. I've assessed how he would fit in at the three aforementioned teams.
The winners of the last eight Scudetti are desperate to revitalise their flat, ageing midfield this summer. Unsurprisingly, Tonali is at the top of their shopping list, alongside Paul Pogba. For the Italian, his skillset fits because Juve seriously need someone more confident in carrying the ball through the midfield than Blaise Matuidi, Sami Khedira and Adrien Rabiot are.
The Brescia midfielder has an 80 percent dribbling completion rate which puts him in the 81st percentile of all midfield players in Europe’s top five leagues, while he has the third-best dribble completion rate of all players to have attempted at least 40 dribbles in Serie A this season. While his total completion numbers per 90 minutes are comparable to Juventus’ set of midfielders, one would expect Tonali’s average to improve moving from a team who has Serie A’s worst possession rate (42.3 percent) to the league’s second-best (57.1 percent). This attribute, coupled with his self-admitted Gennaro Gattuso-inspired tenacity, would likely see him used in one of the mezzale roles on either side of the regista. Were he to join, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him establish himself as a starter next season if his only competition for minutes are Matuidi, Khedira, Rabiot, and Aaron Ramsey.
Furthermore, Tonali could also operate at the base of midfield, a position currently occupied by Miralem Pjanić. He has a dynamic range of passing and would undoubtedly provide a more robust shield to Juventus’ back four than the Bosnian. However, he'd face stiff competition for said role from Rodrigo Bentancur, who had started to excel with his passing and defensive mobility as Maurizio Sarri's number six before the season's suspension.
While AC Milan’s struggles might suggest it's unlikely that Sandro Tonali would decide to join, it's worth noting that the 19-year-old grew up as a Milan fan; one who idolised an iconic midfielder of the Milanese club, Gennaro Gattuso, at that.
Tonali would walk into Milan's midfield if he wanted to. Ismaël Bennacer is still finding his feet, Franck Kessié is somewhat limited in his skillset, and their other midfield options are worse. A lot will depend on what formation Stefano Pioli opts to play in the future though, or whether he will even still be at the club by the start of next season, whenever that is.
Tonali has played most of his senior football in a three-man midfield, generally operating as the central player, but he would be an interesting presence either side of a three-man midfield with Bennacer at the base. The Algerian, of course, is a tenacious defender that can harry opponents, win the ball back, and progress possession up the pitch. Tonali would be a good foil for the latter's skillset as a greater threat closer to goal.
Outside of the manager, the key downside of a move to Milan would undoubtedly be the infectious underperformance of the club for the last eight years. This is a club that has struggled to develop a host of players that they either signed or brought through their academy. This includes, but is not limited to: André Silva, Riccardo Saponara, Patrick Cutrone, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Manuel Locatelli, while Lucas Paquetá has struggled since arriving from Flamengo. They have, however, fared better this season with Bennacer, Theo Hernández and Rafael Leão. Time will tell whether they can propel Milan up the table again.
Let's be honest, Sandro Tonali is a perfect Antonio Conte footballer. He would immediately slot in the centre of Conte’s midfield three to form a trio alongside Marcelo Brozović and Nicolò Barella, the most dynamic midfield three in the league as things are currently stand.
There's one slight problem: Stefano Sensi. He's been superb in that role after his summer move to the Nerazzurri. They're fairly similar players; gritty without putting up big defensive numbers, confident ball-carriers with a wide passing range, and they're quietly effective in the final third. Tonali’s ability to play across all three of the midfield roles would work in a similar way for him here as it would with Juventus, albeit with an increased likelihood of pinning down his preferred central role.
But the key is Conte. He's the sort of player that would immediately gel with the Inter coach, as the fundamentals of his game are so strong. He's physically, tactically and mentally the perfect Conte project. Additionally, he would likely hit the ground running playing in a counter-attacking, structurally-rigid Conte team, while he could take a little more time to blend into the particular, expansive style of Sarri.
I expect that Conte would be keen to quickly mould the defensive attributes and automatisms of the young midfielder who – despite showing a willingness to defend with a respectable 17 pressures per 90 in a low-block team – only makes 1.2 tackles per 90 at 49.1 percent win rate.
For me, it's all about Mister Antonio Conte. Juventus have the edge on recent success, and are also a relatively good fit, Milan have a sentimental standing as his childhood club, but Inter and Antonio Conte make the most sense from a personal development standpoint.