How Tonali is emerging from the shadows of Italian greats

By Nicky Bandini (@nickybandini) 8 Jul 2023
Tonali, Newcastle

Nicky Bandini profiles the Newcastle midfielder who was once likened to Pirlo and who idolised Gattuso

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Player analysis - Sandro Tonali

Everybody ought to know by now that Tonali is not the next Andrea Pirlo. The comparisons were inevitable back when he was making his professional breakthrough - another floppy-haired Brescia midfielder with precise dead-ball delivery.

Even Serie A’s official YouTube channel put out a video after Tonali helped his team reach the top flight hailing him as the FIFA World Cup winner’s heir.

This was at least closer to the mark than the nickname assigned to Tonali at Lombardia Uno, the AC Milan-affiliated football school which he joined at the age of six.

Team administrator Luciano Esposito was so dazzled by the no-look passes and roulette turns of a kid who, in his recollection, was barely bigger than the ball that within 10 minutes he started calling him "Maradona".

Tonali had a different idol. He grew up in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, a township 20 miles south of Milan where, for historical reasons, most locals support the Rossoneri. They were always his team, and the player he admired most was not Pirlo, but Gennaro Gattuso.  

“He had a mug with Gattuso’s face on that he took everywhere,” recalled Tonali’s former Brescia coach Luca Balestri. “One day his mum dropped it, then when he got home and saw it in a thousand pieces, he went crazy.

"They had to glue all the bits back together one by one. He still has it today.” 

See: Why Tonali is the perfect fit for Newcastle's midfield

Truthfully, Tonali is not the next Gattuso either. He wore his idol’s No 8 shirt at Milan, who he joined in 2020, and mostly lined up as a mediano – a defensive midfielder – in a 4-2-3-1, but that role has evolved since "Rino" (Gattuso) was wearing the red and black stripes. 

Sharing the left side of the formation with the brilliant but not always diligent winger Rafael Leao, as well as an attack-minded full-back in Theo Hernandez, Tonali sometimes needed to fill gaps they left behind.

Yet he also often joined them in forward forays, swapping positions and drifting wide to deliver crosses. 

He is a ball-winner, like Gattuso, but does his best work high up the pitch, creating turnovers in the press and scoring opportunities from them.

He never was a visionary like Pirlo, and his passing, though sometimes brilliant, can be inconsistent. Yet his 10 assists between Serie A and the UEFA Champions League are a testament to his work ethic and decisiveness in transition.  

This, above all, is what Newcastle are buying: a versatile 23-year-old who still has room to improve and comes with the right attitude to believe he can do it.

Becoming a key player

Tonali’s first season at Milan was a flop and his move from Brescia – which had taken the form of an initial loan with option to buy – was only made permanent after the player agreed to a reduced salary.  

In the two years since, he established himself as a pillar of the side, scoring crucial goals in Milan’s run to the 2021/22 Serie A title.

When his team went to pieces during last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg defeat to Internazionale, Tonali raged alone against the dying of the light, dragging play forward, sending Brahim Diaz through for a wasted one-on-one and hitting the post himself.

Tonali v Inter

Eddie Howe has suggested squad depth is a priority for Newcastle as they prepare for the added demands of European football alongside their Premier League campaign.

“I don't think you can do it where you go, 'Give me that one player and this will happen,’” said the manager recently. “I try and identify the best players that we can, that you think can elevate the team and take us to the next level.” 

The most obvious spot for Tonali at Newcastle would be on the left of Howe’s 4-3-3, since he tended to play on that side for Milan, but his experiences dovetailing with Hernandez might also make him a nice fit on the right, where he could support Kieran Trippier.

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His flexibility is an asset, and he may find an entirely new role in his new surroundings.  

To leave Milan was not an easy decision for Tonali, saying goodbye to the club he supported as a boy and where he said more than once that he would like to stay for his whole career.

At Newcastle, though, he has a chance to establish himself not as an heir to Pirlo, Gattuso or anyone else, but instead to write his own story. 

Nicky Bandini (@nickybandini) is a sports writer and broadcaster who specialises in European football

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