Milan Will Be Just Fine Without Tonali: Three Replacement Options

Sandro Tonali, one of Milan’s most significant captures in recent memory, is departing for England after just three seasons with the Rossoneri. Newcastle, the shiny new toy of their Royal Saudi overlords, needed a midfielder for their upcoming Champions League campaign and selected the Rossoneri mainstay. While the departure leaves a gaping hole in Stefano Pioli’s midfield, things actually may not be as dire as they seem on the surface.

Money Talks

To begin, the Rossoneri brass had no choice but to accept Newcastle’s €70 million bid, which came without warning. Like the hostile takeover of a corporation, the barbarians at the gate left shareholders with no other option but to submit.

After letting Gianluigi Donnarumma and Franck Kessié walk for free in recent years, this transfer finally flips the script for Milan. Instead of losing a high-valued player for nothing, the club allowed Newcastle to overpay for a decidedly less valuable asset than the two previously mentioned.

Obviously, but not unimportantly, Milan’s new bag of cash provides Pioli with an abundance of opportunities for the summer transfer window. In theory, the European giants could purchase a starting-caliber striker (which they desperately need), a replacement central midfielder and a center-back, and they could still have money left over.

What Tonali Brought to Milan

While Tonali was a great player, he is hardly irreplaceable. Though the midfielder contributed enormously with his high quality distribution and defensive acumen, it’s important to dig a bit deeper into his work.

Always an underrated aspect, Tonali’s defensive contributions are impossible to ignore. Despite lacking pace, the midfielder was always quick to step to oncoming dribblers and win key tackles. His football IQ is also highly impressive, as he was almost always well-positioned and in defense of the correct space. An exceptional one-on-one defender, he gave Milan a critically versatile option in the center of the pitch.

Tonali also excelled at creating from set pieces. He was capable of firing accurate, curling balls across the face of the goal, and he often positioned himself to serve in crosses as well. When the midfielder has time and space, his service is nearly unmatched.

However, in contrast to his dead-ball work, Tonali never truly lived up to his hype as the “next Andrea Pirlo.” Sure, he occasionally fired off magnificent long-range passes, but his work from open play was never consistent. Lastly, the young Italian had a tendency to disappear from games when facing a high press, deriving Milan’s poaching strikers of needed service.

All of this points to the fact that while Tonali was a great player, he was rarely going to win games on his own.  During Milan’s title defense, it became evident that when Tonali lacked quality play from his partner, Milan would struggle. It would be hard to look at his body of work and justify Milan rejecting €70 million for his services. The price for the Italian is the largest-ever transfer fee received by Milan, and, while it’s sad to see him go, there are many talented replacements available.

Three Potential Replacement Options

So, who could potentially replace Tonali? While Rade Krunic put in decent performances from the pivot and seemingly improved as a player, he lacks the offensive skill that Pioli’s system requires alongside Ismael Bennacer. Additionally, Bennacer’s long-term injury means that the Milan actually needs at least two midfielders this window, and likely a third to replace Brahim Diaz. Fortunately, the club has been connected with numerous targets so far, so let’s take a look at three of the big ones.

1 – Tijjani Reijnders, AZ Alkmaar

A taller, physical player, Reijnders is a fixating target for multiple reasons. To start, the Dutchman is exceptionally versatile. He can slot into either the number ten role or the pivot, which would be useful after the loss of the midfield trio. He is also a highly technical player, able to create both on the dribble and with incisive passing.

The midfielder’s one drawback is his defensive presence, which would be a significant downgrade from Tonali’s. He struggles to defend against other technical players, and his spatial awareness can be lacking. However, Reijnders is reportedly available for just €10 million, a low price for a player of his caliber.

2 – Davide Frattesi, Sassuolo

Though the Sassuolo front office claims that Milan are out of the running for their star midfielder, the Rossoneri have yet to give up. Just 23, Frattesi is a fascinating specimen who caught the eye of the Neroverdi after a sublime stint with Monza.

Like Reijnders, the youngster has some of Tonali’s skills, but not all of them. On the positive side, he brings to the table strong defensive play and an eye for goal. His rampant, box-to-box style play perfectly fits Milan’s need for a roaming midfielder, evoking the memory of Kessie’s dominant playing style.

However, Frattesi has one critical flaw: his distribution is far below standard. Among players in the top 5 European leagues, he ranks below the 15th percentile in several important categories: short-range completion percentage, medium-range completion percentage, progressive passing distance per 90, and passes into the final third.

Frattesi’s poor vision is something that could certainly improve, but, for a team that often struggled to supply its strikers with adequate service this season, this weakness could certainly hold him back.

3 – Florentino Luis, Benfica

Lastly, Florentino Luis is a much-discussed option for the 2021/22 Italian champions. A Lisbon native, the midfielder has by far the highest chance for both success and failure. With a reported price tag of €30 million, Luis would come at a steep price for a player with just one year of full-time starting experience.

That said, Florentino has been exceptional during his time on the pitch. He was a key component of Benfica’s shocking first-place Champions League group finish, ousting both PSG and Juventus.

From the defensive midfield, Florentino is not one to roam or aggressively attack in the final third. During the past season, he typically lined up in a double pivot similar to Pioli’s. From this position, he stayed in his zone of the midfield, though he often drifts wide to overload the wings during build-up play. Overall, while he may not add the offensive presence that Milan needs to inject into its midfield, he could certainly turn out to be a defensive stalwart.

Regardless of which path Milan takes, a move is certainly coming soon. Thanks to the sale of Sandro Tonali, the Rossoneri are finally armed with a surplus of cash, and they’ll have to use it to compete as contenders next season.