Player Analysis: Who Milan Wonder Kid Sandro Tonali Really Is

Milan are definitely heading in the right direction and the signing of Sandro Tonali confirms that. The San Siro giants have started waking up from their long slumber and after a great showing during the second half of the 2019-2020 campaign, the Rossoneri are expected to make a great start to the upcoming 2020-21 Serie A season.

Stefano Pioli has done wonders to this side and one of the most exciting things that have happened at the club this summer is indeed the arrival of Sandro Tonali.

While a move to Inter appeared to be all but done, things kind of changed after the Nerazzurri coach Antonio Conte demanded more experience. The former Chelsea boss was eager to sign Arturo Vidal from Barcelona and in his hunt for the experienced Chilean, decided not to proceed with the young Brescia midfielder.

This allowed Milan to act quickly and sign the player on a 10 million euro loan spell. Milan also have the option to permanently sign the youngster for 15 million euros. Brescia would be given 10 million euros in bonuses and there is a 15% sell on clause which means that Milan have got their hands on one of the most promising midfielders in Europe for a bargain price.

The 2019-20 campaign in the Serie A would be the first time when a few more people outside Italian football would find out who Tonali was. The youngster put in some brave displays as Brescia struggled for survival.

Tonali has never hidden his love for Milan and has been a big fan of Gennaro Gattuso.

The youngster loves Milan so much that even serious interest from two of the biggest teams in Europe wasn’t enough to convince him into joining them.

According to Brescia president Massimo Cellino, “We have received offer in January from Barcelona for Tonali. Manchester United made a bid for him before Milan, but once Milan came forward the player went crazy and asked to join Milan because it’s the team he supported since he was a child.

Before we talk about how Milan will benefit from the youngster’s presence, let’s have a look at how Brescia’s tactics helped him realize his true potential.

Under the guidance of Eugenio Corini, Tonali was deployed as a regista in a 4-3-1-2 formation. This means that the young Italian would position himself in front of the defense which allowed him to dictate the play of the game and sending the ball forward to initiate attacking moves.

But the youngster is more than a regista and that is something that has been often ignored in the media.

Sandro Tonali joined Milan with quite an unexpected move, but what can the Rossoneri expect from the 21-year-old wonder kid?

So How Do Milan Lineup With Tonali?

Stefano Pioli prefers to go for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Franck Kessié and Ismael Bennacer mostly acting as two pivots in the center of the park. The two midfielders have been integral to the team’s success last season but there is always a need for depth in the squad.

Milan will be playing in the Europa League this season and with fixtures piling up near the festive period, they would want to rest some of the stars every now and then.

Kessié was crucial to the team last season. The Ivorian ticks all the right boxes so we don’t really see him spending time on the bench. Pioli is likely to use Tonali as a like for like replacement for Bennacer. It would totally depend on the young Italian if he would be able to displace the Algerian international from the starting XI.

But, one thing is clear! If you look at the team’s midfield, Pioli is clearly building a team for the future. At the age of 20, Tonali has time on his side and is going to be given enough opportunities to nail down a place in the starting XI.

Coming back to where he would fit in, based on the squad he has, Pioli has a lot of options to go for. Looking at his creative influence, either Bennacer or Kessié could be placed in a pivot with Hakan Calhanoglou and Tonali pairing up with Ante Rebic and Brahim Diaz or Samu Castillejo offering width on both sides of the pitch.

This role would see Milan playing a really attacking brand of football. With Tonali’s passing ability, star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be able to impose himself further while spearheading the attack. The prospect of Tonali finding the Swedish forward is mouth-watering indeed.

However, against teams such as Inter, Juventus, Napoli and Atalanta who would take the game to them, Pioli is expected to field a more conservative midfield with Bennacer and Kessié back to being pivots and the Turkish playmaker up ahead.

Tonali might not be ready for those big games but then again – no one would expect him to become a world beater within the next few months.

A Box-to-Box Midfielder Perhaps?

If you look at the shifts he has put in for the Italian national side, you would notice that Roberto Mancini prefers fielding him as a box-to-box midfielder or a mezzala as they say in Italian. The Azzurri already have a regista in Jorginho at the moment but not using Tonali would be a travesty. Therefore, Mancini has found the right system to make full use of the youngster’s talents.

All in all, you can say that Tonali is at the center of an asymmetrical triangle, especially when it comes to receiving the ball.

Throughout the previous campaign, Brescia’s full-backs pushed up further up the pitch in order to make themselves available for Tonali. The youngster would receive the ball from a defender, use his excellent dribbling skills to go deeper in enemy territory or simply make full use of his great passing ability to quickly create offensive moves.

A lot of people have compared the youngster to former Milan legend Andrea Pirlo. And we do understand where this particular rhetoric comes from.

Perhaps Pirlo’s greatest asset (arguably more crucial than his passing ability) was how his body orientation allowed him to put through neat passes between defenders. Tonali does the same and looks a lot like the former World Cup winner in this aspect.

In fact, Pirlo has himself admitted that Tonali is far more complete than he was.

When it comes to playing for a team like Brescia that would always struggle against top-flight teams, it is important to have a midfielder who pitches in defense.

Brescia have never been the most technically gifted side out there which was why Corini positioned his best player in front of his defense. During phases when the team is gearing up for an opponent offensive, Tonali would come between the two center backs which would give his side an extra defender.

An Intelligent Player

Now, Tonali does have the physical attributes to be the sort of player who would out-muscle opponents easily. However, he is more brains than brawn.

The youngster’s ability to read passages of play and predicting different scenarios offers him a chance to either make crucial interceptions or go for the odd tackle.

The 20-year-old is definitely not a player who would dive into tackles but does have the tendency to give away fouls in dangerous areas of the pitch. This is something that he will need to work on but then again, at the age of 20, Tonali is bound to make a few mistakes.

And perhaps his tendency to go all in while defending is why the player himself relates to Gattuso who was quite a juggernaut on the pitch in his playing days.

Another unique thing about Tonali is that he is extremely accomplished when his team is transitioning to offense from defense. When his team wins back possession, the 20-year-old will find himself a pocket of space in an area where it is easy for his teammate to pick him out.

Once he receives the ball, the young midfielder would do a quick scan of the pitch, weigh in his options and see which one would be the most logical one.

When we talk about Tonali, we talk about an extremely intelligent player who appears to know the attributes of his teammates. Based on which teammate is the best option, he would choose a pass type. Blessed with a wide range of passing tools, Tonali can either go for a nice through ball, a long ball or a delicate chip.

Unlike Pirlo, who you would rarely see gallivanting all over the pitch at high speed, Tonali has great acceleration and is a perfect part of a counter-attacking move. When the time comes, the Italy international would actually get a little physical with his opponents.

 A technically-gifted player who is not afraid of getting his hands – and feet – dirty, Tonali could find a great environment to grow at Milan

Tonali or Bennacer?

So now that he is at Milan, how does Tonali compare to the man he is most likely going to challenge for a place in the starting XI?

Clearly, Stefano Pioli has a great squad at his disposal already. Ismael Bennacer has been the team’s midfield dynamo while Hakan Calhanoglou has been the creative force.

In fact, Bennacer averaged 1.7 interceptions per game while Tonali had 1.2.

Similarly, the Algerian has been a more accurate passer of the ball, enjoying a pass completion of 88.3% as compared to Tonali’s 76.1%. Moreover, Bennacer averaged 2.2 successful tackles per game while Tonali won 1.1 out of 2.2 average tackles per game.

However, these stats do not cover the whole thing at all.

Tonali tends to misplace passes because he is one of those progressive thinking players who would take risks to create a chance. Most of the times, such passes aren’t completed. But when they do, they can create goal scoring opportunities.

Moreover, unlike Bennacer, Tonali is expected to be the chief instigator of the buildup play so with such a role, he is bound to misplace passes every now and then.

As you can see from this image, Tonali is far from the finished product and needs time to get better at becoming really decisive into the final third.

There are quite a few areas where Tonali needs to improve in. The youngster’s passing from the deeper areas is questionable since most of the passes he makes from deep often miss their mark. The youngster also needs to be more involved in games since he averages roughly 34 passes per 90 minutes.

The Cult of Calcio Says

If you ask us, Tonali is a perfect fit for Milan. His intelligence, positioning, and good body strength makes him a great player to have in offensive and defensive situations. A lot would be expected of him once the campaign starts.

However, at the age of 20, Stefano Pioli would and should protect the youngster as much as possible and give him time to develop. After playing only season in top-flight Italian football and that too for a team that went down, Tonali has a long road ahead of him but looking at his performances and potential, he will only get better with time.


  1. With time the midfielder will develop into a complete asset, but in the meantime let him be a substitute bannecar

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