After a tough debut season at Milan, Sandro Tonali is showing maturity with both club and country and Matt Santangelo analyses what the Italian can offer to Stefano Pioli’s side this term.
Leaving last season in the rearview mirror, Sandro Tonali’s recent performances for club and country indicate he is on his way to manifesting his true potential. A player initially compared to Andrea Pirlo, inspired by Gennaro Gattuso and born for the Rossoneri limelight, Sandro Tonali became Milan’s No. 8 last summer after securing a move to San Siro from Brescia.
So warm and embracing of his arrival, supporters were fully convinced they had a gem mint midfielder on their hands, a ‘fuoriclasse’. Early on, however, as he was in and out of the starting equation for manager Stefano Pioli, Tonali struggled to settle in after the honeymoon phase ended. For the youngster, it was a debut season full of growing pains. Over a total of nearly 1,300 Serie A minutes, there were certainly flashes of brilliance, but they didn’t come without moments of rawness either.
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From misplaced passes to positional errors, it was clear then-20-year-old Tonali hadn’t quite adapted and required more time. Voluntarily reducing his salary for the better of the club this summer, Tonali seemed determined to prove his worth, earn his keep and demonstrate his value to the project. Pre-season friendlies told of a player with a chip on his shoulder and a breakthrough with the right amount of repetition and continuity. As the old adage goes, patience is a virtue, and with this patience has begun the process of witnessing a bright young talent running on confidence and manifesting his true potential.
Beginning the campaign without his double pivot midfielders Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer, Pioli’s had no other choice to given Tonali a real run in the starting XI, and it’s only proven to work to the benefit of the club. Less of a passenger and more of a driving force, Tonali’s willingness to take on added responsibility and command the midfield is visibly shown in these first two league matches. Mobile, and with energy to burn, Tonali’s innate ability to cover quite a bit of real estate on both ends of the pitch is apparent. Oftentimes, he can be found initiating build-ups from the back in possession, either executing the intermediate passes or going a bit off-script by carrying the ball forward with a strong run to pry open the midfield.
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When combining these elements of his game with his sturdiness and close control of the ball, he becomes quite the press-resistant midfielder. Then there is his positioning which has seen his more defensive qualities pour out, cutting down defenders and anticipating play by drifting into passing lanes to intercept. While these parts of his game have certainly stood out, it is hardly surprising considering his profile; this is where most expect him to excel.
The added value comes in when Tonali can impose himself as an influential presence in the final third on as a provider of goals or scorer, both of which we have laid witness to for club and country. Before the international break, Tonali opened his account for Milan with quite the first goal, a wonderfully curled free-kick effort into the top corner. Then, in his first match as captain for the Azzurrini vs. Luxembourg, the now 21-year old picked up a hat-trick of assists.
Tonali could not have asked for a better start to his season. His operative play and assertiveness to grab midfield assignments by the throat speak to the maturation he is currently experiencing. This weekend, Milan return to action against Lazio before their long-awaited and highly-anticipated return to the UEFA Champions League vs. Liverpool. For Tonali, all he can do is be ready when his name is called, keep his feet firmly planted on the floor and savour the moment of a European night with his boyhood club.