Ever since his flowing jet black locks burst onto the scene in 2017 as a 17-year-old, it was pretty clear Sandro Tonali was a little special.
And amid a season of dysfunction and disappointment for Brescia in their return to Serie A, Tonali, now 20 and fresh off a campaign which saw him crowned Serie B’s Player of the Year, has continued to stick out like a sore thumb.
He’s a player who’s always been on the radar of FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager boffs, persistently drawing lazy comparisons to Azzurri great Andrea Pirlo as a result of his aforementioned locks and the fact he plays in a similar position on the pitch.
But in truth, there’s greater resemblance to the all-action but equally graceful Daniele De Rossi in Tonali’s game, while the Brescia midfielder has also spoken previously of his adoration for Gennaro Gattuso.
And now, with Brescia destined for the drop as Serie A prepares for its return next month, it seems inevitable that Tonali will be making the imminent step up to Italy’s elite. It’s a move the 20-year-old’s been destined for ever since he made his professional debut.
So, with Juventus and Inter set to battle it out for Tonali’s signature at the end of the season, let’s take a look at where the Italian’s next destination should be…
With Miralem Pjanic continuously proving himself to be completely ineffective as the midfield screener, Aaron Ramsey struggling for fitness (shock) and Adrien Rabiot appearing to be afraid of this concept called ‘penetrating a defensive line’, midfield incompetence was a real issue for much of Maurizio Sarri’s debut campaign.
Tonali, a player adept in both number eight and six roles, looked like he’d slot in seamlessly into Sarri’s midfield.
But with Blaise Matuidi providing tenacity and balance in a more functional role, Ramsey returning to full fitness and the athletic Rodrigo Bentancur excelling at the base of midfield, the Bianconeri boss had finally found his ideal midfield formula before COVID-19 went global.
Although Tonali would be an upgrade over Matuidi, his place in Sarri’s starting XI certainly wouldn’t be automatic if he was to make the move to Turin, and the same goes for Inter.
While the potent ‘Lula’ partnership has been the talk of Antonio Conte’s maiden season at San Siro, the emergence of a diminutive pair of Italians in midfield was a key part of the Nerazzurri’s early success this term.
The dynamic duo of Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella have the potential to be Conte’s number eight pairing for the long-haul, with their struggles for fitness either side of the winter break a major factor in Inter’s 2020 slump.
And with the criminally underrated Marcelo Brozovic persistently shining as the screener of the backline, immediate opportunities appear slim for Tonali at the Nerazzurri. A rotational role seems more likely, especially with the likes of Christian Eriksen and Matias Vecino already vying for starting berths as well.
Well, considering this is is the weakest Juventus side of the decade and they’re still a point clear at Serie A’s summit, hanging on in the Champions League and in a good position to make another Coppa Italia final, it’s hard to count the Old Lady out when it comes to silverware.
And with Matthijs de Ligt, Bentancur and Paulo Dybala making up their core for the future, the Bianconeri are in a healthy position to continue their monopolisation of Italian football for the foreseeable future.
The project at Inter, however, is an exciting one and with an elite coach at the helm, the Nerazzurri are probably two or three players away from transforming into a superpower once more.
So, although I’d give Juve the edge here, it’s also worth noting that Sarri has collected just one major honour in a 30-year coaching career- while ‘The Godfather’ has enjoyed a trophy-laden spell in management thus far.
Both Juve and Inter under their respective new managers this term have opted for a three-man midfield; with Maurizio Sarri often favouring a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3 with a deep-lying regista and two box-to-box ‘eights’, while Antonio Conte’s dynamic in midfield is somewhat similar in his tried and trusty 3-5-2.
Where the two slightly differ, however, is with their philosophies.
In possession, Sarri-ball is all about quick, vertical combinations to progress play, while Conte’s Inter, unsurprisingly, take a more direct approach with the aim of feeding Romelu Lukaku as fast as possible. While they’re also able to build-up with a little more patience, there’s nevertheless a clear emphasis on transitions.
And with his impressive vision and passing range, Tonali is probably more suited to Conte’s counters than Sarri’s combinations. The fact Brescia are a side who often surrender possession means the press-resistant Tonali isn’t exactly the high-volume passer Sarri desires from his number six. The 20-year-old, meanwhile, has been key in kick-starting his side’s attacking transitions with not only drilled long-range passes, but determined ball-carries as well, similar to Brozovic.
From a defensive perspective, I don’t have any concerns either way.
Tonali is an incredibly astute defender who reads the game to a high standard and is rarely caught out of position. Whether he’s given the task of remaining disciplined in a compact block or fiercely pressing an opponent higher up the pitch, the Italian has the capacity to master either role in any side.
It’s incredibly close between the two and overall, either giant would be a good fit in the long-term.
As it stands, it appears the only obvious opening for Tonali to make an immediate impact at either side is in a number eight role at Juventus. But despite his versatility and creative nous, his future lies as a number six.
Therefore, with Sarri gushing over 22-year-old Bentancur at the base of midfield, Inter may well be a smarter move.
Sure, minutes will be hard to come by initially – with the Nerazzurri boasting one of the finest defensive midfielders in Europe with Brozovic – but there’s certainly scope for the talented Tonali to play a rotational role to start, before evolving into the long-term regista under the Croat’s guidance in what proves to be a mightily exciting era with Conte at the helm.