The consensus in Serie A is that Sandro Tonali will spearhead the new generation of Italian football. Displaying a maturity well above his 20 years of age, it’s no revelation Europe’s top clubs, like Juventus and Inter, are vying for his signature. It’s generally assumed it will be for a cut-price too, given the severe effects COVID-19 will have on the transfer market.
Though christened by many as the new Andrea Pirlo, comparisons are, in fact, premature. Aside from the long, flowing dark hair and the relaxed appearance, there are few marked similarities in one another’s game.
A shining light in a fading force
Brescia’s brief stint in the top-flight of Italian football is set to come to thudding halt having been promoted in the 2018/19 campaign. Entrenched at the bottom, Brescia Calcio are nine points from safety after winning just four out of a possible 26 games. The managerial upheaval has not helped the cause either, getting through three managers in that period. While the Blue and Whites return to Serie A has proved arduous and the dramatic act of escapology unlikely, one beacon of light has emerged. In the presence of Sandro Tonali, one of Italy’s smaller clubs have unearthed a rare gem of their own.
In fact, it’s by no means sensationalist to describe Tonali as already the indispensable figure in Brescia’s squad. On the 23 occasions he’s been fit and available for selection this campaign, he has started. And in a team that is severely scarce of the quality required for safety, Tonali’s glittering performances have provided a form of trouble-shooter. According to the analysis site ‘Whoscored.com,’ Tonali has played 2180 minutes this season, the 2nd most of any member in the squad. Significantly, he also attains the highest average rating of Brescia’s outfield players (6.96).
When measuring Tonali’s levels of performance throughout the duration of the 2019/20 season, a tactical analysis shows the impact the 20-year-old continues to have on the side. Despite being utilised as Brescia’s deepest midfielder, a remit which often entails generating the infancy stages of attack, Tonali has shown a natural aptitude to influence games at the business area of the pitch. This season, Tonali’s five assists is more than any Brescia player and the 13th highest in Serie A. Those metrics do carry a caveat though, with four out of the five assists coming from dead-ball situations.
However, the number of open-play assists could and should have far exceeded the sole assist registered. In his 23 Serie A appearances, Tonali has an expected assist rate (xA) of 4.30. This is the third-highest of any player in the division, only behind Luis Alberto and Jose Callejon, both of whom are more advanced operators on the pitch. Tonali also tops the Swallows rankings for key passes (14) and the 4th most passes per 90 minutes (32.77).
The pitch map below shows the total number of assists Tonali has created that have either led to a goal or a goalscoring chance.
A tangible example of teammates squandering Tonali’s exertions can be seen below, in the game against Lazio. Far from your customary ‘regista’, Tonali receives the ball on the edge of box and his first instinct is to go forward.
A change of pace beats the first Lazio player and forces his way into the box.
Tonali continues his dribbling run, beating another Lazio defender before attempting a driven ball across the width of the six-yard area. Note how Tonali, playing holding midfield, has become the furthest player forward through his adept carrying of the ball. Despite Lazio’s 6:1 favour in players in the box, Tonali’s incisive pass still manages to find his one teammate in Dimitri Bisoli. Bisoli’s subsequent shot hits the crossbar.
A progressive playmaker
When observing some of his on-the-ball data, Tonali can be perceived as a peculiar case. This season, he holds a lowly pass-completion rate of just 70% – but that figure is somewhat flawed and brings a substantial proviso. Tonali’s passing success rate can lay claim to Brescia’s heavily transition-based game, where their tactics focus on moving the ball quickly and directly through the thirds. At an average of just 39%, Brescia have the lowest amount possession of any side but are only behind Parma when it comes to moving the ball from one end of the pitch to the other. This is measured by recording the speed of their build-up in metres-per second for attacks that culminate in a shot.
Subsequently, Tonali’s role is to play splitting, incisive passes through opponents’ defensive lines and into Brescia’s frontmen. This carries an increased risk of passes being intercepted, given most of Tonali’s passing actions involve playing into the most congested area of the pitch.
Brescia’s style makes it difficult for Tonali to play as a purified deep-lying midfielder or even bare any resemblances to Andrea Pirlo. Instead, Tonali takes a more direct approach to his predecessor in the Italian team, because of his team’s direct nature. An ample method to measure his influence over Brescia is his progressive passing rate per 90. Tonali makes 7.93 progressive passes – essentially a pass that moves the ball significantly forward – and completes more long balls (5.12) per 90 than any of his outfield teammates.
Tonali’s accuracy in his long-range passes can be frequently witnessed, like the instance below against Cagliari. Before the ball has travelled, Tonali finds a pocket of space, before proceeding to check his shoulder. This gages how much time he has.
Upon his first touch, his head is already up, and his body positioning is on the half turn. A continual theme in Tonali’s play, his first instinct is to play forward. Note the right-back with his hand up and calling for the ball.
Tonali’s varied passing range picks out the right-back. But with Cagliari’s left-back reading the ball, Tonali’s pass has got to be delivered with precision if it is to reach the intended target.
But Tonali displays his innate in-game acumen, with his vision catching the Cagliari left-back out. Tonali, at the final moment, decides to play the pass behind the defender and in the path of his teammate, thereby creating a dangerous crossing area. Within just one pass, Cagliari go from sitting in a comfortable low block to being exposed in behind.
Tonali perhaps possesses the qualities attributed to a metronomic midfielder but considering it would be in direct paradox to the collective of Brescia, this cannot be done. A shade under 33 passes per game, Tonali ranks 90th out of all players in Serie A. Therefore, the thought of him being a possession-based, risk-averse midfielder are misconceived notions. The little amount of ball contact he has per game and his importance to Brescia means he has to make things happen far more regularly and far quicker than he might otherwise hope. While his passing metrics are skewed and do not tell the full tale, his dribbling numbers do.
Tonali stands out in deep progressions and ball carries. As seen in his driving run into the box against Lazio, Tonali can break lines with his dribbling and has a proven success rate in doing so. Per 90, Tonali carries the ball 67 metres upfield, which is another marked difference to the proficient passer but often static metronome of Pirlo. Only Stefano Sabello drives Brescia into the final third than Tonali.
A multi-faceted midfielder
What distinguishes Tonali to your archetypal European midfielder is an instinctive intelligence that can be rarely associated with someone of his age. Tonali’s ability to read a game when out of possession and then make the correct tactical and technical choices on the ball have been key features in the Lombard becoming one of Europe’s standout players under the age of 21.
Tonali’s ability to anticipate is arguably his biggest strength. Not only out of possession, the midfielder’s awareness and ball retention under pressure allows Brescia to build attacks quickly and decisively, without being at risk of losing the ball in precarious positions. This season, Tonali’s pass completion rate drops just a single percent when under pressure. When opposition engage Brescia high, Tonali’s press resistant capabilities absorb the press before often breaking lines with his penetrating passes.
Tonali has drawn 60 fouls, the 4th most in Serie A. And due to Brescia’s aforesaid philosophy, which relies on quick ball speed and transitions, Tonali’s capacity to negotiate the other team’s press in imperative for Brescia creating attacks of their own.
Below is Sandro Tonali’s heatmap for the 2019/20 campaign. This swells evidence to reiterate Tonali isn’t your quintessential holding midfielder. Instead, his dispersed heatmap within the central areas of the pitch shows his role of being more of a midfield general, tasked with supporting attacks and protecting the defence when out of possession.
Tonali’s physicality is another striking feature within his game. His average of running 11.3 kilometres per game, the 9th highest in Serie A, is an anomaly when you compare it to that of his team. While Tonali figures in the top 10, the side as a whole are 16th out of the 20 top Italian clubs, recording 107.1 kilometres per 90. Factor in Brescia spend a paltry 19 minutes in possession, Tonali is often tasked with the increased physical burdens of running mostly without the ball, ensuring he is an incessant shield in front of defence.
With Brescia relying on fast reactions from turnovers as a source to inflame goalscoring chances, Tonali’s aptitude to anticipate becomes extremely beneficial. While Tonali’s metrics continue to be rather flawed, given his 127 recoveries this season are a relatively low figure for someone in his position, it instead underlines he isn’t out of position a lot. A truer insight into his importance for the team is his total pressing engagements (5.9). Over half of those (3.8) come via counter-pressing recoveries. This is essential to Brescia’s transitional game.
Regaining possession high up the pitch enables Brescia’s most creative and accurate player to quickly punch decisive passes through the lines and into dangerous areas. More often than not, Tonali shows the astuteness to do this before opponents are able to reset into a shape following the turnover.
This is shown in the match against AC Milan below. This case encapsulates Tonali’s ability to read the game, in and out of possession. After a Brescia teammate loses the ball, Tonali offers the first engagement to win the ball back.
Tonali’s matches the Milan player for speed and wins the ball back. Notice as soon as he wins it, his head is again looking up.
With Tonali’s first instinct to pass forward, in just two seconds Tonali has gone from winning the ball back to playing a lofted pass over Milan’s defence.
Tonali’s weight and accuracy of pass puts the ball in the stride of the forward, creating a 1v1 goalscoring opportunity.
Brescia are second for defensive action regains which the Italy international plays a prominent role in. His astute positioning and intuition to break up play adds further confirmation that there is more to Sandro Tonali than what meets the eye, rather than the all too easy comparisons to Pirlo.
Sandro Tonali isn’t your traditional Italian regista. Someone whose sole principle is to control the flow of his team’s play. Although he maintains the ability to do so, Brescia’s ongoing struggles in Serie A and football ideology does not endorse it. But that is infact, what simply makes the 20-year-old a special talent.
His intelligence to evolve and show different elements to his game are all ensuring Tonali is on track to have the capabilities to become a complete midfielder. While technical midfielders of his country are commonly pigeon-holed and struggle outside of Italy’s borders, Tonali’s physical propensity suggests he would be more than capable of playing anywhere else in Europe.
A standout player in an underperforming squad, who knows what Tonali could be or do if he were to move on from Brescia. But one thing can be said with reasonable certainty; Italy now have a player who will be at the forefront of their new generation. Perhaps just like Andrea Pirlo was all those years ago.