The Milanisti are used to losing sons to the wonders of the outside world. Whether it be for money or new experiences, many Milan players have left the San Siro and learnt the hard way, there is no place quite like home. For Sandro Tonali however, things are different. The Curva Sud will harbour no hard feelings towards someone who ultimately is being sold against his wishes.
With Italy’s ancient football economic structure still in place, the likes of Milan are being forced to sell their star players such as Tonali. Not only is he the emotional heartbeat of AC Milan, but he is one of their key players in midfield and was a crucial part of them clinching their 19th Scudetto. This is what makes the Italian Geordie so special.
The long hair, the switches of play and THAT freekick for Brescia (click here to view it) have all led to Twitter threads, YouTube videos and even pundits comparing Tonali with Italy’s last great Regista, Andrea Pirlo. However, appearances are deceiving and long hair aside, the two almost play nothing alike.
Sure, at Brescia, he played the odd Hollywood pass and took a few long shots but at Milan that has not been his role at all. For a better idea of how Tonali operates, think more Daniele De Rossi, Rome’s second favourite son. There is some style in how they treat the ball in possession, but they combine that with grit or grinta as the Italians call it, and the ability to make an impact in both boxes.
His first season at Milan went horribly even by his admission. It seemed the pressure of playing for not only his club but his family’s club impacted him. As his father is a member of the legendary Curva Sud, and maybe playing in front of them contributed to his poor performances, with him not even managing a single goal. But in his second season, with empty stadiums due to Covid-19, and less pressure, the Italian stood out and helped drag Milan back to the top of Italian football. Plus, doing so the season after eternal rivals Inter Milan won the Scudetto must’ve made it feel 10 times better.
Playing alongside Franck Kessie in midfield helped rejuvenate the Italian international. He showed his inner Gattuso, with his ferocious work in midfield, biting at the heels of his opponents, forcing turnovers and when needed, sat in a settled defence, and helped shut out opponents. Milan kept the most clean sheets in Serie A in 2021-2022, and the steely midfield pairing of Tonali and Kessie helped contribute to that.
What helped him become enshrined in Milan folklore was the goal against Lazio. With the score being 1-1 in the 92nd minute, with 4 games left in the title race, and Inter breathing down their necks, Milan needed a winner to stay ahead. Up stepped the boy from Lodi. A header back across the goal from the eternal Zlatan. And then, in a moment of calm amidst the chaos, Tonali controlled the ball on his thigh and then tapped it past Thomas Strakosha in goal. He knew it was his moment and Milan’s moment in the title race and for their city’s pride. For 11 years they did not come close to sniffing the Scudetto and for the Rossoneri, this is far too long for one of Italy’s, nay, Europe’s biggest clubs.
Having the awareness to take a touch at that moment instead of lashing at it shows the cool head on the 23-year-olds shoulders. It ended up being crucial in the title race. Milan only finished 2 points ahead of Inter, and had they drawn the Lazio game, Inter would have clinched the title on goal difference. One kick makes all the difference as Tonali showed.
This season was tougher for the Rossoneri. Even though they made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, poor form, injuries, and bad managerial decisions meant they never showed a fight to challenge for the title. Tonali however, performed admirably in an ailing team. Every week he showed up and performed. He created 7 assists last season in Serie A, his highest tally in the league. A good chunk of these came from his set pieces.
He places the ball into the perfect areas for attackers and is a key part of his offensive game. Alongside his ability to absolutely leather the ball top bins with either foot like a German midfielder from the mid-2000s. And even though he doesn’t play a large amount of through balls, he can get the ball from A to B using his ball carrying. The long-haired ‘maestro’ has some strength to him which makes him quite hard to knock off the ball when in full flight. There’s an interesting article about midfielders similar to Tonali written by @Umirf1 here, if you would like to read more on this specific profile of midfielders.
Now, due to financial constraints which have hurt Italian football since before Covid, Milan’s son is flying to England’s north for £55 million. He is joining an exciting project in Newcastle and his gung-ho style suits Eddie Howe’s squad like a glove. You can picture him in midfield alongside Bruno Guimarães and Joelinton, hunting and hurting whoever is against them. With how he plays and the quality he brings, St James Park will be chanting his name in no time.
Yet, you can tell this pains Tonali. In his goodbye post, he stated this was a see you later and not a goodbye. His heart is still in Milan. In his mind, he probably thought he would become a flag bearer for the Rossoneri, a staple of their history. Instead, he’s a key part of just the latest chapter. Alas, that is how the cookie crumbles. But do not worry Milanisti. If the £55 million obtained for him is reinvested wisely into the squad, Milan can still have high hopes for next season. Furthermore, when Tonali inevitably returns to Milan, he will come back having achieved great things in England’s north. And knows, he could be returning to a Scudetto-winning team. Wouldn’t that be something?
By: Abu Yasin / @abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sebastian Frej / MB Media / Getty Images