Stadio Mario Rigamonti, Brescia. A long-haired ‘regista’ can be seen gliding across the surface, spraying an array of passes around the pitch in the famous Biancoazzurri colours. However, this isn’t a scene from the late 90s where a young Andrea Pirlo began to make his impression on calcio, it is his heir apparent and Italy’s latest talented prospect.
The player in question, 18-year-old Sandro Tonali is the new maestro forging the beginnings of his career at the Lombardy club, with the eyes of Europe’s big hitters monitoring his every step.
Tonali’s resemblance to Pirlo extends beyond a similarity in appearance. Both players are composed technicians, grew up in the youth ranks at Brescia and were afforded their first taste of senior football at the club, while also experiencing a shift in playing position from an attacking role to that of a deep-lying midfield creator. Tonali’s move to a midfield anchor has come at an earlier stage in his career than that of the aforementioned Pirlo, showing exponential growth in the process.
In August 2017, at the age of 17, Lodi-born Tonali was handed his professional debut during a Serie B clash against Avellino and quickly established himself as a regular in the starting XI. The subsequent summer is where the youngster really began to attract attention, following a string of impressive displays for his country during the 2018 Under-19 European Championships. Conducting play from the centre of the pitch, the promising Italian was pivotal in the Azzurrini’s run to the final, playing with intelligence and control beyond his years.
The player’s stellar form in that tournament did not go unnoticed and Tonali has carried momentum from those performances into the current season. Starting all 11 of Brescia’s league fixtures to date, the number 4 has already contributed four assists and also grabbed a goal in his side’s recent victory over Verona. Alerted by the Brescian’s quality, Italy head coach Roberto Mancini added to the hype surrounding Tonali by providing him with his first call-up to the senior squad.
As ‘Mancio’ continues his redevelopment of La Nazionale, he has already proven to be courageous in affording Italy’s youth an opportunity to taste the national set-up. With pass masters Jorginho and Marco Verrati working with Tonali on the training pitches at Coverciano, frequent spells with the squad will provide the ideal learning environment for him. It remains to be seen if Mancini will hand Tonali his first cap in the games against Portugal and USA, but the boss has made it clear he is curious to find out more about the talented starlet.
It is easy to understand the excitement around Tonali after watching him play. A player of his ilk makes for enjoyable viewing, the nonchalant way he manipulates the ball and appears pressure free even under challenge is a skill few can replicate at his age. Playing off either foot, Tonali’s technique, fused with his awareness of the game, allows him to quickly execute a range of passes at pin-point accuracy. Be it retaining possession to build play or a raking diagonal ball, Tonali holds all the technical attributes to become a first-class regista. Look out for his penetrating first-time pass over the opposition defence, a passage of play that that will have Italian football fans reminiscing of a move that was seen on a regular basis in the Pirlo days.
Not limited to passing, Tonali often looks to combine his close control, dribbling ability and clever use of his body to make driving forward runs from deep in midfield.
This is an important additional asset as it makes Tonali a difficult player to press and allows him to break defensive lines in a variety of ways. On occasions he does get caught in possession by staying on the ball for too long but that - along with his positional sense - are deficiency’s Tonali will iron out over his career. The energetic Tonali does have another side to his game. A gritty and determined worker he can mix it when it comes to breaking up play, if he is a little over exuberant in challenges at times.
A set-piece specialist capable of delivering a high quantity and quality of passes, it is no surprise to see the likes of Juventus, Inter, Napoli, Manchester City and Chelsea all linked with Brescia’s young star. The Pirlo role is recognised worldwide and the comparisons to the former Milan and Juventus player are somewhat inevitable, but Tonali himself remains unfazed by the talk, “He inspired me but I’ve never seen another like him. Maybe my hair is similar.”
Replicating anything like the career of the l'Architetto would mean Tonali has achieved something extraordinary while carrying the tag of “the new Andrea Pirlo” invites unwarranted demands. However, Tonali is hot property and fans of the Azzurri will be eager to catch a glimpse of the highly-touted midfielder over the next few days. In what feels like a rare positive moment for the national team, Tonali’s inclusion has only added to recent optimism.