Sandro Tonali’s improved performances can be key to AC Milan in tail end of season

Sandro Tonali’s improved performances can be key to AC Milan in tail end of season

Despite the hype surrounding such a capture, life in Milan was never going to be immediately easy for Sandro Tonali.

Having plied his trade with Brescia and been instrumental in their promotion to Serie A, Tonali’s quality was on show yet again as the leader in the side throughout 2019/20, even though they failed to avoid relegation back to Serie B.

His performances saw him linked with every top club in Italy, so when Milan were the ones to pull off the transfer, there was some serious praise for all parties involved.

Tonali could’ve moved to Juventus or Inter in search of silverware, but opted for the approach of his boyhood club who have rebuilt tremendously over the past 18 months following a torrid decade of underperformance.

But while the love story sounds endlessly romantic on the surface, the 20-year-old has had a huge task of trying to find his place in a side that is home to one of the most underrated double pivots in Europe.

Tonali had left Brescia where he was the Hulk Hogan of the squad and joined a Milan side whose rebuild has been nothing short of tremendous thus far. And while he has contributed to that, becoming yet another exciting youngster in a talented squad, his performance levels weren’t quite there, which came with obvious scrutiny.

Milan’s usual duo of Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer has proven reliable and the go-to for Stefano Pioli whenever possible. The pair were key in helping the Rossoneri operate at a level above other Italian sides following football’s restart in 2020, and were similarly influential in contributing to their side’s unbeaten run that extended to the end of the year.

Injuries to Bennacer, however, have seen Pioli chop and change his midfield pairing throughout the season. Tonali has subsequently been thrown in and out of the side to varying success, which has yielded overreaction online – because of course it has. You know, when a young player doesn’t immediately win the Ballon d’Or and solve world peace after their first big move, it is a real concern after all.

Tonali managed just six starts in Serie A before Christmas and failed to truly show any extended displays of his talent. His usual passing range wasn’t quite there, nor was his typically sharp and well-timed tackling and recycling of play that he had become known for at Brescia. Instead, Tonali looked ill-disciplined and regularly off the pace, unable to stride forward with the ball and command play.

Since his tough first half to the season, however, the Italy international has shown clear progression and, as usual, time has been the answer to that. Time and patience eh, who’d have thought?

Sandro Tonali, Simone ZazaSandro Tonali, Simone Zaza
Getting there. | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Having come from predominantly being the star man and playing in a three-man midfield at relegated Brescia, Tonali had to get used to a much more disciplined style of play under Pioli at Milan, pairing up with one other midfielder in a double pivot and perfecting the defensive side of the game. His physical traits have since improved, as has his understanding of the system, which is now coming to fruition on the pitch with Bennacer struggling to regain full fitness.

Starting as a substitute in just two of Milan’s Europa League games seems to have forced him up to speed, as has the January arrival of Soualiho Meite, who provides competition as another young midfielder. In recent weeks, the 20-year-old has shown clear signs of progression with more dominant performances in Milan’s victory over Roma in March, and most recently their defeat to Napoli.

There have been glimpses of his game beginning to mould to Pioli’s style and Milan‘s expectations. And while there are of course aspects that still need work such as his defensive duties and positioning, and turning himself into a consistent machine like Kessie – who has set the pace for Milan this season with regularly impressive performances – there is plenty to be excited about if he is given time.

Injuries to key players in attack, and those like Bennacer, has hampered Milan in an otherwise tremendous season and stopped them from keeping up with Inter in the race for the Scudetto. There are positives, though, and the season is by no means over, not domestically nor in Europe, where knocking out Manchester United would be a huge step towards Europa League success.

Tonali needs to use this final stretch of the season to find consistency in his exciting, yet still raw performances. There have been improvements and there is no denying the talent, but he must now find regularity to inspire his side and take the pressure off Kessie.

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