Sandro Tonali will have been under no illusion that he has not lived up to expectations since joining AC Milan, but the revelation that he had only made Italy’s Under-21 squad for the current international break will have hurt him.
This is a 20-year-old midfielder who was hyped up to obscene heights last season with Brescia and widely billed as the heir to Andrea Pirlo’s throne. With that wave of excitement following him, Tonali was promoted to the senior Italian squad earlier this season and looked destined to explode, but something’s gone a little wrong.
With Milan, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. He has had regular minutes but has failed to make the kind of impact most expected of him, and as a result, there was no spot for him in Roberto Mancini’s squad. It was back to the Under-21s for Tonali.
You might have thought that would spur him on. After all, a player with Tonali’s price tag should be absolutely dominating a youth football tournament, but Euro 2021 is just one day old and Tonali’s stock has already plummeted.
Sat in a midfield three for Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic, Tonali was outperformed by team-mates Nicolo Rovella and Davide Frattesi, the latter of whom is playing Serie B football this year, and Tonali’s evening ended on a sour note as he let the pressure get to him and was shown a straight red card for a petulant stamp.
With a suspension to serve and so much competition for minutes in Italy’s midfield, Tonali might have already played his way out of the starting lineup for the Under-21s, four months after he was part of Mancini’s senior side.
It’s hard to pinpoint why Tonali has taken a step back this year. You can obviously speculate about the pressure of playing for Milan, but one concern is that I Rossoneri don’t exactly play to the 20-year-old’s strengths.
At Brescia, Tonali was usually deployed in a midfield three, allowing him to stay central and focus solely on defence-splitting passes safe in the knowledge that there were two players either side of him prepared to hoover up the mess.
At Milan, it’s completely different.
A lot of Tonali’s minutes this season have come about because of the injury struggles of former Arsenal man Ismael Bennacer, whose role is to sit at the base of Stefano Pioli’s midfield and destroy everything that comes his way.
That’s the kind of player Tonali would thrive alongside, but through no fault of his own, he’s had to try and turn himself into Bennacer, and it’s not gone great.
At Brescia, Tonali could stay in the heart of the pitch, recycle possession and dictate the tempo of the game. He’s excellent at that, and the hype around him was justified. However, at San Siro, Tonali’s job is to cover the entire width of the pitch and put in more of an all-round showing. That’s not what he does.
His positioning has been a little off, leaving Milan’s defence exposed too often, and it’s looked like Tonali is a bit lost at sea in Pioli’s midfield. He hasn’t grasped the positional discipline needed to play outside of his old Brescia system, and it shows.
Tonali hasn’t been bad this season, but let’s put it this way – if he played like this at Brescia last season, nobody would have cared about him.
The hope was that he would be able to rejuvenate himself during this international break. After all, Italy’s Under-21s play with the kind of three-man midfield Tonali loves, and given the gulf in quality between himself and the opposition, he should have walked it.
Instead, he got frustrated and flustered against what has to be described as inferior opposition, and now he’s got a lot of work to do to get back on track.