The comparison drawn between Sandro Tonali and Andrea Pirlo was an understandable one. After all, both midfielders got their start at Brescia before making the move to San Siro (Tonali to AC Milan, Pirlo to Inter before later joining AC Milan). Both players also possess a low centre of gravity, a good passing range and long, flowing locks.
However, anyone who has watched Tonali for the Rossoneri this season will have seen him evoke the spirit of two other legendary Italian midfielders - Daniele De Ross and Gennaro Gattuso. Sure, the 21-year-old is technically excellent on the ball and capable of dictating a match through his use of the ball, like Pirlo was, but it’s his other qualities that mark him out.
Just look at how Tonali won the ball high up the pitch against Atalanta last weekend, doggedly pressing his opposition and stealing possession before tucking away the finish to put AC Milan 2-0 up. It was reminiscent of something Gattuso in particular would have done at his peak - he never gave opponents a minute to think.
There have also been moments produced by Tonali that have evoked the spirit of Pirlo - like his freekick goal against Cagliari earlier this season (Pirlo scored a similar one against the same opposition team) - but AC Milan need the 21-year-old to be closer to De Rossi and Gattuso than their former pass master.
Stefano Pioli’s side have enjoyed a strong start to the season which has seen AC Milan take 19 points from a possible 21 in Serie A. While they have suffered back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, the Rossoneri have also impressed in spells against high-calibre European opposition this term.
It has taken Tonali time to adapt to his new surroundings. AC Milan were widely seen to have pulled off a coup in the 2020 summer window by capturing the prodigious talent ahead of Juventus, who had been viewed as frontrunners for the midfielder’s signature. Pioli sold Tonali on his rebuild project at San Siro.
However, Tonali struggled to find his place in Pioli’s first team and underwhelmed when he did make the pitch. The 21-year-old still managed to start 17 Serie A matches over the course of the 2021/22 campaign, but Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie generally kept their spots in the centre of Pioli’s midfield over Tonali, a bit-part figure for the most part.
The dynamic has changed this season, though. Indeed, Tonali has nailed down a place in AC Milan’s central unit alongside Kessie. He has been a driving force for the Rossoneri as they have given themselves a real chance of going all the way in the race to win this season’s Scudetto. Tonali has improved Pioli’s side.
Pioli has had no choice but to play Tonali due to his eye-catching form. He is the complete midfielder. He has started to run games for AC Milan in the way the best midfielders do. Tonali offers the Rossoneri’s defence with protection, he gives his team structure through the middle and even plays a key role in the way they start attacking moves from deep.
With Tonali in the team, AC Milan are a more accomplished and complete outfit. The 21-year-old covers a great deal of the pitch and performs a number of duties all at the same time. On the ball, Tonali is the ultimate press-resistant midfielder. Off the ball, he frequently leads the press on opponents from deep.
Italy are well-equipped in midfield with the likes of Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli and Marco Verratti among the best in their position in Europe, but Tonali could take the Azzurri’s central unit to the next level like he has with AC Milan’s this season. He's provided 5 assists for Italy's U-21's in the past four fixtures. Mancini, like Pioli, appears to have a generational talent on his hands.
Too many were too quick to write off Tonali after an underwhelming maiden season at San Siro, but the 21-year-old is now showing what all the fuss was about in the first place. He is a better player for the experiences of last term and is now driving AC Milan towards another Scudetto challenge.