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Sandro Tonali: The 'new Pirlo' taking Italian football by storm

10:00 pm AEDT 10/10/19
Sandro Tonali NxGn
The 19-year-old earned a call-up from the Azzurri while still playing in Serie B, so impressive were his performances for Brescia last season

There are not many 18-year-olds who can claim to have played a pivotal role in a team's promotion to one of Europe's 'Big Five' leagues while also earning full international call-ups, but over the course of last season Sandro Tonali was no normal 18-year-old.

Despite being coveted by teams in both Serie A and the Premier League, Tonali resisted the temptation to leave Brescia either in January or over the summer, instead opting to remain with the club he has represented since the age of 12 as they aim to re-establish themselves in the Italian top flight.

A big move will undoubtedly come over the course of the next 12 months but, for now, Tonali, whose ability as a defensive midfielder has already seen him likened to Azzurri legend Andrea Pirlo, is just concentrating on earning his stripes at a higher level than he has ever played at previously.

Born in Lodi in May 2000, Tonali's talent was first spotted by Piacenza as a nine-year-old, though not ever club was convinced by his ability.

"AC Milan rejected me after a trial," Tonali said in a recent interview with Corriere dello Sport. "I was eight and I was playing in attack. Disappointment? No, because then I went to Piacenza."

Tonali spent three years with Piacenza before being snapped up by Brescia, honing his skills within their academy before being called upon to make his first-team debut as a 17-year-old on the opening day of the 2017-18 Serie B season, stepping off the bench for the final 20 minutes against Avellino.

That, though, would remain his only appearance in the Brescia squad for five months, as he instead had to make do with playing for the Primavera team.

He was back on the bench for the return fixture against Avellino on January 21 before being picked to start against Palermo six days later, going onto play the full 90 minutes. By the time the campaign ended, he had 19 Serie B appearances to his name.

Unsurprisingly, he retained his place in the team for the start of the 2018-19 campaign and, following the appointment of Eugenio Corini as Brescia's new manager in September 2018, he was handed even more responsibility.

Despite his tender years, Tonali was encouraged to act as more of a leader and his performances across 34 appearances, including three goals, proved integral to Corini's side sealing promotion back to Serie A.

Roberto Mancini was so impressed by what he saw that he called the teenager up to the Italy squad for their friendly against USA in November 2018.

The former Manchester City coach has been keen to get as many young Italian players involved in the national squad as possible as he ushers in a new era with the Azzurri, and Tonali is a player many believe the team will be built around in the not-too-distant future.

He has yet to make his international debut, but was again called up in September following an injury to Bryan Cristante and is set to join up with the senior squad this week for their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Greece and Liechtenstein once he has represented the Under-21s in their clash with Republic of Ireland on Thursday.

Tonali's superb displays in Serie B saw him linked with Inter, Roma and Fiorentina over the summer, but Brescia owner Massimo Cellino could not be persuaded to part with the crown jewel of his team, and the youngster's performances in Serie A so far this season suggest he was right not to cash in.

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Having started all six of Brescia's league matches to date, Tonali has already registered two assists, has a pass completion rate of 70 per cent, performed 11 dribbles and recovered the ball on 44 occasions, with a dominant display against Napoli last time out suggesting he is more than ready to mix it with Europe's best sides on a more regular basis.

"Sandro has extraordinary margins to grow into," Corini said following Brescia's win over Udinese earlier this season. "The balance with which he deals with things and how he experienced the changes of recent months is incredible.

"He has something different; we just have to accompany him towards a great career."

Juventus are already reportedly laying the groundwork to bring Tonali to Turin, though Chelsea have previously shown an interest, albeit when the midfielder's compatriot Maurizio Sarri was in charge.

Should he move to Juve, then he would be following in the footsteps of Pirlo, albeit without the stops at Inter and AC Milan in between.

Pirlo, too, began his career with Brescia, playing 59 games for the club before heading for San Siro to join the Nerazzurri.

Playing for the same first club and in the same deep-lying playmaker role as the Italian legend, the comparisons were always going to be prevalent. Throw in Tonali's flowing brown locks and you could be mistaken for believing that Pirlo had been reincarnated back at Stadio Mario Rigamonti.

Tonali, though, does not see many similarities in terms of playing style.

"They compare me with Pirlo because of the hair, I should get it cut!" he said. "Pirlo is unreachable. Like [Steven] Gerrard, who is the most dynamic, or [Luka] Modric, who is unique in his style. I see more of myself in [Gennaro] Gattuso."

While that may seem a strange admission given Gattuso's reputation as one of the game's great enforcers, it is interesting that Tonali sees himself more in that role than as cultured playmaker such as Pirlo.

In reality, he may well be an amalgamation of the two. If that proves to be the case, then Italy and whichever club he decides to join down the line will have a future legend on their hands.