The Italy national team is currently experiencing a transitional period with the rise of young
prospects from many well-known clubs across the country. They are on course to replace
veterans such as Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini or Salvatore Sirigu amid the fact that
a few of them still need some first-team experiences to eventually make it into the 23-man
squad. Nonetheless, it is worth noticing that almost half of their recent squad playing against Armenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina were players who are under 24 years old, which shows a very bright future for the national team when those players fully fulfil their potential.
One of those under-24 players who is currently thriving in Serie A and the national team is
Sandro Tonali, a key player in Brescia’s promotion campaign last season. The young
midfielder has caught the eyes of many with his performances for the Italy U19 back in the
2018 UEFA Under-19 European Championship. Since then, the hype has really started to
lift off with him being the star man for Brescia and helped them secured promotion to Serie A by securing the Serie B trophy.
At the age of just 19, there is a certainty that many big things are yet to come for Tonali.
Not only in the upcoming year of 2020 but also in the foreseeable future. Even more, there
are expectations that he will follow the path that Andrea Pirlo used to walk in given the fact
that both started their careers in Brescia and have a similar style of play.
This tactical analysis scout report will provide an analysis of Tonali’s performance in 2019 with Brescia in both Serie B and Serie A. Meanwhile, using statistics and footages, we will take a look at the near future to see how far Tonali can go and what aspects he can improve during the period in Corini’s tactics.
His role in Eugenio Corini’s tactics
Last season under Corini, Brescia lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation that saw three central
midfielders create a midfield-three and screened the space in front of the back-four. At
times, this could be seen as a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond shape when central midfielders Emanuele
Ndoj and Dimitri Bisoli played just below Brazilian midfielder Rômulo. The same can be
said this season, even when Corini was relieved of his role and he was replaced by former
Juventus defender Fabio Grosso. With Corini returning to the managerial spot at the start of
December, there are no signs that he will change his system and the principles that helped
his side secure the Serie B trophy last season.
For Tonali, he is used as the single pivot in the midfield diamond as he took on the role of a
regista. Similar to Pirlo, who he received many comparisons towards, he tends to dictate the
team’s play using his passing ability, specifically to make passes up the pitch to start
attacks. But, according to Tonali himself, he said he is a more of a mix between the Italian
legend with Gennaro Gattuso in an interview after his international debut. Furthermore,
Corini said he would be a Daniele De Rossi type of midfielder thanks to his energetic style
of play and the willingness to connect the team not only by his passes, but also through his
His words about not being totally a Pirlo type but more of a mix between the former Milan
midfield duo are backed up given the fact that he is not being used as a pivot in the national team’s lineup. That role is handed to Jorginho, who is a complete passer and has the ability to use his passes for creating attacks for the team. For Italy, Tonali occupies the right central midfielder position which allows him to roam more from his starting positions and bring his teammates into the team’s attack.
Nonetheless, it is possible for him to move flexibly in between those two positions during
the match and depending on the situation. The important thing to keep in mind is he has to
maintain the instructions that are given to him by Corini while still demonstrating his
preferred style of play. Still, in the future, there is still room for improving his versatility
as he can take on the attacking midfielder position and become a decent threat during the
offensive transitioning scenarios.
With him being the only pivot in Corini’s lineup, the scenario of him getting involved in the
team’s build-up doesn’t seem to be a surprise and unfamiliar since it has occurred since last season. During the process, both full-backs tend to stay deep with the two centre-backs to offer two available passing options and allow them to match the number of opposition’s players, therefore, preventing them from at least losing the numerical advantage. In these situations, Tonali will also position himself near the passing block at the top while also taking on the responsibilities of bringing the ball out of defence. He usually acts as the focal point during the build-up process as he aims to receive passes from the defenders and then drive forward with pace. There, it is viable for the Italian youngster to make penetrative passes that start attacks for his side and linking up with the attacking players up front.
One of the standout attributes that can be seen when watching Tonali plays is how
intelligent he is in terms of using his positioning ability to benefit the team. During the
build-up process, the Italian midfielder tends to position himself just behind the first
pressing line. The benefit of this is allowing the defenders to break the line using a
penetrative pass that heads towards his position. While it also comes along with the risk that Tonali can be suffocated quickly since the opposition’s strikers and midfielders will move close to him, his technical ability will become a good option for him to escape the challenge or draw a foul from those players.
Also, this allows both Ndoj and Bisoli to push higher up the pitch while still maintaining the
connection with Tonali. They will be able to create a flexible passing triangle with him
whenever he is controlling the ball as the team aim to progress the attack into the final third.
This also reduces long passes that should be made during either the build-up phase or the
transitioning process, which can result in Brescia losing possession in a dangerous position.
The option of moving the ball forward in a quick fashion using short passes and
combinations is viable for his side and the stats also demonstrate it clearly. While they are
not a side who hold much of the possession, their average number of back passes (39.29
back passes compared to 73.65) and lateral passes (108.82 lateral passes compared to
198.47) are quite low compared to their opponents. In contrast, they register a higher
average of smart passes with 5.53 smart passes per 90 minutes compared to their opponents’ average record of only 4.53.
Similar to his trait of getting involved in the team’s build-up in a consistent manner, Tonali
also aims to keep his support range with the ball carrier as short as possible. Again, using
his positioning ability, he will pick out an available pocket of space that is near the ball
carrier himself to occupy. There, after scanning through the pitch to find potential receivers
and identify which of the opposition’s player can threaten him, he will position himself in
the best possible way to both receive the ball and progress it into the final third. His body orientation also plays a key role in helping him to make decisive passes towards the
teammate that he directs the ball towards.
With the fact that he usually stays deep to join the defenders in playing out from the back,
he also gains another significant advantage which benefits him quite often whenever he is
on the ball. Against teams who tend not to press aggressively and high up the pitch, Tonali
will have more space and time to scan the field for potential receivers. It gives him a wider
perspective of the situation, thus, allows him to make better decision in terms of making
For a player who has such good vision, it is no surprise to see Tonali attempting to make
long passes whenever possible. Furthermore, his anticipation is also key in these type of
situations since he should know how fast and how far his teammate can run, therefore,
aiming his pass in the most precise way. It prevents the scenario of losing possession during offensive transitioning situations and forcing his teammates to defend against a sudden counter-attack.
His vision also contributes in a noteable way when it comes to making through passes. The
way that he creates those smart passes that put his teammates into an active state to either create a chance or convert it into a goal makes him stands out from other midfielders who are at a similar age to his. No matter if it is an open play situation in which Brescia are building their attack from the back-line or it is a counter-attack scenario that him and his teammates are bursting into the final third, similar to the shot below, the Italian prospect is still be able to find one of the teammates who are ready to receive the ball.
Just an intelligent off-the-ball movement that allows a player to enter the defender’s blind
side is enough for Tonali to link up with that player through a smart pass. This usually puts
an attacker into an active state to enter the 18-yard box and even allows him to get involved in a 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper. Having a striker with the calibre like Mario Balotelli in their squad, Brescia have a lethal goalscorer who can turn up at the end of Tonali’s passes and convert them into goals. Unfortunately, the former Manchester City striker is still attempting to pick up his form, with only three goals in ten matches so far this season.
Apart from being able to direct his passes towards the player that he intends to, crossing is
also another viable option that Tonali tends to use to find the attackers inside the 18-yard
box. Again, this is when his vision comes in handy as he is able to pick out teammates who
have already positioned themselves in free space to pick up the ball.
With a soft curve and a floated cross, it is possible for Tonali’s pass to be driven towards the mentioned player, which is demonstrated perfectly in the shot below. Unfortunately, amid the fact that his crosses are very decent and found the intentional destination, many of the attempts from these crosses have been dragged wide by the attackers, missing the
opportunity to score for Brescia. Given the fact that he only makes 0.85 crosses per 90
minutes across all competitions this season, it is also not one of his preferred way to connect with his teammates. One of the obvious reasons that can be seen is his position focuses more on playing centrally rather than drifting wide. Both central midfielders are already responsible for occupying the half-spaces and Tonali only has a few occasions where he pops up out wide, receives the ball and send crosses into the box.
Given the fact that many usually compare him to Pirlo, there is a question raised about if his style of play truly makes him a successor to the former Juventus midfielder. As Cheuk Hei Ho pointed out in his analysis about Tonali, the important factor to consider when analysing a playmaker is the intensity of him linking up with the teammates around him rather than just relying on his passing attributes.
Applying that statement to this passing network of Brescia in their match against S.P.A.L.,
it is clear to see that the opposite thing happened to Tonali. While Pirlo, throughout his
career, tended to have a significant number of the team’s passes went through his feet,
Tonali didn’t have this in the mentioned match. While there are still a considerable amount
of links being created by him (28 links), his number is just enough to put him third among
the players who played the match, behind centre-back Andrea Cistana (39 links) and right-
back Stefano Sabelli (29 links). This shows the trend of distributing the ball towards the
right-hand side more often by Brescia players and since Tonali positioned himself slightly
further to the opposite flank, the Italian midfielder wasn’t able to create many links with the defensive duo and central midfielder Bisoli.
A technically and physicality-gifted player
On occasions where Tonali controls possession, the Italian midfielder tends to dribble more
often as he attempts to exploit pockets of space being left by the opponent. His ability of
reading the game in general and reading specific situations is outstanding as he knows what he has to do when he is put under pressure to avoid losing possession.
But this trait of his also comes along with a major disadvantage since the opposition’s
player tends to commit a foul on him in order to win the ball back for his side or just even
stop Tonali’s dribble. On average, he has already suffered almost two fouls per match this
season and his total already racking up to 34, the eighth-highest record among the league
along with attackers like Torino’s Andrea Belotti or Lecce’s Filippo Falco. If he continues
to be fouled on a constant basis, it won’t be a surprise to see him being injured at a certain
point in the near future, which may hinder his progress too.
During situations where he isn’t fouled, this is still the case because he applies his technical
moves in bypassing the pressure from the opposition’s player. This is extremely useful for
him and the team when playing against sides who tend to press high, similar to Inter in the
shot below. Combining that with his anticipation, he managed to predict Lautaro Martínez’s
intention of jumping to block a long pass and moving slightly to the right to prevent a back
pass. He uses just a small touch on the ball which allows it to be stopped and then he turned to the opposite direction to Martínez’s movement. It created space for him to execute a pass that headed towards his teammate and allowed that player to continue the team’s play without any significant disruption.
In several other situations, Tonali is able to keep possession for his team with his great use
of his physicality to shield the ball. When facing pressure from the opposition’s player, he
tends to turn his body towards that player and use his strength to hold him off. This allows
him to call for support from his teammates and wait until they come around to offer an
At times, he even uses his physicality to support his teammate, similar to the shot below. In a 2v2 situation against two Hellas Verona players, he used his body to shield one of them while using his hand to control the other one. Thus, it created space for his teammate to continue his dribble up the pitch.
While technical moves are beginning to be a part in his style of play, pace has already been
an important factor that benefits him in the team’s offensive transitioning situations. Off the ball, Tonali maximised his ability of sprinting forward in a quite beneficial way. Especially during counter-attacks, it is possible for the Italian midfielder to run from inside his team’s half towards the opposite one in just a few seconds.
In the shot below, that was the case when Brescia players attempted to launch a counter-
attack in their match against Hellas Verona. It only took Tonali a few seconds to catch up
with the rest of his teammates while also able to pick up the pass from Alfredo
Donnarumma. A counter-attack like this situation requires players to be able to identify
available gaps that they can position themselves into while still needing to make the most
out of their pace to get to that area in the quickest way, and Tonali has both of those
attributes to become a dangerous counter-attacking threat for his side.
A set-piece threat
If you accidentally come across the footage of the match where Brescia lost 3-1 to Genoa
this season, it is worth fast forwarding the video to the 33 rd minute and watch the spectacular free-kick from Tonali. The quality of the free-kick already speaks for itself as it completely beat almost all of the Genoa squad and even their goalkeeper Ionuţ Radu.
It is also quite important to talk about how good Tonali is in direct set-pieces situations and
proves why he is chosen to be Brescia’s main free-kick taker not only for this season, but
also the previous one. The ability to curve the ball to such a hard angle is simply amazing
amid the fact that it can be considered as a cross that heads towards the far post. Still, that free-kick is out of this world in terms of how well it is taken and the direction that it flew from the spot to the goal. There would be hardly a chance for any opposition’s goalkeeper to stop it.
Along with him being responsible for taking free-kicks, Tonali is also chosen to be the
corner taker of the team and several of these situations again proved it to be the correct
decision from Corini. In the shot below against AS Roma, Tonali directed his corner
towards the far post for Donnarumma, who managed to connect with it with a header to Pau Lopéz’s goal. Unfortunately, his effort went a bit too high and the visitor weren’t able to open the score before the first half ended.
It was not the first time that similar situations happened across Brescia matches this season. On numerous occasions, Tonali has sent well-taken crosses into the 18-yard box for his teammates to convert into goals. But amid the fact that they do have good aerial players such as Chancellor, Cistana or striker Florian Ayé, most of those chances still went wide or went straight into the goalkeeper’s hands.
“I guess there are similarities with Pirlo in a way but I also add a lot of grit in there, so
maybe more Gattuso.” – Sandro Tonali (2019).
This season, Brescia tend to defend quite narrowly in their 4-3-1-2 defensive shape and aim to keep the opposition away from their zone 14. With Tonali at the heart of their defence, he becomes the link between the midfielders and the defenders as he is able to drop in between Cistana and Chancellor to create a back-five when defending against teams who have good attacking force. It is also viable for the Italian midfielder to stick to his position and form two distinctive defensive lines in front of their 16-yard box with different responsibilities.
It is quite easy to understand why he considers himself as a more of Gattuso type of player
and receives many comparisons about it. His energetic style of play and impressive work
rate are the two reasons behind those similarities since Tonali can be a bit more active
during situations where he can win the ball back for his team rather than staying in his
position. He rarely shies away from a challenge and always attempt to put a foot of his into
it with the aim of recovering the ball without diving into tackles.
Still, his average number of 0.95 fouls committed per game is a somewhat considerable
number and given the fact he already received 4 yellow cards this season, he is close to
being suspended for a Serie A match. His characteristic of being aggressive in most of the
defensive situations that he is involved in can also lead to the team suffering unnecessary
free-kicks around their defensive-third. Against teams who have quality takers such as
Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, those chances might come back and haunt them, forcing them
to lose valuable points in their battle for to avoid relegation.
In addition, it is good to acknowledge how good he is in anticipating opportunities to put his foot into challenges on time and without committing a foul on the opposition’s player. The shot below against Lecce demonstrates it quite precisely with Tonali being able to recognize Cristian Dell’Orco’s intention of putting a cross into the box. He sprinted towards the former Sassuolo defender to put a foot in just before the ball left his feet, forcing the ball to bounce back to Dell’Orco’s feet and go out for Jesse Joronen’s goal-kick.
Besides from making crucial tackles that save the team from dangerous attacks, Tonali can
also make interceptions that cut out the passing intention of the opposition’s players. Again, he makes a good use of his anticipation to read the situation and identify where the ball will be directed towards. After that, he will use his speed to run towards the passing direction and aim to position himself in front of the receiver to intercept the pass.
Tonali is especially good in this area as there are many occasions where he was able to step into the passing direction to block the pass. Then, using his vision and passing ability, he can launch a quick counter-attack for his team as the attackers aim to attack the opposition’s defensive line with pace. With 4.69 interceptions made per 90 minutes and a total of 77 interceptions made after fifteen matches, he currently ranks thirtieth among the leagues and fourth in the squad, just behind Cistana, Sabelli (both have 101 interceptions up to now) and Chancellor (83) in that order.
It has been such a dramatic 2019 for Tonali as he became a key part in the Brescia’s squad
that won promotion to Serie A. Furthermore, he has even earned himself a regular spot in
the Italian national team under Roberto Mancini, which makes his chance of making the
final squad to the Euro 2020 even higher. Still, he is just 19 years of age and given how he
has progressed up to now, there are a lot of big things waiting for him in the near future.
The upcoming year will be a somewhat decisive year for his career with several of the big
clubs already sniffing around for his signature. If he is able to secure a move to one of those sides, he will have a higher chance to enhance and develop his abilities and attributes even further to what he is at now. There is a certainty that rumours will continuously surround him with the January transfer window getting nearer and nearer. For now, though, he remains one of the key players for Brescia and will give everything for his team in their relegation-battle campaign while also aiming to make a u-turn to their season.