Sandro Tonali at Inter 2019/20 – tactical analysis
Brescia have dropped their demands for star player Sandro Tonali according to a report from Italian football journalist and transfer market expert Alfredo Pedulla. Brescia had previously been demanding €50 million for the highly-rated Italian national team midfielder, but Pedulla claims that La Rondinelle have dropped their demands to somewhere between €30-40 million for the promising youngster.
Besides Inter Milan, Italian record champions Juventus were also interested in the young international a few weeks ago. Now that Pjanic has left the club for FC Barcelona and Arthur Melo as an absolute superstar signs for the “Old Lady”, Tonali is no longer a priority for Juventus. Instead, everything points to a move to Inter now.
The deal should be reached between Inter and Brescia for Tonali at around €40 million including add-ons and there will be no players included on Inter’s end as part of the deal. That is the reason why Inter have slowed down in their pursuit of Hellas Verona defender Marash Kumbulla, who Lazio now appear closest to signing.
This season Tonali, who is under contract with Brescia until the end of next season, missed only three Serie A matches because of an injury and too many yellow cards.
Role in the system at Brescia
Head coach Diego López lines up Brescia in a 4-3-1-2 formation with only one pivot, two central midfielders, and one midfielder in a more advanced position. In this formation, Tonali plays as the single pivot in front of the defensive line and is responsible for the defensive work of the midfield as well as for the build-up play.
With him being the only pivot in López´s lineup, the scenario of him getting involved in the team’s build-up does not 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. 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. In the following image, the 20-year-old drops deep to receive the ball from the centre-back. Afterwards, he can turn and overviews the whole pitch in front of him.
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 very deep even before 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. As you can see in the following image, Tonali is always the heart-piece of Brescia and so he initiates lots of attacks from the deep.
Another ability of Tonali takes the responsibility of all set-pieces at Brescia. Four out of his five assists against Bologna, Genoa, Cagliari, and Napoli (see image below) in this season were made by a set-piece. With Christian Eriksen, Lautaro Martínez, and Tonali, Inter will have 3 outstanding set-piece takers who can score or assist the important goal for a win.
All in all, these five assists made him incredible important for Brescia and in comparison to other midfielders in Serie A, he is the fourth-best assistor in the league with an xA of 4.77. Only Luis Alberto (Lazio), Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), and José Callejón (Napoli) are better in this statistic as they play for three of the big clubs in Italy.
Role in the system at Inter
Like all teams of head coach Antonio Conte, Inter is well-known for their outstanding performances in the defence and therefore, known as one of the best defensive teams in the world. What makes the move to Inter so appealing is the fact that Conte also uses a system with a single pivot. Adding to that, Inter play with two wing-backs and two central midfielders while the two strikers complete the line-up. With Eriksen, Inter have an outstanding offensive midfielder. In the deeper positions in central midfield, Marcelo Brozović played a fantastic season before he got injured. Nicolò Barella and Stefano Sensi are more box-to-box players who have a similar playing style like Tonali. However, both are loaned, and it is not clear if they will stay after this season.
With Matías Vecino, Roberto Gagliardini, and Borja Valero, three players in the current Inter squad could play in midfield together with Brozović and Eriksen. But, all three did not play a major role this season. Therefore, Tonali will fit into Conte´s system as a central midfielder playing in a deeper position on the pitch. As you can see down below, Inter starts with only one defensive midfielder and two central midfielders in a more advanced position.
However, their realistic positioning during a match develops into a system with a double-pivot with only one offensive midfielder as you can see in the map below. This is the case because Brozovic as a defensive midfielder stays defensive, Eriksen plays more offensive and the third midfielder (often Barella and Sensi) plays as a box-to-box player working both, offensive and defensive. This is the playing style Tonali plays at Brescia as already mentioned.
As the most retreated midfielder in the defensive organisation, he supports the central defenders through his good occupation of the spaces and his reading of the game, intercepting several passes. 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 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. In the next image, he is using this method to intercept the opponent´s attack and to directly start a counter-attack.
Using his body, the midfielder manages to tackle his opponent. He occupies the spaces in the first line of Brescia’s midfield, and this allows him to be well-positioned to intercept the opponent’s pass. With Tonali at the heart of their defence, he becomes the link between the midfielders and the defenders. 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 as you can see in the image below.
Using his upper-body strength, the young Italian is able to shield the ball or to separate an opponent from the ball. Thanks to his speed and reaction speed, Tonali often marks his opponent even before he is archiving the ball. By doing so, Tonali sets his opponent under pressure and leaves no space and time like in the image below.
As you can recognise in the map below, Tonali recovers the ball often (6.09 per 90 minutes). Lots of these recoveries are made through interceptions and positioning which proves the fact that he uses his intelligence and overview to intercept the opponent´s next move and win the ball back.
However, compared to Inter´s current central midfielders, Tonali´s numbers are not good enough to compete. He definitely needs to improve his number of interceptions (0.59 per 90 minutes) and his successful tackles (0.71 per 90 minutes). Brozovic provides 2.79 successful tackles and 1.89 interceptions per 90 minutes.
Conte loves players who work very hard for the team, risking all to prevent Inter from conceding a goal. This is part of his philosophy and it is a key feature new transfers should have to play at Inter. Tonali is such a player as he works hard for the team. In one moment, he helps the defence and prevents them from conceding a goal. In the next moment, Tonali is in an advanced position on the pitch contributing to a counter-attack. Therefore, the young Italian is nearly everywhere on the pitch as you can see in his heatmap.
The Italian uses his body very much in several moments of the game. In the offensive aspect, he uses it to gain position against the opponent, and then pass the ball or advance on the pitch. The technique of this youngster is fantastic. With 1 or 2 touches he can take the opponent out of the way and being free from pressure. Tonali likes to progress in the field with the ball. He has a simple but effective short dribble and uses his body very well to gain position. With this, he accomplishes his goal: progress between the opponent’s lines and creates imbalances. He is not the fastest player, but these capabilities and his tactical intelligence allow him to appear in more advanced areas of the midfield with ease.
In the image below, Tonali receives the ball in Brescia´s own half and by using his dribbling ability he is able to progress the ball into the opponent´s half before passing it to a teammate. Even under pressure against three opponents, Tonali has the composure and body strength to shield the ball.
In these counter-attacking situations, Tonali´s progressing ability will help Inter a lot. As a box-to-box player Tonali is used to cover lots of areas on the pitch and to be involved in counter-attacks. Often, Tonali is even the initiator of a counter-attack like in the image below.
In the following map, we take a closer look on Tonali´s progressive runs and passes. It is outstanding that he prefers to play progressive passes (7.87 per 90 minutes) rather than progressive runs (1.78 per 90 minutes). A reason for that might be his passing ability.
In comparison to Inter´s midfielders, Tonali is average when it comes to progressive distance. Again, Brozovic is the best in this category by far. Nevertheless, Tonali´s successful dribblings are something that makes him special and therefore, he could be important in Inter´s counter-attacks next season as he has the composure and ability to hold the ball even under pressure. Only Barella and Sensi complete more successful dribblings.
The young Italian benefits from a great vision, which allows him to discover spaces that opponents are not predicting. His passing technique is also brilliant: is always well executed in order to facilitate his teammate control. In the following image, Tonali plays a well-timed interface pass and breaks the opponent´s midfield and defensive line in order to get Brescia´s forward involved.
It seems to be very easy for Tonali to pass the ball. Even a sophisticated chip-ball is no problem for the youngster. To pass such a perfectly-timed ball with a good touch like in the image below, you need to be a technically-gifted player.
However, Tonali´s number concerning passes into the final third are not good enough. With only 3.74 passes into the final third per 90 minutes, Tonali is the weakest player in this category in comparison with Inter´s current midfielders. Nevertheless, he has the highest xA with 0.17 per 90 minutes which means his passes are the most dangerous ones for the opponent´s defence.
So Tonali is able to play several types of passes to different areas on the pitch. Lots of his passes are long-range passes to shift the point of the attack or to overplay multiple lines of the opponents. In the passing map below, you can see that Tonali´s forward passes are mostly long-range passes. However, his passing accuracy from the deeper positions, in particular, must improve as lots of these passes fail.
All in all, Tonali plays 33.56 passes per 90 minutes which is not an extremely high number and therefore, his statistics are only average in Serie A. The same with his passing accuracy (75.15%) with other players providing a passing accuracy up to 97.42% by playing even more passes per 90 minutes. Playing 12.69 forward passes per 90 minutes and 7.51 passes into the final third per 90 minutes, Tonali again settles in the middle of all midfield players in Serie A.
At the same time, he is the weakest player in comparison to the central midfielders in Inter´s current squad since Valero (92%), Brozovic (87%), Gagliardini (85.7%), Sensi (83.1%), and Barella (80.8%) are way better in their passing accuracy and even Vecino with 79.1% is better if it comes to successful passes.
However, Tonali will improve his stats automatically if he plays at Inter since Brescia is one of the weakest clubs in Serie A, focusing on defending instead of being in possession.
As you can see in this analysis, Tonali is a perfect fit for Inter in regards to the future. The young Italian international can take advantage of his game intelligence and body strength in both, defensive and offensive situations. His playing style as a box-to-box player fits perfect to Conte´s philosophy. Even if he needs to improve his play in all areas, he has lots of potential.
The expectations are high and he is already considered as Italian´s new superstar even if he has to improve a lot in his game. A move to Inter would be a logical and good next step to develop and to play internationally as well. With Barella´s and Sensi´s unpredictable future after this season and with Valero turning 36 in January, it is completely the right decision to make Tonali transfer priority number one at Inter. Nevertheless, Inter should consider buying both, Sensi and Barella, to keep the depth in the squad and to provide an extraordinarily good starting team every week.