Can money override loyalty? That’s the question that often plagues the top teams in Italy’s Serie A. Though the Italian league is clearly one of the best in Europe, most of the top clubs in the boot do not have the financial might that the best teams in England or Spain do, or that PSG and Bayern Munich have in France and Germany. Sure, Juventus has enough money to get good players and keep its own stars when it wants to, but it doesn’t really have the ability to go out and steal great players from top teams elsewhere on the continent. And that’s even more true of Italian teams beneath Juventus in money and prestige.
Enter AC Milan. The current reigning Serie A champions have been on a slow path back to the top after a financial collapse last decade. The club’s squad-building focus on tactical compatibility and developing young players finally paid off last season with its first scudetto in 11 years. Chief among the reasons for Milan’s return to the mountaintop was Sandro Tonali, the 22-year-old midfielder who became a veritable star of Italian soccer over Milan’s title-winning campaign. As is often the case when a team reaches the mountaintop in a less wealthy league, bigger clubs are now on alert for any signs that they might be able to snag a successful team’s breakout star like Tonali. A move doesn’t exactly appear imminent, but there are sharks in the water.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, some half-reported murmurs came out this week that Arsenal is looking to pry Tonali away from AC Milan, though the success of that attempt will rely heavily on Arsenal doing something that it rarely does: spend a whole lot of money. It appears that a potential price tag, if there is one to be believed, would range somewhere north of €60 million for the 22-year-old. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is said to like Tonali’s skill set, but that’s a lot of money for a player who has just one truly great season at Milan under his belt, and who will be very expense to sign due to his unique circumstances.
This one feels pretty bullshit, given that it’s Arsenal. While the Premier League money is often overbearing, Arsenal isn’t quite in the tier of the big and rich clubs in England, and so it will likely not make an offer that Milan can’t refuse. This is important financially, because Tonali just signed a new deal with the Rossoneri last summer. Players with new long-term contracts tend to not move, and if they do, it’s generally only for humongous transfer fees. It also might be important emotionally. Tonali is from Lodi, which is just a short drive from Milan, and he was an AC Milan fan as a child. If Arsenal doesn’t offer him huge wages, would he really want to leave his boyhood club, one that he just won the Serie A title with, just to play in England?
It’s not impossible, but this doesn’t pass the smell test with the current figures being bandied about. If Arsenal decides to pony up both a large transfer fee and offer Tonali massive wages, it might work, but the club has already spent a lot of money this summer in bringing in Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Fábio Vieira. Adding Tonali on top of that might be too rich for Arsenal’s blood. Couple that with the fact that Italian stars rarely leave Italy, and you have the recipe for one of those transfer rumors that amounts to nothing beyond a “Hey, remember when Arsenal was linked to Sandro Tonali” a few years down the line.
Tonali is not Andrea Pirlo. Despite both players being long-haired, creative midfielders who started out at Brescia, the two aren’t very similar style-wise. Being likened to Pirlo is never an insult, but the comparison does sell Tonali short. Let’s start with what they do have in common, though: Like Pirlo before him, Tonali feels most at home with the ball at his feet and runners all around him, who he can find with pinpoint passes using either foot. Because of that, he’s been deployed mostly as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker that relies less on physical traits than mental ones.
That’s where the comparison ends, though, because Tonali does have physical skills that Pirlo could only have dreamed of. He’s fast and strong, the latter a surprise given his slight build. This makes Tonali a more positionally versatile player than Pirlo, and it also fuels his forays forward from deep midfield.
That, in turn, lets him use one of his secret weapon skills: The man knows how to shoot the ball. He’s not going to be confused for an attacking midfielder anytime soon, but he can let it rip from outside the box once he gets forward, whether from an offensive maneuver or relentless pressing:Finally, Tonali has showed the ability to put in a defensive shift when needed. You can see it in the goal above with his pressing, but he can also clean up in the midfield under certain circumstances. It’s not his ideal role, but if he has to stay further back to intercept passes and use his pace to block out a portion of the opposing midfield, he can do it. That versatility helps him mesh with a variety of midfield partners, a boon for a team like Milan that doesn’t have the financial strength to keep all of its players and build a consistent partnership.
That being said, if a team signs Tonali expecting him to be a defensive rock, it will be disappointed. Tonali’s aforementioned slight build makes him less of a destroyer and more of a Sergio Busquets-style defensive midfielder, focusing on being in the right place at the right time over overpowering attackers. There’s value in that, but if Arsenal, for example, were to purchase him, the fast pace of the Premier League might overwhelm Tonali if deployed as a solo pivot.
Additionally, his decision making improved in his second season at Milan after a largely disappointing debut season, but he still has some work to do there. It appears when watching Tonali that his brain can’t quite catch up to what his feet can do, and he forces passes into spaces that he can’t quite reach. Those errant passes started to go away as he grew more confident in Milan’s formation and offensive style, but it’s something to note if he is purchased to be a creative spark in the midfield.
Tonali’s player profile makes him a viable candidate for a top team at two of the most common roles in center midfield. The first is also the easiest and cleanest, though perhaps the one with the least potential for something greater, and that is as part of a double pivot. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Tonali can easily play next to a more traditionally defensive partner, and he would likely thrive both in defense and in creating from deep. Having defensive cover next to him also allows him to push forward and using his shooting if he’s narrow, or his lobbed passes if he finds himself drifting wider:
Let’s get more daring, though. Tonali’s creativity makes him a perfect No. 8-style midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation, similar in end result to something like what Gini Wijnaldum used to do at Liverpool. Freed from the shackles of having to constantly defend, he could float all around the midfield, allowing him to weave his long passing with more forays forward, where he can use his shooting technique and close control on the ball. He would likely need to improve his decision making if he’s going to be relied as a fulcrum of the attack, rather than a transitional piece, but Tonali is just 22. There’s plenty of time for his mental game to catch up to his feet.
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
Let’s get this out of the way: Tottenham will hate any good transfer made by Arsenal in the same way that the reverse is true. So, no one would hate this move more than Tottenham.
Ok, with that said, the English team that would probably hate this most with regards to its own construction is Manchester United. If it feels like a broken record to say that United needs a midfielder like Tonali badly, well, that’s because it’s true. United was actually, lightly, linked with Tonali before he moved from Brescia to Milan, and though there haven’t been any links between the two this summer, he would be a good fit for what United is trying to fix in its midfield. This hate would be more of a missed opportunity kind than Arsenal pipping United for a player, but given that the Red Devils are currently linked to a perfectly fine and unexciting player in Adrien Rabiot, it will likely sting if Arsenal manages to pull a much more glamorous signing like Tonali.
As for the Gunners’ squad, the main point of pressure would come from everyone’s favorite lunatic, Granit Xhaka. With Thomas Partey usurping Xhaka’s natural position at defensive midfield, Xhaka has been forced to play a more advanced role that doesn’t suit his skills as well as a deeper one would. All of Arsenal’s rumored midfield targets—Youri Tielemans, Lucas Paquetá, Tonali—are aimed at finding an upgrade on Xhaka as the other No. 8 beside Martin Odegaard in Arsenal’s usual 4-3-3 formation. Swapping Xhaka out for Tonali would be a clear upgrade, both in that the Italian can do what Xhaka does but better, while also providing more dynamic charges forward with his athleticism.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Tonali is a young star who clearly has so much room to keep growing into the upper echelons of players at his position. Despite a bumpy start for Milan in his first season, Tonali was able to grow considerably last season, building confidence and consistency, two intangibles that tend to separate wonderkids from veritable superstars. His passing allows him to break lines and push teammates into dangerous positions, and his ability to control a game from deep is as important as it is rare from young and fast midfielders.
Sure, he’s not the greatest defender in the world, and whatever team eventually lands him long-term will likely have to compensate for that with either a gameplan or a destroyer of a partner. But what he already brings, at the age of 22, is worth adapting for. Whether it’s Arsenal this summer, or someone else in the future, or even if he stays at Milan long-term, whoever lands Tonali for the long haul will be glad to have him around. For these reasons, Sandro Tonali grades at a 87.7 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.