You Heard It Here First - Brescia's Sandro Tonali Is Italy's New Pirlo

The future is bright for the Azzurri, thanks in part to the emergence of Tonali
10:00, 30 Mar 2020

Since winning the World Cup in 2006, it has been turbulent time on the international stage for Italy.

Neither of the subsequent two tournaments, in South Africa and Brazil, brought progression from the group stages; if the Azzurri thought it couldn’t get worse, they then failed to qualify for Russia 2018 altogether. They performed better in the European Championships, reaching the quarter finals in 2008, the last 16 in 2016 and, best of all, the final in 2012. But, facing up to a Spain side at the peak of their powers for the second time, they succumbed to a 4-0 defeat.

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Better is always expected of a nation with such a proud footballing heritage, but a drop off from their peak was far from unexpected. Their fourth World Cup crown was the perfect way to wrap up a great generation; Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro were all reaching the end, and it was down to Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and a smattering of others to guide the team into the future.

A lack of suitable replacements and an inability to let the past lie have perhaps been the main factors in their struggles. Cannavaro, named FIFA’s World Player of the Year after captaining them to their triumph, stuck around until 2010, when at the age of 37 he was way off the pace, and their manager Marcelo Lippi even returned having stepped away after the final.

Pirlo became a real talisman as the years progressed, growing his reputation and morphing into a ‘hipster icon’ before stepping away six years ago. Buffon, now in his forties, isn’t on the scene either. The stardust that swept through the squad in the early part of the century was long gone at their lowest ebb two-and-a-half year ago when Sweden knocked them out of the qualification playoffs.

Since, though, a new era has dawned; Roberto Mancini has a lot of talent at his disposal, his team stormed through qualification for Euro 2020, which will now be in 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak, and crucially both Buffon and Pirlo appear to have been replaced. Not only that, but by their natural heirs; Gianluigi Donnarumma of AC Milan is said to be the best goalkeeper to emerge since his namesake, while there is more than a striking resemblance between Pirlo and 19-year-old Brescia man Sandro Tonali.

Apart from the same long, wavy hair and the shared place of origin (Pirlo’s career also began at Brescia), there are many similarities in style. Tonali sits deep and dictates the play at his own pace, with a supreme passing range; at his age, Pirlo was a cultured number ten, but despite impressive performances for Italy’s development squads and at various loan spells from Inter, it was at Milan where his lack of pace was judged a hindrance and he was dropped back. The rest is history and Tonali has a legacy to follow.

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Even people who don’t watch Italian football on a regular basis will already be aware of Tonali. Over recent transfer windows, his name has been a regular fixture in the gossip columns, with Manchester City, Barcelona and Juventus linked heavily. He will have been hoping to leave his mark on the big stage this summer, adding to his three international caps after making his debut last year, but that ship may be about to set sail.

Nevertheless, the future is bright. Tonali’s rise has been rapid, but also in line with his club’s; Brescia were promoted to Serie A last season and he played a crucial role in that. Similarly to Marco Verratti, who was poached from under the noses of Italy’s elite by PSG in 2012 after impressing in the lower leagues with Pescara, he will be better having developed gradually, rather than bursting onto the scene. The details may have been different to Pirlo, but he also had to prove himself and grow.

Mancini has the most talented group of players to choose from in 14 years. Lippi’s World Cup winners were old masters; they weren’t fancied and crept up on everyone in Germany because of their superb defence, in line with tradition. Now, the excitement is all about their attack; Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo, Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa, son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico, and even Everton’s Moise Kean will make an impact soon enough.

Everything will start with Tonali, though. He will be robbed of his opportunity to shine in a few months as worldwide health takes priority, but he may not need it. A partnership in midfield alongside Verratti is a mouthwatering prospect, and a much-anticipated big transfer cannot be too far away either.