Newcastle United have completed the signing of Sandro Tonali, so we’ve analysed why the Premier League club were willing to take the reported £60 million (€70m) plunge to bring in the former AC Milan star.
When Newcastle United were taken over by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in 2021, there was talk that the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi could soon be strutting their stuff at St James’ Park.
It may have seemed a bit underwhelming when Dan Burn arrived from Brighton and Hove Albion instead, but he and other new purchases helped take the team to a new level under boss Eddie Howe. The additional signings of Kieran Trippier, Bruno Guimarães, Sven Botman and Alexander Isak pushed them on, and to the surprise of many, they secured a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League with a fourth-place finish in the Premier League.
It has been a promising start to the project, but they are approaching their difficult sophomore album. Recruitment has been well funded, but up to now it has mostly been intelligent and successful.
The arrival of one of Milan’s key players feels like a statement being made ahead of the next phase. The signing of Sandro Tonali not only appears to be a big power move for Newcastle but also lands them a player many have said could be a star of the future in midfield. They also appear to be flexing that significant financial muscle as the player’s agent, Giuseppe Riso, recently said: “When such an important offer is received, it is difficult to refuse both for the club and the player.”
Howe must be careful as he aims to keep his team evolving while not compromising on what got them to the Champions League dance in the first place. However, risks must be taken to not only take that next step, but even just to consolidate their place among Europe’s elite, with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur looking to strike back next season.
Tonali has often been compared to legendary former Italy international Andrea Pirlo, also being a midfielder, also having had long hair and both coming through the youth setup at Brescia. That comparison was cemented further when Tonali moved to Milan and quickly started to enjoy success with the Rossoneri. Like Pirlo, he made a significant impact by the end of his second season. Pirlo won the Champions League in 2002-03, while Tonali was a key part of the Milan side that ended an 11-year Scudetto drought by securing the 2021-22 Serie A title.
Neither has ever particularly agreed with the comparison, as Tonali noted to Corriere della Sera a few years ago: “The Pirlo comparisons started because of that haircut. They don’t bother me, but they are not suitable. We are different on the pitch and Pirlo had supreme qualities. I don’t know who would be able to reach those heights.”
Pirlo concurred, saying: “Tonali doesn’t look like me as a player. He is much more complete, both defensively and offensively. He is a mix between me and other players. He is not my heir because he plays differently, but he will surely become a great footballer.”
In 36 league games (31 starts) in 2021-22, Tonali built up an effective midfield partnership with Franck Kessié and provided five goals and two assists for the eventual champions. Manager Stefano Pioli relied on Tonali, playing him more often than any other midfielder, but the player was still trying to develop his game. That made his performances in 2022-23 even more interesting. Tonali seemed to change his approach, scoring just two in the league but excelling in creating for others. The 23-year-old claimed seven assists, up from just two the season before, while he also created more chances (62, up from 44). His number of passes were slightly up but his accuracy was down from 85.5% to 81.0%. He played slightly more forward passes – 14.2 per 90 from 13.8 the previous season – but not enough to account for the 4.5% dip in success, while he actually played fewer long passes.
That could be why the perception from some in Italy was that his form had dipped from the previous year, but he still had a big impact on a decent campaign for Pioli’s men. The loss of Kessié to Barcelona at the end of the 2021-22 season may have had an impact, but Ismaël Bennacer stepped up and continued to provide Tonali with some steely assistance in the middle of the pitch. Though Milan’s defence of the Scudetto faltered as Napoli ran away with it in 2022-23, their run to the semi-finals of the Champions League was impressive, especially Tonali’s contribution.
He created 22 chances in the Champions League last season, the most by a Milan player in a single campaign since Clarence Seedorf in 2006-07 (24). Only Manchester City’s Jack Grealish (35) and Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski (23) created more. He also created more big chances (nine) than any other player in the competition – a chance from which an attacking player would be considered likely to score.
Overall, Tonali was the Milan player with the most games played (48), minutes played (3,983), chances created (90) and tackles won (56) in all competitions in 2022-23, while only Rafael Leão (11) produced more than his nine assists for the Rossoneri. Of Serie A midfielders last season, he ranked seventh for chances created and 16th for successful passes ending in the final third.
According to our new player radars, Tonali did not exactly profile alongside the most obvious names last season. Empoli’s Răzvan Marin was considered most similar, followed by Aleix García of Girona, Auxerre’s Hamza Sakhi and Real Valladolid’s Álvaro Aguado.
It is probably more relevant to compare him to his potential new teammates at Newcastle though. How does he measure up and where is he likely to fit?
His creativity is a good place to start, with his chances created per 90 of 2.1 more than any Newcastle midfielder last season, though 0.8 of that came from set pieces, which is why his creative stats must be put into context in his prospective new team. You would assume when fit, Trippier will continue to take most of the set pieces, so Tonali almost certainly won’t have anything like the number of opportunities to create from dead balls he did at Milan. His 1.3 chances created from open play per 90 in Serie A was less than Guimarães and Joe Willock (both 1.4) in the Premier League, while the latter (0.4) matched Tonali on big chances created per 90.
The Italian’s passing accuracy will need to get back to his 2021-22 levels, with all of Guimarães, Willock, Sean Longstaff and Joelinton recording a better percentage in the league than him last season, though only Guimarães (5.6) played more long passes per 90 as Tonali (5.4). The Brazilian (16.0) was also the only Newcastle midfielder to play more forward passes per 90 (14.2).
Tonali will also need to maintain his goal contribution rates. Howe saw his midfield produce plenty in the Premier League last season, with Guimarães and Willock providing nine each, while Joelinton came up with seven and Longstaff popped up with five. If he’s not taking set pieces, Tonali will have to find ways to produce even more from open play.
Defensively he plays his part too, averaging 2.1 tackles per 90 last season. Both Guimarães (2.6) and Joelinton (2.4) averaged more in the league, but Tonali’s success of 64.1% bettered the former (51.9%), behind only Joelinton’s 70% among Newcastle midfielders. Tonali also won a higher percentage of duels than any of Newcastle’s midfielders (58.3%) but contested fewer of them per 90 (6.8).
Tonali can be the kind of box-to-box all-rounder that Howe can make use of domestically and in Europe, with vital experience in winning a league title and reaching the latter stages of the Champions League. His performances in big games for Milan will also be a big tick in the box for him.
Expectations will be high for Tonali given the fee, but it also doesn’t feel like an outlandish attempt at just bringing in a name. Newcastle’s recruitment has earned the benefit of the doubt, and you would assume a plan is in place of how to get the best out of a player who still has plenty of room to grow.
Tonali recently impressed at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, recording two assists in his three games for Italy, and you can certainly see Howe pairing him with Guimarães to good effect in the Magpies’ midfield as a double pivot, with Joelinton, Willock and Longstaff providing different options, while links to James Maddison and Dominik Szoboszlai suggest an attacking midfielder is also being sought.
Comparisons with Pirlo may follow Tonali for the rest of his career, but who knows? Play his cards right at St James’ Park and he could soon be known as the next Lee Clark or Rob Lee.