Next Generation – Pirlo comparisons wide of the mark for Tonali, the teen with a '50-year-old's brain'

By Sports Desk April 13, 2020

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s. 

It was in the modest surroundings of Avellino's Stadio Partenio-Adriano Lombardi that the next great hope of Italian football was introduced to professional football in August 2017.

The 17-year-old Sandro Tonali emerged as a second-half substitute for Brescia, coming into the side to help shore up the midfield a few minutes after Emanuele Ndoj was sent off.

Brescia were 1-0 up when he came on in the 70th minute. They went on to lose 2-1 – a "half disaster", he called it.

Tonali wasn't seen again in Brescia's first team until January, but since then he has barely been out of the side and established himself as one of Europe's most talked-about teenagers.

Now an Italy international – having first been called up before even playing in Serie A – Tonali looks destined to move on this year, with Brescia facing relegation back to Serie B.

After the coronavirus pandemic passes, 2020 could be the year that makes or breaks this silky midfielder's chances of reaching the top.

"A 50-year-old's brain"

Many young players can be very eager to accelerate their careers too quickly. That big leap to an elite club is sometimes taken too soon and the consequences can have ramifications for the rest of the player's career.

Tonali was a regular in the Brescia team at 17. After missing out on promotion in that first season, he stayed and enjoyed a full campaign of first team football in Serie B, establishing himself and developing as the team won promotion.

Again, the urge to join a bigger club might have proven too great for many, but Tonali stayed put and will have a season of top-level football under his belt by the time 2020-21 rolls around. It's unlikely he'll move down a division again, so, finally, it may well be the right time to take the next step.

Maturity. This is a label many have attached to Tonali, and that attitude is visible on the pitch as well, possessing great awareness and composure – you will rarely see petulance.

"The impressive thing, which I have not seen in other children, was his way of acting as an adult: very serious, taciturn, introverted," a former teacher of his once told Sky Italia.

Roberto Boscaglia, the coach who gave Tonali his debut, had a similar appraisal of the teenager in 2018, telling Radio Lo Sport: "He was a boy with a personality and a strength in fearful legs, and above all with a brain of a 50-year-old in the body of an 18-year-old."

The 'next Pirlo'?

"Blame the hair, I should cut it," Tonali said to Gazzetta dello Sport last year when asked about the comparisons to Andrea Pirlo that have become synonymous with him. "Andrea is unreachable. Like [Steven] Gerrard, the most dynamic, or [Luka] Modric, unique in style. I see myself in [Gennaro] Gattuso."

Long-locked, blessed with wonderful technique, a central midfielder and schooled at Brescia – it's easy to see how the Pirlo comparisons started.

But he is seemingly wise to distance himself from such comments. After all, that tag has rarely helped any of the midfielders it was previously reserved for, whether that's Luca Cigarini, Andrea Poli or Manuel Locatelli.

While the comparison is obvious in theory, it's clear how Tonali differs from Pirlo, who was an out-and-out playmaker and conducted almost everything his teams did.

Perhaps that's where his career will end up, but at the moment Tonali is no Pirlo, despite what the romanticists want.

Pirlo v Tonali

While it's obviously important to remember Tonali's data is collected over a much shorter period, at the same time it helps highlight just how good Pirlo was.

He was an era-defining playmaker and dictated matches unlike almost any other player on the planet during his career – perhaps bar Xavi.

Between the start of 2004-05 – when Opta records began – and when he left Juventus in 2015, Pirlo had 94 touches and 75 passes per Serie A match on average. This season, Tonali is averaging 60 touches and 39 passes.

The teams Pirlo played in generally dominated possession, whereas Brescia cannot do that – Tonali is generally tasked with aiding his side in transitions and with more direct passes, springing counters.

This potentially explains why his pass accuracy in his own half is 82 per cent and in the opposing half it is 68. By comparison, Pirlo's respective figures are 95 per cent and 82 per cent, significantly better than Tonali's.

Pirlo's accuracy with passes ending in the final third (74 per cent) is also much higher than his potential heir (64 per cent).

But don't let such facts trick you into suggesting Pirlo's excellent passing accuracy means he just played the ball simply all the time – he averaged 2.3 chances created per match in the qualifying time period, showing he dictated and crafted. Putting that into context, Tonali is averaging 2.1 every game this season, his total 48 chances created being the ninth highest in Serie A.

Where Tonali does come out on top, however, is dribbling. He has remarkable ability with the ball at his feet, beating his man with 76 per cent success this term. Only Ismael Bennacer (81 per cent) has a better completion rate of players with more than 35 attempts – Pirlo's average was 62 per cent.

There's no doubt Tonali is a fine prospect and still very young, but the data supports those who insist he's a significantly different player to Pirlo at the moment. A move to a better team, where he will be supported by higher-quality players, could elevate Tonali to another level, and maybe he'll adapt to a more orchestrative role. But to suggest he will and also reach Pirlo's level would be widely speculative at this point.

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