What Sandro Tonali’s shock move to AC Milan shows about how Milan, and Inter, pursued this deal and how both are viewing next season…
Sandro Tonali, Brescia’s star midfield wunderkind and seemingly preordained future of the Italian National Team, is close to a deal to sign with AC Milan. The deal is basically all agreed, and, bar a massive change in direction or an act of God, Tonali will be joining the Rossoneri next season.
This is a big deal.
Given the level of talent Tonali is, as well as the clubs that were pursuing him, it is a little surprising he ended up at Milan. As the bidders fell out of the hunt, however, Milan became arguably the most logical destination. For those who had not been able to keep up with the Rossoneri this season, especially following Serie A’s return from the hiatus, there is some real, tangible positivity surrounding this team, a first after a long period of instability and negativity for the European giants. They were arguably the best team in Italy during that quick run up to the end of the season, putting in some very strong performances to get them into a European place, most notably beating Juventus 4-2 back in early July. There is a real spine forming in this team, mixing young promising talent with experienced veteran leadership. From back to front, the already present spine of Gigio Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Ismaël Bennacer, Franck Kessié, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ante Rebić is a team that will not quite win the Scudetto just yet, but one that is obviously building rapidly in the right direction. That spine is also joined by emerging, or already broken through, young talent, including the likes of Theo Hernández, Rafael Leão, Alexis Saelemaekers, Matteo Gabbia, and Pierre Kalulu, demonstrating the strong future that this team has. They are now adding Tonali, arguably the most promising young player in Italy, to this already solid spine. This is a move that brings another massive building block to this Milan team.
It is the Rossoneri midfield in particular that is now very intriguing, as the 20-year-old Tonali joins the 23-year-old Kessié and 22-year-old Bennacer in forming a very interesting, and good, problem for manager Stefano Pioli to have. Do you play all three of them together, going away from the 4-2-3-1 set up that seemed to serve Milan well recently, or do you only choose two of them to play in that midfield three alongside Hakan Çalhanoglu, a more natural number ten? It seems like Milan will use Tonali and one of the other two in a double pivot, using that depth and ability to rotate in order to balance playing in the league and the Europa League, but it is possible that they build toward a future of using all three, especially if they eventually replace Zlatan with a forward more able to drop into space as a center forward as well, similar to Roberto Firmino or Karim Benzema. It is hard to go wrong in this scenario, and the incredible depth that Milan now have in midfield is setting them up well to challenge for the Champions League places next season, and possibly, a few years down the line, the chance to challenge for the Scudetto as well.
It is still a risk, however, as, despite the pieces looking like they are coming together for Milan, there is still the chance it could all fall apart. The mess surrounding Stefano Pioli and seemingly-tabbed replacement Ralf Ragnick was definitely unfair on Pioli, who had done an incredible job getting the train back on the tracks in the second half of the season, but I do believe the jury is still out on whether Pioli is the right man for the job. That run after the hiatus was very impressive, but it could very well have been just a flash in the pan, possibly a strong run of form that would be reversed as Milan reverted back to their mean level of performance at the beginning of next season. There were genuine questions around Pioli’s management at the beginning of last season, questions that led to logical discussions around Ragnick replacing him. They will also soon have to find a replacement for Zlatan, who is crucial in their attack. Throwing all of their eggs into one basket like this is not always ideal, despite how talented and effective Zlatan still is, as despite what the 38-year-old Swede might tell you, he obviously cannot play forever. It is very possible, even likely, that Milan kick on next season, and they start the season with the momentum they got from how they ended last season and ride that to a strong 2020/21 season and potentially a spot in the Champions League. In that case, Tonali will have joined arguably the ideal club to play for, but if things do go wrong, it could bring up a large roadblock in the young Italian’s development, possibly derailing his career if things got bad enough. I do not think this is a massive risk, but the last half-decade of Milan’s history has had a strong “one step forward, two (or more) steps back” aura around them, so I am hoping the several steps back do not come.
It is impossible to talk about Tonali going to Milan without discussing the club on the other side of this massive tug-of-war. As the bidders fell away, it appeared the Tonali Sweepstakes had been reduced to only two teams: AC Milan and Inter. The two Milan giants duking it out over the signature of Italy’s next big young talent had a certain poetic feel to it, and it felt like a sign that the Derby della Madonnina was building back toward the iconic level the rivalry was at in the 1990s and 2000s. Curiously, though, Milan did not get Tonali because the player chose them, although it is possible that boyhood Milan fan Tonali did prefer to play for the Rossoneri. Inter pulled out of negotiations. Throughout this entire process, it appeared that Inter were the favorites to sign him, presenting Tonali with a chance to play in the Champions League and contend for a league title next season in a midfield alongside fellow Italian youngster Nicolò Barella and the experienced and quite underrated Marcelo Brozović. Tonali and Inter had even had personal terms agreed for a move since April. However, Inter weirdly decided to pull out of negotiations with Brescia, opening the lane for Milan to sign the player unopposed. It would later come out that this was a decision made by Inter manager Antonio Conte, who preferred that the club sign an older, more experienced player in midfield instead of the younger Tonali. This move came as Inter were reportedly closing in on a deal for Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal and potentially pursuing a deal for Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté. It is a decision that has garnered quite a bit of criticism, and it is a decision that Milan fans might be thanking Conte for in the years to come.
Do not get me wrong, I get the gamble that Conte is trying to make here. He is seemingly throwing all of his weight behind winning a league title in the next two years with Inter. While I do think Tonali could immediately play a role in a Scudetto-winning Inter team, the desire to go for more experienced and guaranteed-talent midfielders over a young and still relatively unproven player is at least somewhat logical in that sense. But that is the thing, it is a gamble, and a massive one at that. Conte is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at winning a Scudetto with this Inter team, a team that can probably stay at the level of legitimate title challenger for maybe the next two seasons, three seasons at the absolute most. If Inter do not win a league title in that time, then what are they going to have to show for their efforts? They will be left with a team with an aging core, not many emerging talents to replace the aging players, and the possibility that the young players already playing a major role in this team, including the likes of Barella, Lautaro Martínez, and the newly arrived Achraf Hakimi, could be long gone. This is seemingly a move done by someone who cannot see past the end of his nose, someone who is so obsessed with the immediate goal that he cannot see how the image of his team is shaping up in the next three to five years. As a result, Conte has handed Inter’s biggest rivals what could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle needed to bring Milan back to true prominence. This is not even the first bad transfer decision Inter have made with young players, even in the last two years. Inter lost out in the race to sign Atalanta winger Dejan Kulusevski to Juventus despite being the front-runners to land the young Swede, possibly due to Conte’s preference, and previous manager Luciano Spalletti willingly sent Nicolò Zaniolo to Roma as part of the move that brought Radja Nainggolan to Inter. The Nerazzurri could have had a young, promising midfield five of Kulusevski, Zaniolo, Tonali, Barella, and Stefano Sensi, but due to completely avoidable issues of their own making, they now have lost out on three of those players.
Antonio Conte is obviously a brilliant and very accomplished manager, but he is an incredibly stubborn individual. Conte is so set in his ways and in the players he wants, which have usually been older veteran players, that he is unwilling to have his team sign one of the world’s most promising young talents. This gamble could ultimately work out. Inter could win a league title or two with this team, and a player like Vidal or Kanté could come in and be an immediate contributor. Winning league titles could allow them to build even further, adding talent that would make them not miss Tonali in the slightest. However, it is a colossal gamble. If Inter do not win a title in this window, and especially if Tonali becomes a superstar at Milan, Interisti will be sat wondering what could have been.
The move is not official, but it looks about set. Sandro Tonali will join his boyhood club. Milan have secured the signature of one of the most promising young players in the world and a key building block in bringing this storied club back to prominence. I am incredibly excited to see how this team shapes up and to see how this Rossoneri core develops. There is tangible hope and optimism around Milan now, and it is exciting to see.
In the words of transfer guru Fabrizio Romano: here we go!