However, despite being for sure one of the most interesting young players in Italy and Europe, he is still struggling to find a place in Milan’s starting XI in this season’s start. Milan’s midfield, in fact, formed by Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié, was really convincing in the impressive run that the team made at the end of last season. So now, what’s the best way to fit Tonali in such a well-organized midfield, keeping the performances of the team at a high level?
Milan’s classic lineup and midfield style
Since Pioli’s arrival one year ago, Milan played almost every game with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a starting eleven like the one in the following picture. It never really changed, not even in the first game of this season, against Bologna.
The midfield structure looks to be the classic double pivot one, but the way Pioli utilizes the midfielders is pretty different. Their role in the build-up phase is just to start the action and bring the ball to the flanks or to Hakan Çalhanoğlu, who works as an advanced playmaker and the main focus of every offensive action.
In the offensive phase, the midfield duo makes offensive projections rarely. With the left-backs pushing a lot, particularly Theo Hernández on the left, the midfielders almost never go to fill the penalty area, as we can see in the image behind. But they stay more defensive, ready to cover counter-attacks.
So, after understanding Pioli’s tactics for the midfielders, let’s focus on the players and try to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each one of them to find the best shape for Milan’s midfield.
Arrived at Milan from Empoli last season, Bennacer showed all the qualities which made Milan sign him from the first moment.
Although he is not of excellent physique, he makes of his speed and aggressiveness the best weapons. This ability led him to be among the best midfielders of Serie A in terms of recovered balls, in particular in the final third (last year he averaged 2.89 per game). In the following image, we can see his propensity to attack his opponent even on a lost ball from a corner kick, instead of just running back.
In possession, he still averages too many ball losses in his own third, as we can see in this image where he lost an easy ball almost in his penalty area.
That’s why Pioli never really opted for him as a classic playmaker, and that’s where he needs to improve the most.
Bought from Atalanta in the 2017/18 season, Franck Kessié has lived years of ups and downs for the Rossoneri. But under Pioli’s guide, he found his perfect shape, demonstrating to be an important resource for Milan and one of the best midfielders in the league, especially in a two-men midfield.
Pretty similar to Bennacer in the playstyle, he uses his physical strength way more than his French-Algerian teammate. Despite being less fast and aggressive, he wins lots of duels in the midfield. This thanks to his ability to control the man he is marking, which makes him fundamental for Pioli. Milan’s coach, in fact, wants his midfielders to stay man on man on the opponent’s midfielders, as we can see in this image.
In Milan’s midfield, that doesn’t really support the offensive phase, as we said before, the Ivorian is the one with more offensive tasks. Sometimes Kessié makes runs through spaces to occupy the position outside the penalty area, as we can see here.
His good shooting ability led him to score plenty of goals in the last seasons, 17 in three years. It’s obviously important to notice that nine of them were from penalties. At the moment, the penalty shooter at Milan is Zlatan Ibrahimović, but Kessié is for sure a really good alternative.
As we said in our introduction, the biggest deal of Milan’s market this summer was for sure the former Brescia midfielder Sandro Tonali. Despite having a hard season with his team, which saw them relegated in Serie B, the young guy confirmed all the expectations put on him, demonstrating to have everything needed to compete at a higher level. And that’s obviously what Milan hopes as well, after such a great economic effort.
Equipped with all the basic features of modern football, such as physical, technical, and game vision, in recent times he has received compliments from the entire world of football. Everyone considers him a real rising star in the long tradition of Italian midfielders. So much to compare him to Andrea Pirlo, who even claimed that Tonali is an even more complete player than he is.
At Brescia, he played as a defensive playmaker in a diamond-shape midfield, where he was the real game creator and focus of every action of the team. Coming to Milan, he now needs to adapt to a two-man midfield where he can not stay central but he has to control a more wide area. In his first appearances, we can see how he still struggles to find his right position on the pitch, as shown in this image, where he stays too close to Bennacer instead of working in empty spaces.
What can Tonali add to Milan’s midfield
Despite still having problems adapting to Milan’s midfield shape, Tonali has lots of quality that none of Milan’s actual midfielders have. Considering what we saw from last season, his ability to play vertical and long passes is absolutely incredible. In the following little table, we can see how his numbers in terms of vertical passes are very good considering that last season he was only 19 y/o and he played for a low-ranking team.
|Deep completions||1.85 per 90 (13th in the league)|
|Progressive passes||6.78 per 90 (29th in the league)|
As we said before in this analysis, Milan’s midfield does not have a real playmaker. Most of the passes are directed to Çalhanoğlu and their chances are all created from the final third. Tonali’s ability could give Milan an option to find long passes, considering the physical abilities of Zlatan Ibrahimović, or through passes, taking advantage of the speed of both Samu Castillejo and Theo Hernández.
His ability to play as a playmaker also gives Milan the possibility to switch in a three-man midfield. However, the results of the team since he played with the 4-2-3-1, makes this option very unlikely, at least at the moment.
Another great area where Tonali could help Milan is free kicks. With Hakan Çalhanoğlu being the only option at the moment, every time he is not on the pitch Milan doesn’t really have someone who can create dangerous situations, neither from corner-kicks nor on free kicks. Tonali last year served 7 assists to his teammates, almost everyone from dead-ball situations.
Despite still being an unpolished gem, there’s no doubt that Sandro Tonali will be a future world-class midfielder. In a team like Milan, with such a great history, some experienced players, and a coach who works very well with young players, he has for sure a great chance to become a star even sooner than what we expect. Especially in a season like this, with lots of games in a few days, and with Milan also playing the UEFA Europa League, he will surely find his space.
Bennacer and Kessié have already proved their ability and led Milan to an exceptional end of the last season and a really good start of the new one. They are for sure the best options for Pioli at the moment because the team looks well-balanced now and almost working from memory in every section of the pitch. Now it’s their moment to keep up this way and show that they’re still the best in Italy, and that these last months were not a one-hit-wonder.