Editor's note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at new AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali.
The past half-dozen or so years have been among the worst ever for Italian giants AC Milan, with disappointing domestic campaigns that haven't even come close to delivering qualification to the Champions League -- a competition they have won an impressive seven times. It's no coincidence that in the past decade the club has struggled to come up with a coherent and sustainable transfer strategy. In addition to often resembling an elephant's graveyard by giving a last throw of the dice to players well beyond their heyday -- though obviously I wouldn't dare to include Zlatan Ibrahimovic in this category -- they've too frequently provided asylum for high-earning players who've failed elsewhere.
The signing of Sandro Tonali, however, represents a refreshing change in direction for the Rossoneri.
It's been quite some time since they have managed to capture a player that was coveted by many rival top clubs, let alone one who has the technical, tactical and personal abilities to make their success-starved supporters dream again. The hope is that the 20-year-old signing from Brescia will lead the Lombardy club into a new golden era, becoming one of those rare "generation players" that drives success. Yet even if that turns out not be the case, at the very least Tonali's further development should net the club a healthy sell-on profit.
Rather inevitably the midfielder has been long compared to Italy legend Andrea Pirlo, partly because both came through the Brescia youth setup, and now Tonali is following in Pirlo's footsteps to Milan. However, at Brescia the 2006 World Cup winner (now Juventus head coach) was initially an attacking midfielder and was only "reinvented" as a deep-laying playmaker in midfielder by Carlo Ancelotti upon arriving in Milan in 2001. While there are certain similarities to Pirlo -- the crisp, precise passing (short or long), the eye for playmaking and an exceptionally high footballing IQ -- Tonali is still very much his own young man with his own distinctive characteristics.
On top of being an exquisite flair player, he's also relatively powerful. Courtesy of his well-developed upper body strength and excellent balance, he's hard to knock off the ball. He's also got a superb right foot, from which he has willingly taken care of Brescia's set pieces in recent seasons, and doesn't mind having a go from long range. His tally of 16 assists and six goals from 88 league appearances is already a decent account, yet arguably the most impressive facet of Tonali's game is his ability to dictate the rhythm and the flow of the game. Though barely out of his teens, he plays the game like someone 10 years his senior; he never appears in a hurry and is happy to release the ball with purpose and precision by means of just one or two touches.
Perhaps rather less typical for a skill-based defensive midfielder, Tonali also has an edge or combativeness to his game and is happy to "mix it" with opponents when recovering the ball. Once it's at his feet, he's tenacious enough to set off on determined forward runs, at times muscling his way past whoever is prepared to have a go at intercepting. In this regard he can sometimes resemble the ex-Liverpool and Barcelona midfielder, Javier Mascherano.
Due to this somewhat unusual makeup of abilities, Tonali doesn't necessarily need to be locked down as a deep-lying midfielder forever. He's already enjoyed the odd outing as a more advanced midfielder, almost a No. 8, being allowed to break forward more freely and use his creativity higher up the pitch. It's conceivable that the youngster might still end up as a box-to-box midfielder, though he might still not be quite dynamic enough to make those vertical runs with a consistency beyond his current trademark bursts.
Italy head coach Roberto Mancini is already a pronounced fan of the midfielder and he likely would have given the 20-year-old playing time to add to his three full caps in the just-completed national team fixtures. Unfortunately, though, Tonali now finds himself in self-isolation due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak at his previous club, Brescia.
Unless AC Milan plan on further reinforcements in midfield, Tonali should slot in next to Ismael Bennacer as one of two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. And although the Rossoneri squad still gives the impression of being something of a patchwork, it's clear that the arrival of the young central midfielder is not just a strong reinforcement on the pitch but also a signing that gives the whole project a touch more credibility and the glimpse of a bright new dawn on the horizon.