Wor Sandro: The new Geordie icon pulling Toon strings and scoffing in ‘Spoons

John Nicholson
Newcastle fans display a banner in honour of Sandro Tonali.
Newcastle fans have already fallen for Sandro Tonali.

Who doesn’t love a lavish-locked Italian regista? Johnny Nic does, and he reckons Newcastle have found a gem in Sandro Tonali.

Here’s ‘What’s So Great About…’ Newcastle’s import from Milan…

Who’s this then?
Sandro Tonali is a 23-year-old 5’11” Italian midfielder, recently signed by Newcastle United for over £60million from AC Milan, making him the most expensive Italian of all time.

Born in Lodi, Lombardy, he got his career started at Brescia aged just 17 in Serie B in 2017. The following campaign he was part of the title winning team which won promotion to Serie A. Impressing in the top flight, in September 2020 Tonali joined AC Milan on a season-long loan for €10million with an option to buy for €15million, plus bonuses worth another €10million.

AC Milan were his dream club and he played in almost every game of that loan season. In 2021 the club decided to get him on their books full time, signed him from Brescia and won the title with Sandro as a crucial part of their midfield.

Internationally he has played for the Under-19’s and Under-21s and was handed his first full cap by Roberto Mancini in October 2019. He’s now made 14 appearances for the Azzurri.

Although he loved Milan, his boyhood club, was on a long contract and had taken a wage cut to play for them, when the Magpies turned up with the Saudi-branded money hose which is guaranteed to wash away any stains, Milan loved the look of the 70million euros and Sandro wasn’t protesting about the eight-million euros he’d be paid per year. So he signed a five-year contract, immediately impressing in their opening game against Aston Villa.

He has the advantage of possessing a name that suits the varied Geordie accents to pronounce. Try it. Having a vowel at the end of both first and surname just facilitates the full Geordie, in the same way ‘lager’ and ‘avocado’ suits the Teesside accent’s habit of stretching out vowels in the middle of a word.  When I was a student in Newcastle there was a Sandro working in every trattoria (another word that suits the geordie accent) so Sandro is already var nigh a Geordie, like.


Why the love?
While goalscoring strikers tend to get the most love from fans, easily the most glamorous position on the pitch is the one Tonali plays; the ‘regista’. This is because they are often at the core of much of the play; a fulcrum around which the action happens. Used lower, as a defensive mid, it is often the regista’s vision that dictates the speed and direction of play. They have to do defensive duties but once in possession need to see what is happening in front of them and often have licence to make late breaks into the box – just as wor Sandro did against Villa to score his goal. It’s a job for someone who really likes to have the ball but who doesn’t mind a spell in the trenches when needed. To do it well you’ve got to be sharp in the tackle, have vision to make progressive passes and be able to find space unmarked.

If Newcastle fans are not students of AC Milan, the role he played for them in their title winning season was clearly why he was identified as ideal for the club. He moves non-stop, glides around the pitch with the ball, can do the junkyard dog thing to regain possession, sitting in front of the defence and has shown great timing to be a goal threat. He moves through the thirds all the time and seems comfortable in all of them. Although he’s played the majority of his games as a defensive midfielder, he seems comfortable wherever he ends up on the pitch, which is a very useful quality.

Registas of the quality of Sandro are rare beasts, which is why he was so expensive. He gives Newcastle both solidity to defence and creativity going forward. A nice combo. Against Villa he delivered every breakfast item on the menu, but against City he was forced into more purely defensive play, largely because they were on the backfoot much more and Phil Foden gave him a bit of a roasting at times. But Foden’ll do that to the best. However, the games you play against City are unlike any other game, so it’s hard to judge him on that match performance.

I suspect Eddie Howe will be looking for him to score more goals than the 14 he’s got in 221 appearances. The comparisons to Andrea Pirlo are obvious to see, though in truth, I’m not sure he’s really at the Pirlo standard yet, that is the snowiest summit in a many-peaked midfield mountain range and an unfair comparison which almost no-one could live up to. He also needs good beard work to get near to the imperious Pirlo, who even had cool hair follicles.

Although he moved from Italy, which is often thought to be a slower league, he had no problem with the pace of both Prem games so far. This is probably because it isn’t a slower league. It was slower 30 years ago and, as we know in football, many get an impression and stick with it in spite of the facts changing.

Regardless, he’s obviously going to be axiomatic to how the club plays this season and he’ll be looking to add to his 31 assists and 26 career goals to date.

Bruno Guimaraes and Sandro Tonali celebrate

Three great moments
What’s striking is the sheer variety of both goals and assists…

Last minute drama…

Passy passy catchy monkey…

Future days?
It’s a five-year contract, the fact he went straight into the first-team suggests how crucial he’ll be to Newcastle’s play this season. He’s not been signed to sit on the bench, that’s for sure. At 23  – though he looks older – his best years are likely to be ahead of him.

It’ll be interesting to see how Howe uses him, whether he might push him into a more advanced midfield position with fewer defensive responsibilities, at least against lesser opposition, with Bruno Guimaraes around to screen the back four. He’s only played 67 games in that slightly more advanced position but he’s scored 16 times, so it’s definitely an option.

Where Newcastle are now is not likely to be where they are in five years time, when they’ll either be champions of Europe, or thrown out of the league for being owned by who they gave legal assurances they were not owned by, only to subsequently admit elsewhere that they were owned by who they’d given legal assurances they were not owned by. Why hasn’t anything been done about that already? I think we know why.

But hey, let’s not allow squeamishness at autocratic states and morally repugnant human-rights abusers owning English football clubs get in the way of appreciating a damn fine footballer. The Mags have got a real gem here and he looks set to be a fan favourite. Everyones loves a handsome, brooding Italian midfielder.

Read more: Minimum requirement for Newcastle United and Eddie Howe now is forward motion