NEWCASTLE: Italian is known by many as the language of love — and while it’s the spoken word that does the trick for most, it’s the footballing feet of a Milanese import that has Eddie Howe head-over-heels.
You can keep your flowers and chocolates, Sandro Tonali’s Newcastle United debut has the Geordie nation struck by Cupid’s bow.
The 23-year-old was handed an unexpected debut at St. James’ Park on Saturday evening, and while pundits aplenty had written off the player’s talents, Howe, in secret, knew exactly what was in store.
For 92 minutes the midfielder glided across the Tyneside turf, wowing with his range of passing and ability to dictate. He sped the game up when it needed it, and slowed it down similarly when so required. It takes a special kind of footballer to do that, especially in a new country, new league, speaking a new language and alongside teammates he only met five short weeks ago.
Calls had been for Sean Longstaff, the Magpies’ stalwart, to get the nod against Aston Villa, but Howe had other ideas. And a 5-1 win, in which Tonali bagged the opener, proved why Howe makes the big bucks and was earmarked by Saudi chief, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, as the man to take United forward in 2021 ahead of his opposite number Unai Emery.
“We pursued him for a long, long time and paid a big fee for him because I fell in love watching him play a game last year,” said head coach Howe.
“He is an outstanding talent, he can do a little bit of everything. Very similar to our other midfielders, he’s got a combination of a lot of attributes that will suit the Premier League. This is one game, I don’t want to go over the top and put more pressure on him, but it’s a very good start and I’m just pleased he looked confident in the shirt and the fans have certainly taken to him, which is great to see.”
Tonali may well have been an unknown quantity to the English, untrained eye, but his quality and class was known from Italy’s Lo Stivale — the boot — up to the stylist swirls of the San Siro. He was AC Milan’s best player in their run to the Champions League semifinal last season. Who’d bet against him orchestrating something similar at Newcastle?
“It was a tough decision between him (Tonali) and Sean (Longstaff) but in the end it was based on fitness really. Sean had missed a lot of pre-season with a niggly injury and Sandro completed all of pre-season. So basing it on that and how well Sandro had done in pre-season, that’s why I made the decision,” Howe said.
“And I thought he was magnificent for us. The goal helped, it builds confidence. It certainly looked at home in the midfield. I thought his style was really effective for us today. He’s an incredible technician, very good technically off both feet. Great to see him score and in the box in that moment.”
Was there any one moment in that historic season in Milan that gave Howe the flutters?
Howe continued: “It was no moment, just his style, what he did and how he approaches the game. I am a huge admirer of his.
“(He is) Always wanting the ball in every moment. Prepared to accept the ball under pressure with both feet. A very high football intelligence. When you watch him play he is always scanning and taking up good positions. He will help us play some very good football this year.
“He is one of those players who always looks like he has time on the pitch, even when he doesn’t. Bruno is very similar in that respect.
“You need players who can control the game — and we probably haven’t had that at times in previous seasons. Certainly in certain games we are going to have more of the ball. That is our idea at this moment in time.
“He played in some very high-profile games last season and, for me, he was the standout player.”
Few Italians have really worked wonders in the English top-flight, not ones at the very top of their game. Paolo Di Canio is the top scorer from the country in England, and Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola shone bright but burned rapidly.
Many put that down to the real difference in culture. But Howe says the move to Newcastle has not been a shock to the system for adaptable Tonali.
“He is very popular, I see a player who is very humble and very aware of his teammates, surroundings. He has settled in very well and made some good friendships in the group. We have a really good set of players who make it their job to welcome new players,” Howe said.
It’s certainly a debut that will live long in the memory for many a Magpie — and Howe hopes his love affair will continue next week, when Newcastle have a potential heart-breaker in the pipeline at treble-winning Manchester City.