Home » Manchester United FC » Sandro Tonali and Nicolo Zaniolo are the Italian wonderkids stealing the show in Serie A


While the Bundesliga takes the plaudits for giving young players the platform to catapult themselves into the limelight, Serie A is quietly running below the radar.

Just take Brescia's Sandro Tonali or AS Roma's Nicolo Zaniolo. One has been valued at €300million (£250m) by the club president and the other is in contention to win the 2019 Golden Boy award.

Premier League sides have their eyes locked on both players' every move and their time out of the spotlight quickly came to an abrupt end in recent months.

These two are now show-stopping talents.

Likened to Italy legend Andrea Pirlo - namely due to the fact both started young at Brescia and the undeniable similarities in haircuts - Tonali will be the first to admit that comparison simply doesn't stack up, not really.

See Pirlo's passing was among the finest in world football at his peak. Tackling wasn't top of his priorities, it wasn't his role. But it is a huge component of Tonali's arsenal, his ability to snap into tackles incisively to win the ball back, not in an erratic fashion where he is a red card in waiting.

For Gianluca Nani, the man credited with helping discover Pirlo as a rising star at Brescia while he held the role of technical director in 1999, has his own take on who the tough-tackling Tonali reminds him of.

'More maybe (Daniele) De Rossi, something like that,' the former Brescia, Watford and West Ham director told Sportsmail.

'He is defensive midfielder but he is also able to start the action. Pirlo has the better final pass and so they are two different players. The fact that both come from Brescia leads to the comparison.

'I really do believe Tonali will be a top player, a really top player and I can understand why English clubs like him.'

The interest of English clubs is fast becoming an open secret, particularly the admiring glances from Manchester United after they had him watched closely by scouts last month.

Italian football is famously much more tactics-driven than the English alternative but, if anything, Nani believes that could suit Tonali's game.

'English football is more intense, quicker and more aggressive but Tonali has these characteristics,' he added. 'He isn't super quick but he is brave, really tough and really good in the tackle.

'He is strong, a leader and he has good timing on the ball. Manchester United are one of the top clubs in the world - OK not performing too well now - but certainly in the top five clubs in the world. And this player for me could play at that level.

'He is 19 years old and young but he is always the leader. He has everything to be a good captain in the future. He is doing the right things in the right way, at the right time, and now he just needs the time to grow up. I am not surprised that the top English clubs are looking at him.'

The teenager was instrumental in the club's promotion from Serie B last season but caution has been urged given this is his first campaign in the Italian top flight. Some of his critics (admittedly, you won't find many in Italy right now), feel talk of joining one of the Premier League 'big six' has arrived too soon.

The Lombardy club know their place in the standing of the game and know that the player, who recently made his senior international debut, will want to test himself at the highest level.

But hopes of picking him up cheaply have long gone, especially with former Leeds owner Massimo Cellino running the show in Lombardy.

Cellino told Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport: 'All the big Italian clubs, and abroad Atletico Madrid, PSG and Manchester City. But in my view, he'd be better off remaining with Brescia.

'The other day, his agent and his parents were telling me about this €50m evaluation. I replied that for me he is worth €300m, which means I don't want to sell.

'I have a dream. If Sandro accepts, I am ready to make a big financial sacrifice to extend his contract.'

What is most exciting for Italian fans is not just the limits Tonali could reach having already impressed at a high level as a teenager, it is that he could line up alongside the increasingly popular Zaniolo in the national team.

It is the soft-spoken Roma star that has got tongues wagging in Serie A, having produced an incredible turnaround from a youth career dominated by rejection and disappointment.

His early days were spent at Fiorentina, with his family based in the Massa, Tuscany region not far from Florence.

But after eight years with La Viola, the tears would flow and a skinny and short Zaniolo was rejected, pushed in the direction of second division side Virtus Entella.

Nani was one of those to cast an eye over Zaniolo as a 17-year-old playing at the Stadio Comunale Chiavari. While his shortcomings were obvious, the raw talent left the former Brescia director with a lasting impression.

'I know Zaniolo from when he was at Virtus Entella in Serie B and you could see there was a good player there,' he explains, accepting the key was a rapid improvement in physicality.

'But to become one of the best players in Europe in two years wasn't easy to see! First of all he has got much stronger in the legs and when you play with better players it is easy for you to improve.

'When he did arrive at Roma everybody could see he was a different player with confidence and strength. He is able to score, play the final ball, create, he is a really good player and also so young still.'

Zaniolo started under the brightest lights - a nod to maturity beyond his years - as he made his debut for Roma away at the Santiago Bernabeu in a 3-0 Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.

Versatility is a word often associated with the Massa-born midfielder. He can play wide, as many young players often to start with, he can play off the striker or alternatively, he can drop into a three-man midfield.

Totti comparisons are inevitable but for Nani, it is two staples of English football that better describe how Zaniolo could go on to develop his game.

'I saw him play live many times and every time I am happy to watch him,' Nani, who hails from Roma, said.

'He is quick, he has good strength in the legs and he is cold, clinical in front of goal. He can play more than one position. They started to put him wide, less responsibility but I think he can end up as a top box-to-box midfielder with permission to break into the box to score.

'Think (Frank) Lampard or (Steven) Gerrard or playing something like that.'

Under Paulo Fonseca, Zaniolo has really taken his career forward this season, even if the campaign remains in its infancy.

Links to Tottenham last summer were a sign of what is to come - Europe's top sides battling to secure a player who, for much of the last decade, has known nothing but disappointment.

He managed just six goals in the entire 2018-19 campaign, he has five already in the opening 15 games and looks on course to be Roma's most important player this season.

Talk of a Ballon d'Or win for either brings a laugh from Nani, not because it is beyond the reach of Zaniolo or Tonali, but that it is a sign of how Italy's production system has rapidly improved in recent years.

Fabio Cannavarro was the last Italian to be crowned the best player in world football back in 2006 and ask anyone in Italy who will end their wait for another winner and Tonali and Zaniolo will be among the first names to spring to mind - Gigi Donnarumma and Federico Chiesa will also earn worthy mentions.

But the big excitement in Italy is that they have two world class talents who can realistically play in tandem for the national team.

Azzurri boss Roberto Mancini now has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal with Tonali and Zaniolo the stars shining brightest on the come up. They have already forced their way into his squad and now they are looking to have the rest of Europe on alert.

Whether it is Manchester United or Tottenham sending admiring glances to the continent or Juventus flexing their financial muscle, the wonderkids will never again find themselves under the radar.