Sandro Tonali lost in translation at Newcastle but confident of happier days ahead

Sandro Tonali was kept on the bench for the Brentford match

It has been a decent start for Sandro Tonali at Newcastle United, following a high-profile summer move from AC Milan, but until his English improves and he feels comfortable in his new surroundings, patience will be needed.

There is a sense we are waiting for Tonali to settle but do not know how long it will take. Like all foreign imports to the Premier League, the 23-year-old must adapt to a new style of football, which is quicker, more physical and relentless than he was accustomed to in Serie A.

Tonali returns to Milan this week to face his former club, the Champions League draw pitching him against a club he reluctantly agreed to leave in the summer, only when it became clear the board wanted – and needed – to take the money Newcastle were offering.

At £53 million, rising to around £60 million with add-ons, Tonali is the second most expensive signing in Newcastle’s history and has already shown flashes of brilliance; the ability on the ball that persuaded manager Eddie Howe to make him a priority transfer target.

But there have been issues to resolve, with the Italian’s performance against Brighton and an apparent failure to understand his role in the side, exposing a language problem.

Sandro Tonali scores for Milan against Cagliari in 2021
Sandro Tonali helped Milan win their first Serie A title for 11 years in 2022 - AP Photo/Luca Bruno

In short, Tonali, who revealed he had found things “hard and difficult” immediately after making the move to Tyneside, had failed to absorb all the necessary information from coaching staff – and seemed confused about his positional responsibilities.

It was something that hurt the team in one of their worst collective performances for months and it was telling that Tonali did not start the home win over Brentford last weekend.

On the face of things, that was done in order to protect the 23-year-old after he picked up a slight injury problem while away on international duty last week. Keeping him on the bench on Saturday evening, would also mean he was fresh for his return to face his former club at San Siro on Tuesday night.

However, Newcastle are also trying to work out the best way to communicate with the player admitting Tonali’s lack of English was a complication rather than merely an inconvenience.

Howe had initially been reluctant to use an interpreter to convey his messages to Tonali as he believes that slows the player’s progress learning English.

But after the Brighton defeat, it became clear they need someone to translate tactical messages, usually the day before a game, but possibly in the dressing room before a match too.

Tonali, who is taking intensive English lessons, remains a player Newcastle are excited about. Howe, along with other senior figures within the club, believe he will become one of the most dominant central midfield players in the Premier League given time.

But they want to ease him into things and ensure he is comfortable, not just in a new working environment, but with what is being asked to do too.

“It is very early days for Sandro with us,” said Howe, speaking at his first Champions League press conference as a manager, which was delayed more than two hours after Newcastle’s flight was postponed due to bad weather over northern Italy. “But he is a hugely impressive character. He is really committed to Newcastle, learning the language, everything we would want him to be.

“I really, really like him as a person. He is really focused on his football, very serious and what I really like is he is a leader, albeit a young one. On the pitch, I think he has been impressive because it is very hard to transfer what you do to a different country and a different team.”

Tonali needs to understand what Howe demands, while also building relationships with team-mates. The more confident he gets with his English, the better he will be in English football.

“This summer has been hard and I’ve had a difficult start,” Tonali admitted. “In the beginning I was lost. It was not easy to find my place, but I have found people to support me and to help me and I started to be happier. I have to thank Mr Howe and my team-mates have been great.

“They are helping me in my personal and professional life. They have helped me settle. The language at the beginning was very, very difficult for me, communicating with the guys I found extremely tough, but it is getting easier and I’m very happy.”

Tonali has the potential to be one of the best midfield players in Europe and these are all the usual teething problems associated with a move to a new country and a new style of football.

With that in mind, the game against AC Milan has come at a good time for the youngster. Back in familiar surroundings, this is the perfect occasion to show exactly what his old supporters have lost and what his new ones can now enjoy.

“It will be the most thrilling feeling to come out into the stadium packed with people again,” added Tonali. “They let me live my dream here at AC Milan but now I come back as a rival. I will have a lot of feelings tomorrow.

“Everything happened so fast with the transfer, I was overwhelmed at first, but I have come across a wonderful team, wonderful staff and play for people who love football. The people of Newcastle will help anyone.”