Sandro Tonali said this week that he felt lost after leaving AC Milan for Newcastle. He is yet to find himself.
There have been flashes — and a brilliant debut fuelled by adrenalin — but, for now, the search intensifies for the player that Eddie Howe was convinced is the midfield upgrade his team needs.
Tonali will be given time to adapt to the Premier League, of course, but the Champions League at the San Siro should have been his stage. He has shone in these conditions before, leading his boyhood club to the semi-finals last season.
He was given the noisiest of welcomes on his return, but the performance that followed was subdued. Maybe the emotion of it all left him drained, for his running was not as hard as it should have been and his cunning was also lacking. He was withdrawn on 72 minutes — again, to much applause — but that was because of his history.
The future is Howe’s concern. The boss has a selection problem now: which of Tonali and Bruno Guimaraes does he leave out? Together, they are not working, and the man they were signed to replace in Howe’s strongest XI outperformed both here.
Sandro Tonali was substituted on a night in Milan where he struggled to impact the game
Eddie Howe must work out how best to use his marquee summer signing, who he said he ‘fell in love’ with watching him play for AC Milan
Sean Longstaff was Newcastle’s best midfielder. As a unit, though, they are not functioning, and have not since the 5-1 opening-day win over Aston Villa.
When Tonali and Guimaraes sat next to each other on the team’s flight to the United States in July, there was much excitement given the pedigree of the pair. But their partnership remains grounded.
Howe is sticking with Guimaraes as the central component of a midfield three but that leaves gaps in behind, and Tonali doesn’t seem the type to plug them.
There were two occasions in quick succession last night when Ruben Loftus-Cheek ran free of Newcastle’s midfield. It prompted an inquest on the pitch and touchline, Tonali making the point to team-mates and staff that it was not his duty to track the Englishman.
If not, what was — and is — his task?
That is the conundrum facing the manager, how best to use a £52million player who, on the evidence of the reception from the fans here, can clearly impact a team to great effect. That is why Howe made him his top summer target, admitting he ‘fell in love’ watching the 23-year-old play for Milan.
His partnership with Bruno Guimaraes (pictured) has not taken off in the manner expected
He enjoyed a triumphant debut with a goal after six minutes against Aston Villa but has not hit the same heights since then
But maybe it is that a piece of Tonali’s heart remains at the San Siro. It was telling when he opened his pre-match press conference with those revelations of feeling lost and struggling to find his place in his new home.
Where is his place in the team? It was on the left of midfield here, but he was not signed to charge down wings, the domain in which he found himself most often last night.
There were nice touches — he is a talented and classy player — but Newcastle needed a dominator this summer, not a decorator. Tonali needs to discover that authority on Tyneside.