Cast your mind back to the summer of 2019, people. ‘Corona’ is merely a refreshing alcoholic beverage and nothing more, Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ is being streamed on every Spotify account in existence and, most significantly, Paulo Dybala’s Juventus future is up in the air.
The Argentine had endured an indifferent campaign in 2018/19 – Massimiliano Allegri’s final season at the helm – and talk linking La Joya with a big-money move away was rife. First, it was Manchester United, but an audacious swap deal that would’ve seen Romelu Lukaku arrive at the Allianz Stadium didn’t come to fruition.
But Tottenham Hotspur appeared a serious candidate. Fresh off their miraculous journey to the Champions League final months prior, Mauricio Pochettino was in search of a superstar to spearhead a new cycle in north London. He turned to Dybala.
And, who knows? If this non-sensical ‘image rights’ concept wasn’t, you know, actually a thing, then Poch may well have had his man. Dybala’s magic could’ve saved his job and god forbid what a Maurizio Sarri Juventus would’ve looked like without the innovation of the free-spirited La Joya.
Shining under Sarri
Following his botched summer move, Dybala embarked on, quite possibly, the finest season of his career under Sarri.
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The former Chelsea and Napoli boss unleashed his genius, releasing him from the shackles of the right-wing where he often found himself in Allegri’s final season. Dybala’s free role got the very best out of him. On a weekly basis, he’d produce sequences of magic that reminded us of his mastery: the late show against Lokomotiv Moscow or early strike in the Derby d’Italia, for example.
This was a player who, before enduring a measly five-goal Serie A season in 2018/19, had notched 22 league goals the season prior and another 19 in his maiden campaign at the club.
Overall, 2019/20 felt like a vintage Dybala campaign despite his relatively tender age. Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalti–, sorry, goals, it was Dybala’s unique aesthetic – low socks and all – but more significantly his masterful and unpredictable nature with the ball at his feet which made an often drab Juve watchable last term.
He was named as the Serie A’s MVP amid Juve’s ninth consecutive Scudetto triumph, returning to the sort of form that had many believing he’d emerge as one of the world’s best when he first burst onto the scene at Juve.
Problems under Pirlo
Despite Dybala’s superb campaign last time out, you get the feeling that new boss Andrea Pirlo ‘doesn’t quite fancy’ the Argentine, if you will. Purely from a footballing perspective, by the way.
La Joya’s season thus far has been hampered by injuries and unresolved contract debacles. With his current deal in Turin expiring in the summer of 2022, Juve have been proactive in looking to tie down Dybala for the long-haul.
Football Italia reported at the start of the year that the club had offered the player a €10m-a-year extension but Dybala is holding out for more. Should the two parties fail to reach an agreement by the summer, then Juve won’t hesitate in selling the Argentine.
So, how did it get to this? How has Paulo Dybala dissipated from last season’s joint-protagonist to merely another spoke, a dispensable one as well, in Pirlo’s “total and collective” wheel?
The answer certainly isn’t distinct. Although, there’s no denying a downturn in form. In short, Dybala is contributing less – in the build-up and final third – shooting less and creating less. The Argentine’s 6.31 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes last season has evolved into 4.88 this term.
While he’s failed to reach the heights of 2019/20, Dybala has hardly been disastrous when he’s taken to the field this season. In fact, he enjoyed a period on either side of the new year during which he looked back to his very best.
He impressed in victories over Genoa and Udinese before registering a pair of assists in the huge 3-1 triumph over Milan on Jan. 6. The ‘Federico Chiesa Game’ as it’s otherwise known.
Nevertheless, a knee injury suffered just days after the Milan win against Sassuolo proved another set-back for Dybala in what’s proved to be a tumultuous campaign from a personal perspective.
However, after making the matchday squad for the recent trip to Porto, Dybala could return to Serie A action on Monday when Juve host the struggling Crotone. His return’s a timely one for a Bianconeri side who’ve looked devoid of any innovation and creativity as of late. And while Dybala’s stats show he’s not quite reached the level that he did under Sarri, his numbers are still pretty impressive.
His issue this term has not been systematic. In fact, Pirlo’s fluid and flexible system suits Dybala down to a tee. Playing as part of a front two – which he did throughout his pomp under Allegri – the Argentine is handed the freedom to function between the lines, work in tight spaces and create overloads in wide areas. While he perhaps isn’t granted the positional freedom as he was last season, he’s hardly been put on a leash by Pirlo.
Nevertheless, as Dybala prepares for his imminent comeback, there’s little doubting that La Joya is at a crossroads in his career. The remainder of the season will be pivotal in determining where his long-term future lies.
Juve desperately need a rejuvenated Paulo Dybala too.