Who would’ve thought that come March 2022, we’d be mentioning ‘Paulo Dybala’ and ‘free agent’ in the same sentence.
A deal to renew Dybala for the long haul was all but agreed last October before Juventus opted to pull the plug at the last minute, seemingly spooked by the player’s perpetual injury woes. The Argentine’s currently nursing a thigh injury, although he’s expected to return against Spezia this weekend after missing his eighth, ninth and tenth games of the campaign with his latest setback.
Nevertheless, Juve’s fears over Dybala’s long-term viability are poised to be reflected in their fresh proposal for the player. A less lucrative salary is expected to be offered, which would suggest that despite his production for Massimiliano Allegri this term, the club aren’t as high on La Joya leading the Bianconeri’s rebuild as they once were.
There’s a new sheriff in town, Paulo. He goes by the name Dusan. And while the vast majority of Juventino are desperate to see Dybala eventually form a deadly triumvirate with new protagonist Vlahovic and blossoming superstar Federico Chiesa, the Juventus hierarchy may have other ideas.
Juventus have been linked with a summer move for AS Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo
Following the closure of the January mercato, Romeo Agresti teased supporters over the prospect of a busy summer. He suggested that AS Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo was a legitimate target of the Bianconeri’s and reports over the past month have all but validated Juve’s interest in the Italian. Some have even gone as far as saying that Zaniolo is a priority target for the club.
These links don’t necessarily mean that Dybala’s departure at the end of the season is inevitable, but it’s hard to envisage the club pulling off an extension for La Joya as well as the purchase of Zaniolo. There’s been talk of the Giallorossi valuing the Italian as high as €70m despite the player’s contract expiring in 2023.
Should the Argentine prolong his stay in Turin, Zaniolo, considering his price tag, would be a silly investment considering Juve’s pressing needs in other positions. Even if Dybala rejects the club’s fresh proposal and opts for free agency, supporters are justified in their concerns over Zaniolo’s viability as La Joya’s direct replacement.
Zaniolo’s knee injuries thwarted his development considerably
Before succumbing to a pair of devastating ACL injuries in 2020, Zaniolo was arguably Italy’s hottest young talent. After swapping Inter’s Primavera for Roma in the summer of 2018, he entered mainstream consciousness with a brace against Porto in a Champions League round of 16 knock-out tie. His performance that night garnered plenty of praise from Roma legend and then skipper Daniele De Rossi.
“He has an incredible natural physique for someone who is only 19 and also has great technical quality,” De Rossi said. “In my opinion, as perhaps with everyone now, he is already a very good player – and can become a great one.”
The sky appeared the limit for Zaniolo before his double injury setback tempered expectations and projections.
Understandably, it took some time for the young Italian to reach a level that resembled the exuberance and power of his late teenage years. But glimpses of that demonic runner and perennial ball progressor are beginning to resurface this season under Jose Mourinho. After missing the entirety of the 2020/21 season, Zaniolo has made 29 appearances in all competitions this term, notching ten goal contributions.
Before his injuries, the 22-year-old was used almost exclusively by Paulo Fonseca as the right-sided midfielder in his 4-2-3-1. This would give him the freedom to drift inside, drive at defences and use his dominant left-foot as much as he pleaded. However, Mourinho has gotten a little more creative with Zaniolo since his arrival. After starting primarily on the right, the manager’s shift to a 3-5-2 forced the Italian into a second striker role off Tammy Abraham.
Why Zaniolo should not be considered as a replacement for Paulo Dybala at Juventus
Overall, it’s been a mixed bag for the capped Italian on his return to action. As we noted, there have been glimpses of his distinct talent, but he’s struggled with consistency and issues over discipline have once again surfaced. Zaniolo has nine yellow cards and one sending off this season, an extraordinary number for a player of his position.
So, while Juve’s interest in the 22-year-old is understandable, Zaniolo certainly shouldn’t be considered as Dybala’s successor in Turin. Their profiles differ. While La Joya boasts the elegance of Natalie Portman, Zaniolo is more brutish and forceful in his approach. Unlike Dybala, he lacks subtleness in the final third and is bereft of the vision and technique on which the Argentine prides himself.
In his Serie A career thus far, Zaniolo averages 3.49 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. Dybala, meanwhile, has averaged 5.23 since the start of the 2017/18 season. In short, Dybala is the bonafide creator that Zaniolo isn’t. If La Joya was to depart, Juventus, a side desperately lacking creativity at the best of times, would need a player more resemblant of the Argentine’s profile. Zaniolo has some attributes – his space interpretation, for example – that suggest he could evolve into a trequartista, but he’s not there yet.
If Juve were living in a pre-COVID world, they could’ve had the luxury of bringing Zaniolo to Turin and complementing Dybala. Imagine this, right: Zaniolo, Dybala, Chiesa and Vlahovic. There’s your front four in a 4-2-3-1.
Anyway back to the harsh reality of 2022. For Juve, they’re amid a watershed period in their rebuild. The arrivals of Manuel Locatelli and Vlahovic in back-to-back windows have set the club on the right course, and while signing Zaniolo would align with their shifting transfer policy towards talented young calcio stars, opting to bring the Roma star in as a replacement for Dybala would be an error.
Not only would the Italian struggle to match the Argentine’s output, but his own injury woes and ill-discipline mean that any move from Juventus would be one entrenched with risk.