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The Paulo Problem: Juventus must build around Dybala now ... or never

Paulo Dybala’s talent is undeniable. But Juventus must decide if they truly want to build the team around their talented No. 10 as soon as possible.

Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

A-Side: “The Juventus Problem”

Juventus have a position problem, and the problem isn’t new.

I know I’ll sound like a broken record saying this, but Juventus, in the Champions League final last June in Cardiff against Real Madrid, fielded a center back at right back, a right back at right wing, and a striker at left wing — not to mention playing Paulo Dybala at whatever he was playing.

This is nothing, of course, to take away from the talents of old-man Italian wizard Andrea Barzagli, since-departed fashionista (or something) Dani Alves, or the Croatian Mario Mandzukic, a man who literally invented the phrase “work rate.”

In fact, Juve’s calling card for some time has been their ability to take players passed up by Europe’s top few clubs, to resuscitate their form, and to deploy them wherever Massimiliano Allegri finds a need. The results are difficult to ignore, but I’m also one who takes two runner-up finishes in the Champions League as marks of fine footballing. Mandzukic, especially, has been so good on the left flank rather than simply a reserve for Gonzalo Higuain, that Allegri is loathe to take him off the pitch. He seamlessly incorporates left wing, striker, left fullback, and — on set pieces — he plays a hell of a center back.

Still, though: Real Madrid cruised. The out-of-position, Victor Frankenstein-created monster did the best it could, but was pummeled.

In addition to the positional flux, Allegri has tinkered in the last 12 or 16 months with formation, mainly a recurring flip-flop between three central midfielders or two. Last season ended in a 4-2-3-1 which carried over into the summer transfer market, a rather indulgent splash on wingers: Douglas Costa from Bayern Munich and Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina, in addition to some smaller — which is not to say “cheap” — purchases meant to lace the squad with quality depth.

The club remains mired in positional quandary, at really every position on the field.

A-Side: “The Paulo Dybala Problem”

I don’t want to belie the fact that I’ve only been watching and rabidly following football for pretty much one year. I don’t come from a family that watched it, and although I garnered second-team all-district honors at keeper my freshman year of high school in our miniscule division — I am extremely proud of this designation — I’m completely honestly (obviously?) not an expert.

That said, I don’t think it takes an expert to note that Dybala is both Juventus’ most prized asset and the club’s most glaring problem — on, unfortunately, a number of levels.

Without dredging up lengthy analysis or spending hours in the film room, let’s just take as a truism that, when he’s on form, Dybala is Juve’s best player. For sheer talent and wizardry on the ball, he’s matchless. For creativity, ambition, and pull-a-goal-out-of-a-hat-ness, there are very few players on the gobe who equal the No. 10. Somewhere, some sculptor is sculpting a sculpture of Dybala’s left foot.

But he is problematic, and I’m not talking primarily about shoe deals or brother agents or transfer whispers or his shiny new gold boots.

Dybala has no position. And Allegri has pretty much tried him everywhere.

Dybala is not an attacking midfielder. This is where he’s played most often for Juventus, and it’s not like he’s been bad. His brace against Barcelona last year in the Champions League may be the pinnacle of his attacking midfield performance, but what started to click at that point was — I hate to say it — the irrational, illogical connection Dybala and Dani Alves forged.

Dybala is not a right winger. He’s quick, but not as top-end pacey as you’d like, and he certainly isn’t willing (or able) to put in the defensive effort that Allegri requires of his wings, who are pretty much on-call fullbacks as well. Even in a system with true wingers, Dybala doesn’t fit the bill.

Dybala is not a striker. He’s actually stronger than he gets credit for, with his muscular low center of gravity, but he’s not going to provide world-class hold-up play, and he seems less interested in positional activity, making runs, etc., than in getting the ball at his feet and attacking, or at least pirouetting around a couple center backs, locating a path to goal — no matter how slim — and sending the ball through.

Dybala is maybe a shallow right winger — but what is that? The 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree is a somewhat compelling formation Allegri has fielded sporadically, and has offered glimmers of sustainability. It’s defensively solid, and works offensively because Juve’s shiny new wingers Costa and Bernardeschi both play quite well centrally, and they do in fact have a traditional No. 9 to go on top.

Dybala is maybe a false nine.

Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC in action during the TIM Cup... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

B-Side: “The Email”

In mid-October, I received the following email:

Dear Hunter,

we are glad to inform you that your black & white passion was rewarded!

Following the purchase of a Dybala’s 21 jersey placed on on 07/14/2017 (order number XXXXXXX) your name was drawn and you won a jersey signed by the same player.

We kindly ask you to let us know if you prefer a Home Jersey for man or kid, which size and the delivery address for the shipment.

Once Paulo Dybala signs the kit, you will receive it to the stated address.

Please, kindly answer to this e-mail not later than 5 days from the reception. Otherwise, the prize will pass to a second person.

For further clarifications you can contact us through the e-mail address stated in the online store or call our Customer Service number (+39) 02 26303238, from Monday to Friday, 9:00-18:00.

Congratulations once again!

Needless to say, I felt a mixture of excitement, confusion, and extreme doubtfulness. I’ve never won anything, work raffles or stuff like that. It just hasn’t been in the cards for me. So I was excited, because I knew pretty much immediately this wasn’t a hoax — they had my order number correct (I had purchased a No. 21 Dybala yellow kit over the summer), they weren’t asking for payment or anything, and their email had all the official graphics of the Juventus store.

All my non-winning had paid off.

But who was I kidding? Italians are Italians. Genius? Yes. Charismatic? Every damn one of them could be the protagonist of a sprawling, Nobel-winning novel. Reliable? Not really.

My thinking went something like this: even if this is all true — and I surmised it was — there is probably a greater than 50 percent chance I never receive the jersey. It was pretty suspicious that there was no social media or PR campaign tied to the giveaway; there was no reasoning at all. There wasn’t even an explanation about Dybala changing his number and some random customers were selected, etc. etc. — just this email.

Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed.

A few weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I emailed and asked if it was coming, and they said yes. More time went by. I emailed and asked if it was coming, and they said that Paulo was on international break and he’d sign the kit when he got back to Turin and then they’d mail the kit from northern Italy to my front door in central Texas and I thought, “Yeah, sure.”

A-Side: “Manchester City”

Manchester City are the best side in Europe, though partisans of non-English leagues really do not like to admit it. They aren’t perfect — somewhat weak in central defense — but they’re pretty damn close, and any weakness is either masked or totally mitigated by the potency of their attack and their effective insistence of possession. The English side are loaded with midfield presence, too, players who, though perhaps labeled as “attacking” or “defending,” in fact find themselves doing the other quite well, too.

I’ve watched City a number of times this year, and been most impressed — predictably — with Kevin De Bruyne, not mostly his trequartista abilities, which are duly noted, but instead his talents as regista. It helps Pep Guardiola to have players who can fill in behind the striker when the Belgian is sitting back (David Silva has been splendid this year, and the squad also have Bernardo Silva . . . it’s not quite fair). But De Bruyne seems to be more of a box-to-box midfielder than either behind the striker or just ahead of the center backs. He’s more physical than he was last year — he boasts more than a dollop of grinta.

When De Bruyne is pulling the strings from deep in the midfield, he is of course distributing to two of the best (and fastest) wingers in world football in Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, and sitting between those wings is an Argentinian maestro, a diminutive trickster who wears No. 10 in Sergio Aguero.

Manchester City have no No. 9. Even their reserve striker — Gabriel Jesus! — isn’t a No. 9, though the Brazilian does nearly as well as Aguero occupying that area on the pitch.

The non-striker systems works because of world-class wings and world-class connection between the midfielders and the central forward.

B-Side: “The Point of Reference”

I’m going to bring David Foster Wallace into this, because when I think about the perhaps-logicless feeling — or intuition?— that I possess that tells me Paulo Dybala is absolutely the center of Juventus, his words come to mind, and maybe also because, apparently, I am simply wont to do, apparently.

This is the part of DFW’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address that comes to mind:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor.

And he goes on, the point being that it is 100 percent natural for us good old human beings to conceive of ourselves as the absolute center of the universe. It’s not surprising, then, that we act that way for most of our lives, and it doesn’t really yield the best results.

Anyway, the other, more important, point that Wallace goes on to make is that, of course, this thing which feels natural, and which feels naturally true, is actually totally fault. I am not in fact the center of the universe — on the contrary, I’m a minor character at best. But that’s a different discussion.

I’m aware that every single Juventus fan doesn’t feel that Dybala is the center of Juventus, but I do, and I have a hard time explaining why. It’s not just because he’s young, and it’s not just because he’s the most talented on the team, and it’s not just because he wears the No. 10 jersey. Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe it’s something else. (I’m glad I’ve got a place where I can write without knowing the answer, as if every journalist in sport knew every answer.)

Whatever it is, my intuition tells me that the little Argentine is, or at least should be, the crux of the organization, the fulcrum about which the black and white turn.

B-side: “The Kit”

Then, one day, the signed kit came. It was just there, in a bag from Italy on my front door.

A-side: “No. 10”

In the fall, Juventus director general Giuseppe Marotta spoke of Dybala’s apparent wish to tie himself to Juventus “for life,” and that the club, in turn, was willing to make “another big financial sacrifice to keep him.”

That was back when Dybala started the season on a tear, scoring exactly 342 goals in the first month of the season — back when things felt good between the club and player, when things felt sure and certain, back when the future course felt charted.

The waters since then have been anything but placid, with benchings and frenzied English tabloids and now an injury to La Joya, but all of the rhetoric around the player, including the switch from No. 21 to No. 10, seems like positioning — whether intended or not — to do one of two things: invest in the asset short-term and spin him off this summer (you’ve got to think Juventus could fetch at least €100 million), or else commit to the player tactically, which is the single thing that Juventus haven’t done.

That reason, of course, is Dybala’s teammate from Argentina, Gonzalo Higuain.

Juventus v Genoa CFC - TIM Cup Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Manchester City would not work the way Manchester City works if Romelu Lukaku sat above Sergio Augero, and Juventus won’t work if the club doesn’t place its entire, financial, and tactical faith in Dybala.

Juventus splashed big for Higuain in July 2016 — almost a year after they had purchased Dybala from Palermo but well before they were aware of the talent they had landed.

There are those who will say Dybala can’t shoulder the responsibility night-in and night-out of being the center forward, but the truth is nobody could if the entire squad weren’t constructed around that player. Juventus have many of the pieces to create a Dybala-centric, Manchester City-esque side — a fine collection of wingers in Douglas Costa, Juan Cuadrado, and Marko Pjaca; a player in Federico Bernardeschi who could sit just behind Dybala and link play; and a regista in Miralem Pjanic who, given a world-class midfield partner, would shine even brighter — but Higuain stands in the way, because Pipita is, after all, one of the best five or seven strikers in the world. And he’s not going to play second fiddle.

Higuain just turned 30, his production will start to dip, but given his talent and form there would be a market for Juve’s No. 9.

The only way to solve the Paulo Dybala problem is to solve the Gonzalo Higuain problem.

B-side: “No. 10”

I don’t think (logically, rationally) or feel (intuitively, inexplicably) that it would be wrong to construct the club around Paulo, though I also must admit that if Juve sold him it would not necessarily mean failure, as always a new player may step up, but it does seem to me that the most successful organizations — Juventus included with Gianluigi Buffon — tether their fortunes to a single, transcendent player, on whose presence appears suddenly, felicitously.

Paulo Dybala was that player a year ago, Paulo Dybala remains that player now, and it’s time for Juventus to move one way or another.

Construct the club around Dybala — or don’t.