The mystery of what to do with Paulo Dybala when placing him within Juventus’ starting XI has been an on-again, off-again issue for quite some time now. No one has ever questioned Dybala’s talent, but getting him in spots to maximize his quality consistently has been a struggle for a while now.
Dybala’s best natural position is as a seconda punta, but I don’t need to tell you all that as you’ll most likely already agree. He has never been able to get a complete handle on the right flank, and is often outcast to the bench in favor for someone who can. But as we’ve seen these past few weeks, this team needs Dybala scoring goals and taking over matches, and to do that, he needs to be placed in front of goal on a consistent basis.
It is no coincidence that La Joya’s two best performances to date this season have been as a second striker up top. Against Bologna, Dybala was able to put himself in position for a spectacular rebound goal, and in the Champions League versus Young Boys grabbed a hat-trick among his many exploits. Not only has he increased his scoring output, he has looked lively once again, drifting in and out of space, commanding the ball and acting as the conduit between the midfield and the attack. Just take a look at the heat map from the Bologna match or the chalkboard from against Young Boys, and compare them to the heat map from Sassuolo or Udinese. In the Sassuolo match, Dybala most often popped up in the very far-right corner, and didn’t show up all over the pitch as he did against the other two opponents. Against Udinese, Dybala barely showed up as a presence in the box, as seen by his heat map, often drifting out wide right but never coming back into the middle for any real threat. Playing as a second striker frees up Dybala and allows him to come back to the ball when he wants, pick it up, and start the attack, linking with his teammates, as well as run through seams in the defense and pick out spots in the net to score.
Dybala touches the ball more when he is closer to goal. The amount of time he has the ball at his feet, the better the result usually is for Juventus. Against Bologna and Young Boys, Dybala touched the ball 101 and 73 times, respectively. Judge this against his showing in the Napoli match (36 touches) or against Udinese (48 touches), and it’s clear to see that Dybala becomes much more involved in the orchestrated attacks the closer he is to goal. His instinct, precision, and intelligence seem to hit another level when placed up top, clicking with the attacking moves at a much higher rate. When deployed out of his natural position, he tends to fade out of matches and most certainly loses a good amount of consistent dynamism.
The question now is how to get Dybala into the squad in this role regularly. In both of his best performances, Max Allegri has utilized a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2, with Dybala playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic, respectively. This season’s results with the three-man defense have been great, especially Dybala’s link-up play with Federico Bernardeschi in the Champions League standing out.
My ideal attack at the moment would be with Ronaldo operating as the main striker, with Dybala working off of him and Bernardeschi underneath in the hole. This way, Dybala and Bernardeschi are free to play intricate passes and create attacking moves with each other while Ronaldo opens up space for them up top, getting himself central or cutting in from the left.
In order to have these players on at the same time, three formations stand out to me as favorites for choice:
- The aforementioned 3-4-1-2.
- The 4-3-1-2 (but with Paulo up top) that we saw against Napoli.
- A new-look 4-4-2. With the first two, the formula would remain the same, Dybala and Ronaldo/Mandzukic up top, with Bernardeschi underneath.
If we were to see a 4-4-2, I could see something along the lines of new-age “Five-Star plus Emre Can” look, with a Ronaldo-Dybala strike partnership, Bernardeschi on the right flank, Mandzukic on the left, and Miralem Pjanic and Can in the middle of the park. Pjanic would have the cover of Can in front of the defense and still continue to make his mark on the match with his metronome-like style, while the two wide players can look to play balls in to the middle for the strikers.
I expect to see a lot of variety in formations to come this season, but getting Dybala in front of goal is imperative to not only his success, but the team as a whole. This squad hits another gear when Dybala is firing on all cylinders, and he is most engaged when in his comfortable position as a second striker, close to the box where he can be a danger man. If that happens, expect to see many more games like we saw against Young Boys to come.