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Why Paulo Dybala hasn’t seen the field at the World Cup

Juve’s star man isn’t necessarily incompatible with Lionel Messi, but needs a system his coach can’t provide.

Argentina Training Session & Press Conference - FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Photo by Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk about Paulo Dybala and Lionel Messi over the last season. As the 2018 World Cup approached — potentially the last one of Messi’s career — people started to wonder who would take his place in the Argentina setup. Dybala, whose game has many of the same characteristics as the world’s greatest footballer, was put forward as a natural successor, especially after he scored 12 times in his first eight competitive matches in the 2017-18 season.

Dybala wasn’t nearly as consistent throughout the entire year, but still scored 26 goals and tallied five assists in all competitions. That led to his inclusion in the Argentina squad for the World Cup, but he was only on the field for 22 minutes in the group stage, coming on as a sub in the team’s humiliating 3-0 loss to Croatia.

Yes, Messi is Messi, but Dybala’s ability to change a game could be a major boon to the legend’s quest for a World Cup title. So why hasn’t he been on the field more? The answer lies in one of Dybala’s biggest flaws — and easily the biggest of his coach’s.

It’s often posited that Dybala and Messi can’t coexist on the field together — that they’re “too similar.” Barcelona are rumored to have passed on him as a replacement to Neymar last summer because the two were incompatible. Messi himself conceded the similarity in their games in March. On the rare occasion they are on the field together they’ve put together a couple of great combinations.

That, however, is an oversimplification of the situation. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli has gone on record as saying he thought the two can play together, and they’ve played a couple of interesting sequences in the times they have been on the field together for Argentina.

What is a problem for Dybala is the fact that he’s a somewhat limited player from a tactical perspective.

To operate at peak effectiveness, he’s got to be playing in the middle, either as a seconda punta, a trequartista, or an inside forward. He can certainly be given license to roam to the wings on occasion, but a true winger he is not.

This caused some issues for Dybala and coach Massimiliano Allegri this season. Allegri clearly intended to use a 4-2-3-1 formation at the beginning of this past season, but as the campaign progressed it became clear that a two-man midfield was leaving Juve severely undermanned in that area of the field. By November, Allegri had transitioned into a three-man midfield — which posed a problem for Dybala. Allegri seemed to prefer a 4-3-3 for much of the year, which made sense considering how many wingers the team had bought over the summer. But Dybala doesn’t fit as a full-time winger. He had more success playing as a sort of inside forward in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree,” but Allegri tended more toward the former formation for most of the year.

That lack of versatility was an issue for Juve all year, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. With time, training, and a good tactical mind, Dybala can be molded to fit a system.

Unfortunately, Sampaoli is not the kind of coach that can do that.

For a player who can need time to find the right set of tactics, Sampaoli is perhaps the worst coach to have. Why? Because Sampaoli has no plan.

Sampaoli has used three different formations in the tournament, and played musical tactics during qualifying as well. The result has been predictable: Argentina hasn’t looked like they know how to do anything other than pass the ball to Messi and get out of his way. Sampaoli has rightly been criticized for his lineup choices and tactics in this World Cup, and has ended up turning in a team that is far less than the sum of its parts. In Dybala’s lone outing in the tournament, the instructions he got looked to be “just go out there and do something.” He nearly did in that game, cutting in from the right and unleashing that curler we’ve seen a bunch of times. But that’s all he was really able to do as Sampaoli simply threw players on willy-nilly hoping they would change the game.

This isn’t a situation to envy. Sampaoli has proven himself incapable of giving his team any kind of direction, and that kind of direction is exactly what Dybala needs to succeed right now. But with someone who is so tactically inept as Sampaoli, we won’t see the best Dybala on the field — and it’s unlikely that Sampaoli will try to shoehorn him into the lineup unless he simply has to throw everything against the wall to see if it sticks.