Paulo Dybala may be expendable.
Juventus’ No. 10 sat on the bench once again for the Bianconeri’s visit to the Mestalla for the first Champions League game of the season, and among the various, difficult revelations — perhaps somewhat lost, even, in the mayhem — is the fact that the Argentine forward appears to no longer be needed in Turin. But the salient narrative, in this case, would not be correct. Dybala isn’t expendable because of Cristiano Ronaldo; Dybala is expendable because of Federico Bernardeschi.
In Juventus’ 2-0 victory over Valencia, a night of misfortune and drama for Max Allegri’s side, the Italian was absolutely everywhere — both before and after Ronaldo was sent off with a straight red card in the 29th minute. Bernardeschi created the first two real chances of the game for Juventus, the first from the left flank and the second from the right. On the first occasion Bernardeschi sent a perfectly placed cross to Ronaldo, who scuffed a shot into a ball for Mario Mandzukic, who sent the volley skyward. On the second occasion Bernardeschi chopped down a cross to the feet of Sami Khedira, who again sent a wild shot above the crossbar. Even the first penalty was partly thanks to Bernardeschi’s disruption in the box.
That was the sort of night Juventus had: One that will be remembered for Ronaldo’s red card, for the two penalties from Miralem Pjanic, and from a difficult victory that, despite No. 7’s suspension — however long it may be in the end; rumors are the suspension will only be for one game — positions the Italian champions well for the rest of group play.
But through five undefeated games in competitive play, this is the real story: Bernardeschi and Joao Cancelo, two 24-year-olds, have been far and away Juventus’ best players. On a roster with Ronaldo, Dybala, Douglas Costa, Alex Sandro, Pjanic, Leonardo Bonucci, and other new and old faces, a winger-utility player and a flexible fullback, both of whom were acquired in the last two years, are, to this point, the most important players. On a night when Juventus lost Ronaldo before the 30-minute mark at the Mestalla yet still managed a victory, these two players were the crux of the matter.
I’ve already written about Bernardeschi’s attributes, and the main points from the article still stand. Bernardeschi offers some of what Dybala offers (the ability to “connect the lines,” a creative force, a wicked left foot) but a lot of what the Argentine doesn’t (defensive work rate and skill, an unending motor, physical toughness). The only difference between now and last month is the stage.
Allegri seems to agree: “Bernardeschi has become a real Juventus player and one worthy of the big games in a short period of time. He has grown so much in his maturity and technique, so I have no qualms now about playing him even in the biggest fixtures.”
The fact that arguably Bernardeschi’s two best games wearing a Juventus kit have come against Lazio in Turin and Valencia in Spain, minus Ronaldo, speak volumes not only to the trust Allegri has placed in the youngster but in Bernardeschi’s ability to rise to the occasion.
Is five games, then, a large enough sample size to say that Juventus can or should move on from Dybala? Knee-jerk reactions are always tempting, clickbaity as they are, but in this case it may not actually be going too far to say that Juventus should sell Dybala, use the funds to add a world-beater to the midfield, and fully commit to a 4-3-3. Great as Dybala is, he has remained a positional problem for a very long time under Allegri. People will say that Dybala could’ve turned out different under X or Y coach, but there’s obviously no way of proving or disproving that.
What can also be true, though, is that even though this idea — that Dybala should be sold to add a midfielder and commit to a 4-3-3 — could theoretically be on the money right now, there is also enough time for Dybala to prove himself as integral, as indispensable, before January (or before the summer). But right now the only two players who Juventus could absolutely not lose are Bernardeschi and Cancelo (and — who are we kidding? — Giorgio Chiellini).
The addition of Ronaldo has done nothing to alter whether or not Dybala is a viable option. Ronaldo’s presence meant and always meant the dismissal of Gonzalo Higuain, as Ronaldo will either play as a left wing, a central striker, or on top of a two-striker front, interchanging with Mandzukic as we have seen in the two big games so far (Lazio and Valencia) this year. Even so, Allegri may now and then choose to utilize a 4-2-3-1 with Dybala for tactical reasons, but I doubt that’ll be satisfying for Dybala in the long run.
In the very near future Juventus will learn how many games
Aperitivo afterthoughts: three of them
1. Juventus should be considered a top-three favorite to win the Champions League
I confess I wasn’t too surprised about Manchester City’s loss to Lyon, because there’s just no way that, at the end of the day, you can field that kind of defense and hope to make it through this tournament alive. Juventus showed in Spain why they must be considered one of the favorites: a very good goalkeeper fronted by an elite defense. Like the last three years, the midfield remains riddled with questions. The offense is stacked, but not without questions as well.
But that, to me, is exactly why Juventus ought to be considered a top-three favorite: The Bianconeri have yet to figure out how to play with Ronaldo, and yet still — staying true to their defensive identity and playing with defiant grinta — they are winning. If and when they figure things out with Ronaldo (and Dybala), the rest of Europe should sound the sirens.
2. As ever, Max Allegri will gain very little praise from fans
Juventus were making Valencia appear the — as one commentator put it — “vastly inferior” side well before Ronaldo was sent off, as both Mandzukic and Khedira whiffed on golden opportunities. But with a one- and then two-goal lead Allegri orchestrated yet another masterpiece. When Juventus drew these teams for the group, the game at Valencia immediately appeared as a crucial fixture. Priority No. 1 was probably not losing the game — Allegri’s starting 11 seem to accord with that assumption — and three points would be absolutely lovely.
When his team went down not just a man but Ronaldo, playing in Spain, the tactician didn’t buckle, and the players maintained their focus. At this point it’s increasingly difficult for me to understand those who want Allegri immediately sacked and replaced.
3. Joao Cancelo was amazing — again
The column was somewhat derailed by Bernardeschi, but you could essentially write a very (eerily) similar column about Cancelo and Alex Sandro. Just two years ago some of us labeled the Brazilian as Marcelo’s heir apparent, as a player who already was in the conversation for best backs in the world. But for the last 18 months his inconsistency has been his Achilles heel.
Enter Cancelo. We all complained about the price. We wondered about the experience. And we hoped that his introduction didn’t mean the persistent featuring of Juan Cuadrado — a great player, but simply not Juve’s best wide man at this point — on the right wing. But not only did Cancelo theoretically bring us Ronaldo; it brought us a budding superstar at right back. The young Portuguese followed up his best match with another absolutely phenomenal performance, and remember that he’s done all this after starting the season by giving away a penalty.