Since the season started, a lot of the talk one hears about Paulo Dybala has gone something like this: “How disappointing! After last season you were hoping he’d take the next step, but he’s just not doing it! He’s just not scoring! I don’t know if we can ever truly rely on a guy so inconsistent as the fulcrum of the team, do you?”
That view of his performances this season were exemplified at the end of November in this graphic from IFTV that highlighted the disparity between his offensive numbers last season and this season up to that point. And if you look at it, and other numbers like it, it’s a pretty dire comparison. Coming off a season where he scored 22 league goals and notched three hat tricks, through the first half of the Serie A season Dybala’s only scored twice in league play. It’s been two months since the last time he scored in a domestic game. On the surface, that looks like a deep struggle at best and a regression at worst.
But as often the case in this sport, the numbers really only tell so much. Dybala isn’t scoring like a fiend this season, but that doesn’t mean he’s been playing poorly. In fact, there’s a profound evolution going on in his game that’s been really interesting to see.
One of the knocks on Dybala has always been a lack of tactical versatility. La Joya has, for the most part, been a guy who is most effective as a seconda punta or trequartista, using the middle of the field and floating out wide when he chose to. As a Juventus player, he’s been less effective whenever he’s been asked to go out wide and play as a true winger.
But Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival has forced him to expand his horizons. The front three’s look has shifted a lot over the season’s first four months as Massimiliano Allegri has experimented, and Dybala has had to lean into that. While he has been deployed as an attacking midfielder behind Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic on several occasions, he’s also been part of a more nebulous front line where no one has really had a defined spot, and over the last month he’s been turned into an interesting right winger/trequartista hybrid. And, more importantly, has really begun to drive Juventus from a creative standpoint.
For those of you that need numbers, I direct you to the key pass. Dybala’s averaging 2.2 per match this season in Serie A, good for second on the team behind Miralem Pjanic’s 2.5. That’s a big increase over last season’s 1.6, and he’s been picking things up in the last month. Since the start of December, he’s made 21 such passes and hasn’t had fewer than three in a match. He’s had four in each of his last three games. Against Roma on Dec. 22, he had nearly as many (four) as the Giallorossi did as a team (seven).
When you consider the fact that Pjanic’s form has dropped a bit as the year has gone on — most likely a result of extreme workload thanks to the midfield depth crisis that has only just subsided — it’s apparent that despite his dearth of goals, Dybala has turned into one of the biggest creative forces on the team. The fact that he’s settled into that role is only underscored by the fact that both of his assists this year have come in the last month. His numbers as a provider aren’t as good in the Champions League as they are in Serie A, but that’s mitigated by the fact that in that competition he is scoring—indeed, he’s already set a career high in continental play with five strikes.
This development is a very good thing. After Ronaldo’s arrival, there were a lot of questions about how best to integrate he and Dybala into the team together. I myself weighed in on the discussion early in the season by suggesting Dybala move to a second striker role along with Ronaldo, with either Pjanic or Federico Bernardeschi playing in the hole behind them. That was before Ronaldo and Mandzukic started showing the chemistry they’ve developed as the season has progressed, and at this point keeping the two of them off the field would be lunacy. But Dybala’s emergence as a playmaker up front is removing the problem altogether. If he can link Ronaldo and Mandzukic with the midfield and create the kind of scoring opportunities that they can feast on, the team’s already-impressive attack becomes exponentially more dangerous regardless of whether or not he’s banging in a bunch of goals himself.
We can look at the surface numbers all we want, but the fact of the matter is Dybala is playing beyond those numbers. Despite his lack of traditional counting stats he’s having a very good season, and it’s time we stopped harping on that and looked at how much of an impact he’s making on the field beyond them.