It’s April 11, 2017. Paulo Dybala has just scored his second goal of the evening against the mighty FC Barcelona. A perfectly one-timed curler from his left foot that Andre Ter Stegen, the Barcelona keeper, had no chance to turn away. Juventus went on to win the game, the tie and later go on to make the Champions League final. Despite a loss against Real Madrid something was clear for Juventus fans, the club’s management and its board: Dybala had officially arrived as a top tier player.
A few months later, La Joya was awarded the mythical No. 10 jersey, vacant since the departure of midfielder Paul Pogba, who signed with Manchester United. Headlines were being written about Dybala being the next Juventus great, the next Lionel Messi, the heir apparent to the tradition of genius left footed Argentinian strikers.
There was no way of knowing it at the time, but that April 11, celebrating with the fans, on the back of Mario Mandzukic and throwing his relatively new celebration the “Dybala Mask,” is the high point of the Argentine’s career to date.
Will that change?
When Dybala was announced as Juventus’ new No. 10, making him for all intents and purposes the face of the team, it was widely seen as the correct move. After a €40 million move from Palermo, the rather unproven Dybala shut down any criticism regarding his hefty price tag with an outstanding debut season for the Bianconeri in which he netted 23 goals and 9 assists in all competitions. Playing as the second striker, alongside Mandzukic, he quickly established himself as a key figure in Massimiliano Allegri’s starting XI and a fan favorite.
Even with the signing of Gonzalo Higuain before the 2016-17 season and the necessary position realignment that the signing entailed, Dybala still managed to thrive, posting a relatively similar stat line — 19 goals and 9 assists — becoming half of the most deadly free kick tandem in the game with Miralem Pjanic and throwing in some brilliant moments like the aforementioned evisceration of Barcelona on the quarterfinals.
If you were to make a bet as which Juventus player was guaranteed to become the next star, the answer was Dybala. The talent, the skills, the personality, even the boyish good looks. To imagine that only two years after that we would be here, wondering if he even still has a place in the squad, would be ridiculous. And, yet, here we are.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when Dybala went from foundational block of the team to a player that might get sold for funding and for extra transfers. While Dybala’s 2017-18 season, his third with the Bianconeri, looks relatively similar to his previous seasons from a statistical point of view — 26 goals and 7 assists — a pattern was starting to emerge. As the famous “Five Star” formation, deployed with great success on the 2016-17 season, fell out of favor, Dybala struggled to find a steady position.
He wasn’t fast enough to be deployed as a full-time winger and he couldn’t go back to his place as the second striker due to the signings of Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi, signings that coupled with a weak midfield forced Allegri to play a winger-heavy 4-3-3 formation. Not only that, but Dybala developed a knack of disappearing in the most important moments. One goal in eight Champions League games and a boneheaded red card in the latter stages of Juventus’ disastrous 3-0 loss against Real Madrid in Turin — a play that ended the game for all intents and purposes for the home side — were the key moments of his season. In the return leg, Juventus almost managed a miraculous comeback with their supposed star suspended. A lackluster World Cup, where rumors of his inability to coexist with Messi overshadowed anything he did on the pitch, did not help matters.
If finding a position for the young Argentinian had proved to be challenging with a ball dominant striker such as Gonzalo Higuain, it would look like small potatoes with the shock signing of Cristiano Ronaldo during last summer’s transfer window. What wasn’t as noticeable in the previous season ended up being unmissable with Ronaldo in the squad. Dybala continued to play with no established position, rotating between a makeshift winger and an attacking midfield position, with varying degrees of success.
He lost his starting spot midway through the year and for the second Champions League campaign in a row, was a spectator in Juventus best game of the season, being benched in favor of Bernardeschi in a 3-0 comeback against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16. Dybala finished the season with career lows for his Juventus stint in goals and assists.
The question now becomes this: What’s next?
Do you sell low on your once anointed franchise player? Or do you give it another go in an overcrowded attacking front? Was Dybala really a world-class talent or just one of the many good-but-not-great players we see come and go in Europe from time to time?
If there is any manager that can find that out, it might be the man who was just appointed to lead Juventus forward, Maurizio Sarri.
The Italian is known for his hyper-attacking style that favors players with Dybala’s characteristics. Can Sarri be able to get the best out of La Joya and turn him into a top-tier player once again? The same way he changed the careers of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and a certain Gonzalo Higuain?
It’s a stretch to say that the success of Juventus’ upcoming season depends on Dybala regaining his form. The team is too deep and too good to depend entirely on him, but undoubtedly an in-form Dybala would be great news for Juventus.
Just two seasons after Dybala was crowned as the future for Juventus, La Joya has to prove he truly belongs. For his sake and the sake of all Juventini, let’s hope that April night was not the peak of his career.
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