When Paulo Dybala finally, finally, finally saw the ball roll into the back of the net in the Champions League against Ferencváros, the diminutive Argentine gave a smirk for the ages. Surely, moments before as he embraced Alvaro Morata and entered the fray (“once more unto the breach”), he was thinking about that sight, about breaking through with a goal. I doubt, though, that he imagined the Hungarian side would’ve placed that goal and the next one on such a sumptuous silver platter.
But despite the brace for Juve’s No. 10, there is something almost all fans of the club recognize at this moment: something is wrong with Dybala. He’s not scoring like he ought to, he’s drifting into strange positions on the pitch, and he appears to be more than a little frustrated.
Of course, it behooves new manager Andrea Pirlo to find out what exactly is wrong, how he can fix it, and how he can implement those changes moving forward. Depending on your perspective, Dybala is anywhere from the club’s best to third-best player, but no matter where you rank him there’s no denying that when he’s firing on all cylinders there are few in the world who can touch La Joya.
What, then, is wrong with Dybala? And what might Pirlo (or Fabio Paratici) do to remedy the situation?
What’s wrong, No. 1: This is an adjustment period under a new coach
In some ways, I feel like I’m watching a rerun of a movie I’ve seen before, but something that maybe I flipped onto randomly as I absent-mindedly scan the tube and am not entirely sure if I’ve seen this before. Lest we all forget, the first months under Maurizio Sarri — or the last months under Max Allegri — were not too kind for Dybala. Playing for three different coaches in a handful of years might involve a little bit of whiplash, after all.
Last year, Dybala eventually figured it out. In that context, the solution involved him staying closer to goal and really cultivating a better on-field relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo. He was playing less as an attacking midfielder and more as a second striker. Under Allegri, he floated anywhere from trequartista to right wing. Under Sarri, it might’ve helped Dybala more than we think to have also had Gonzalo Higuain and the preexisting chemistry there.
Maybe Dybala is simply adjusting; this is very much a possibility. It takes different players different amounts of time.
What’s wrong, No. 2: He’s still returning to peak physical fitness
Another very real possibility is that Dybala really and truly just needs to get more game-time minutes and more practice minutes to return to peak physical condition. Some athletes are like delicate fall/winter annuals: they the optimal environment to bloom — when it works, it works splendidly; when it doesn’t work, it’s a grisly sight.
What’s wrong, No. 3: It’s a mixture of low confidence and general poor form
If Dybala’s body is actually fine, maybe it’s his mind that’s in a bit of a snag. This is another thing that happens with athletes, of course, especially attackers in the great sport of calcio. If you need any evidence, which you probably don’t, just look at Morata since arriving in Turin: after a solid if mostly unspectacular stint with Atletico Madrid, the Spaniard now looks like the exact No. 9 the Bianconeri needed. He’s bagging goals by the dozen (with one or two counting thanks to VAR), making incisive runs, involving his teammates, and running around like a crazy man. He’s doing everything right.
And what actually changed for Morata? Yes, the system. Yes, the teammates. But after a miserable re-debut with Juventus against Roma, Morata got on the scoresheet and hasn’t stopped. One goal can make all the difference. Players can be streaky, and Dybala has shown that tendency in the past. After this weekend’s game against Lazio and an international break, Juve face five opponents they should beat. Sounds like a good time to regain the swagger.
If one or multiple of these things is what’s wrong with Dybala, how can everybody collectively find a solution?
How to fix it, No. 1: Patience is a virtue
Spoiler alert: this is probably both the right answer and the most prudent answer. Sometimes things just take a little time. Dybala is a great player; he eventually figured it out with Sarri’s system, and there’s no reason to think he won’t eventually figure it out with Pirlo’s system.
As I mentioned above, Dybala — and the club in general — has a great chance to rediscover his form after a physical rest with the international break and then a gaggle of inferior opponents. If he’s still struggling in late December to the same degree, maybe another solution starts to seem more viable to Juventus.
How to fix it, No. 2: Cash in ASAP
Juventus are cash-strapped; there’s no secret to that. I don’t imagine the club wants to sell Dybala, and I don’t imagine the club is actively exploring this option right now, but if the midfield keeps looking “pretty good but not great” and Dybala keeps stumbling, then we might start to see a few British and Spanish tabloids stoke the coals of the Dybala transfer saga.
How to fix it, No. 3: Cash in over the summer
Of course, selling Dybala in January when he’s theoretically in poor form — not to mention the more general pandemic economic conditions — might not return the price the club is looking for. If Paratici is convinced that selling is the right way to go, perhaps he puts the action off until the summer when maybe, maybe the soccer world is a little more economically stable and they can use the funds in a less-hurried way.
How to fix it, No. 4: Force the fit on the pitch
Instead of waiting patiently for Dybala to regain his form by occasionally using him as a substitute and starting him every now and then, Pirlo could, if he feels Dybala is physically ready, simply opt to get Dybala onto the pitch as much as possible, even if that comes at the expense of someone else. When figuring out a new system or breaking out of a funk, sometimes it can — not always — work to just be on the field. Force the issue; play the player; let Dybala smash through the issues himself.
The problem here is that forcing Dybala into the starting lineup over and over again means that someone else isn’t playing. (As my British friend Andy says, though not about soccer, “You’re always robbing someone.”) Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and Morata is on fire. I’ve mentioned, mostly in the comments, the difficulties that playing the trident presents — first and foremost, if you have Dybala / Ronaldo / Morata on the field at once, who puts in the full defensive shift when the team slides back to a 4-4-2 out of possession? — and I don’t see a workable solution there against an opponent of even average quality.
No matter what the issue exactly is or is not, two somewhat opposing things remain true about Dybala: he’s talented as hell and he’s notoriously difficult to field because he seemingly lacks a “true” position. Couple these traits with the shape Pirlo is trying to achieve, not to mention Morata’s form, and you’ve got a very tricky situation indeed. I do not envy attempting to solve this puzzle.