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Paulo Dybala as a center forward isn’t working for Juventus

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After a promising stretch of four games, Maurizio Sarri’s men have been close to terrible for three straight.

US Sassuolo v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

When Serie A finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, lifted the coronavirus embargo on calcio, the Old Lady briefly looked like a youthful version of herself.

For four games, Juventus were humming, stockpiling 33 shots on target to their opponents’ combined total of 12. They outscored Bologna, Lecce, Genoa, and Torino 13-2. Cue the butterfly meme: “Is this Sarriball?” Paulo Dybala was scoring — a lot. Cristiano Ronaldo was connecting with his teammates in more ways than one; his goals weren’t followed by the customary twirly jump, but rather by a trot into the arms of the backup goalkeepers with heartwarming embraces.

Life was good, man.

At no point during this stretch was any sane Bianconeri fan kidding himself or herself by saying Maurizio Sarri’s men were taking on top competition. But still — one might have reasoned — Lecce has been a thorn to top sides all year long, and Torino is a derby game, and Bologna have shown flashes of not being terrible, and Genoa ... have a future Juve player? I don’t know. All the same, everybody knew what was coming: a much, much trickier four-game stretch.

Seventy-five percent through that stretch, Juventus have been abject failures. Sarri’s side has blown two two-goal leads, allowed nine goals, lost the possession battle in all three contests (including a staggering 58-42 concession to Sassuolo), and have escaped from the skin of their teeth a handful of times. In fact, Juve are two stupid, lucky handball calls and a masterful Wojciech Szczesny performance away from this being caught in a two-point Scudetto race. Let that sink in.

Dybala is the club’s best and most dynamic offensive player, but playing the No. 10 in the false No. 9 role has not worked against top-level (or even slightly-above-average) competition.

Right now, Juve have no offensive answers against good sides.

Weak points of Dybala at false 9

First, to cut La Joya some slack, the little guy is still getting used to playing this forward position again. He did it frequently in his Palermo days, and I don’t think he’s not capable of doing it, but as Sarri mentioned a few weeks ago, there are still some attacking midfield habits that Dybala is trying to shed in order to truly occupy the central forward position. Namely, he’s trying to figure out how to resist the temptation of tracking way, way back to get a touch on the ball.

Which brings us to the first of several problems with this formation: against better competition, when Juve aren’t seeing a lot of possession, both Dybala and Ronaldo tend to get a little frustrated and retreat further and further just to get their foot on the ball. That can leave a vast amount of vacated space, and there’s nobody to fill it. Rightfully so, because if the midfielders press too aggressively up through that space, the defense is then as exposed as Janet Jackson in 2004.

Whoever is playing right wing, whether that’s Federico Bernardeschi or Douglas Costa, necessarily must track back and put in an impassioned defensive effort, both because whoever is playing right back is probably getting a lot of freedom, especially if that’s Juan Cuadrado, but also because the other two of the attacking trident (Dybala and Ronaldo) do next to nothing defensively.

The whole enterprise loses its shape very quickly, most palpably in the attacking third (which I understand is, to some degree, by design, as Sarri has stated he wants total freedom up there), but you can also see it in build-up and when the team is recovering into a defensive shape.

Lastly, while Dybala isn’t terrible as a hold-up player, he’s certainly no Zlatan Ibrahimović (or Duván Zapata, for that matter) with his back to goal.

Consequences of those weak points

Juventus aren’t good at keeping possession against teams good at keeping possession. The most startling, frightening, depressing example of that is this video, which I assume many of you have already seen. That is essentially the incarnate problem of a Ronaldo-Dybala tandem at the top of your lineup: you have two players who do next to no defending. That fact is painfully obvious in the video, as the two lethal forwards meander lethargically back and forth, occasionally revving up to 75-percent speed to apply some titular pressure. When you have two players who do no pressing in a system that demands pressing, and when you then face a side that builds from the back, and when, most of all, you face a side that builds really, really well from the back, you are screwed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the squad is spending inordinate amounts of energy chasing the ball and holding shape to the best of their abilities. Watch Bernardeschi, for instance: he’s all over the pitch, from box to box, early on pressuring the opposing goalkeeper and later on turning the ball over in the center of the park which leads to the goal. He actually spends so much time running around he loses the turbo bar in FIFA.

And actually, Juventus on the whole had a pretty stellar defensive effort against Atalanta. That’s one of the best attacking sides in all of Europe right now, and the Bianconeri held them to an xG of 0.85. Of course, La Dea and Gian Piero Gasperini have the sort of wits and talent all over the field that pushes the usefulness of xG as a metric, but even so. Keeping Atalanta to two goals isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Juventus managed to recover as the game went on. At one point well into the first half Atalanta had logged 68 percent of the possession; by the final whistle that dwindled to 53 percent.

With Dybala as a false 9, the club struggles to keep shape in attack but also in transitional phases of the game; the pressing up top is nominal in the most optimistic interpretation; the team doesn’t control possession; and when the team does have possession, it’s often clunky and inconsistent. Some of these problems are exclusive to Dybala as a false nine, and some are not. Some are accentuated or highlighted.

There’s a lot wrong with this side — a hell of a lot. I think I’ve sort of cultivated the reputation as an endless criticizer of this team. Be that as it may, I don’t see how you can look at the last three games and not find serious, serious flaws. Four wins against four mediocre to very bad sides, followed by a defeat and two draws. If we’re honest with ourselves, both of those draws should’ve been losses.

FiveThirtyEight gives Juve a 2 percent chance to win the Champions League final; the site gives Atalanta a 5 percent chance. Juve’s wage bill is close to €300 million; Atalanta’s is under €40 million. The blame goes far beyond Sarri, because there’s enough to go around for so many people, and despite the overwhelming odds that yet another Scudetto is set to arrive in Turin in a couple of weeks, this is a ship with more than one leak in the hull.