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Paulo Dybala’s Juventus career is at a crossroads — again

Juventus could lose their No. 10 for nothing in a few months time. So, how did we get here?

Paulo Dybala of Juventus Fc looks on during the Serie A... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

I remember being upset in June of 2013 when Juventus announced the signing of Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez. Not because I didn’t like the signing. I very much did — Tevez was a really good player and the club managed to get him for a bargain.

The reason I was upset it was because Tevez was given the No. 10 shirt. Barely a year after the legendary Alessandro Del Piero left the club, Juventus was already giving away his number — to a new signing no less! We didn’t know if Tevez was going to pan out the time, he hadn’t earned the honor of wearing that number, I thought.

Tevez ended up having a short but standout career with Juventus and he was a worthy heir to the mythical number that Del Piero had for so long. After he wore it, Juventus gave the number to Paul Pogba. Pogba was a fan favorite and had a standout career for the Bianconeri, but everyone and their mother knew that he wasn’t going to stay for the long haul in Turin, only wearing the number for one year before leaving for Manchester United in a record-breaking transfer, which made it an unusual choice for him to wear No. 10.

And again, Pogba was a good player for the team, but the meaning behind the number has always been more for this club. Not only a signal of a quality player, but of a player who is supposed to embody Juventus and everything that the club represents.

It was this logic that made giving Paulo Dybala the number in 2017 such an easy call. The dazzling Argentinan had proved his quality since being signed two years earlier and had shown that ineffable quality that is a requirement for the number as well as a passion and love for the team.

You could easily imagine Dybala carrying the legacy of the shirt for a number of successful years at Juventus, becoming a lifer for the club and someone who could carry the torch of what the team represents into the new decade.

Yet, after the unveiling, Dybala’s career has been an exercise in inconsistency. From the highs of his Serie A MVP season under Maurizio Sarri to the lows of his injury marred, almost non-existent impact under Andrea Pirlo in his lone year at the helm of the team.

What was considered impossible only a few years ago is now a real possibility: Dybala could leave the club in a few months for nothing after months and months of contract renewal drama that has yielded everything but the signature of the 28-year-old star to his new deal.

From a simplistic viewpoint, the decision should be easy. Dybala is a good player, and to be a successful team it behooves you to have good players. Therefore, losing a guy of his talent is a bad thing, and losing him for not his is a really bad thing. But, as with everything, things are not as simple as they first look.

Dybala’s talent is undeniable, but in more recent years he has been a mercurial player. He is both equally capable of carrying the team on his shoulders and performing feats of magic on a regular basis and disappearing when the team needs him most, either by struggling on the field or by being off it entirely as he has dealt with injuries in the last couple of seasons.

Injuries, especially, have become a sticking point for the Argentinian international. Rarely hurt in his early career, after trying to play through a left thigh injury in what proved to be the 2020 season finale against Lyon in the Champions League Round of 16, Dybala has been a constant visitor of J Medical. He missed most of the following season with different ailments and, while he has not been away from the field for long stretches in the current season, he has missed time with different minor knocks. Is this just a string of bad luck? Or something more ominous and worthy of consideration in terms of his renewal?

Where he fits in the squad is also a reason of some concern. Dybala is most at home as a second striker. However, due to the weird squad construction that has plagued Juventus in recent seasons, his time in that position has been almost null. He has rotated between the wings and the midfield, but the results are not always as good as they could be.

Lastly, the money. Rumors galore have flown about what Dybala wants to earn and how much the club actually wants to pay him. For months it seems that this disagreement has been the main point that has prevented both sides to reach an agreement. With the recent major move for Dusan Vlahovic and the club’s fluctuating financial state, it’s worth pondering if making Dybala your highest-paid player is a sound move for the future.

(That’s neither here nor there, but after months of hearing that the club is flat broke for them to turn around and swing the third-highest transfer fee ever in the winter transfer window to sign Vlahovic is yet another weird twist in a season that has been filled with them.)

Despite all the nuance, I still believe signing Dybala to an extension is the most reasonable move. Not only from a footballing perspective — despite his missed time, he still leads the club in goals this season — as he remains a supremely talented player. But from an aura perspective as well.

In the age of clubs being run more like brands than anything else, to still preserve a romanticism for what a number means might seem naive at best. But if Juventus is going to retain any of that mysticism in which certain things meant more than others, losing your No. 10 should be off the table. Especially if said No. 10 is a guy that has shown time and time again how much he loves the club and wants to remain for the long haul.

If Dybala were to leave the team this summer, his Juventus career would be seen as mostly a success. He scored a lot of goals, played a lot of great games and lifted a lot of trophies in a Juventus shirt. Nobody is going to thumb their nose at you if you go out wearing a Dybala jersey.

But to see his time as a Juventus player cut short because of this contract dispute would be a shame nevertheless. And something that every Juventus fan should not want to happen.