The last few weeks have not been great weeks for me from a soccer standpoint. From Juventus’ latest Champions League crash-out to the Italian national team’s shambolic failure to qualify for the World Cup for the second consecutive cycle, I’ve done my fair share of screaming in the month of March.
Then there’s the matter of Paulo Dybala, which makes me the least mad of the three and therefore is the topic I’ve chosen to write about today. I’ve been dissatisfied with how Dybala’s contract saga has been handled for the better part of a year and a half now, and now that it’s over with — which was elaborated upon with incredible eloquence by Sergio earlier in the week — I’ve been taking stock of just how the entire drama has gone.
While we finally have our answer to the will-it-or-won’t-it uncertainty of Dybala’s story, the answer to that one question has inevitably birthed a few more.
Indeed, Dybala’s departure has added yet another level of uncertainty to a summer that’s certainly going to see a good deal of upheaval in the squad. So what are some of the biggest questions posed by the end of Dybala’s tenure in Turin? Let’s take a look at some.
How will Dybala respond on the field?
The thing that’s bugged me the most about how this week’s announcement has come down has been the way it’s been handled from the club’s end.
Andrea Agnelli reportedly slipped out of the team’s headquarters at Continassa before Dybala’s entourage arrived for the final time, then slipped back in minutes after they left. The club’s decision was then finally delivered via a phone call from Federico Cherubini.
To handle it this way, with a player who has served the club faithfully and fully despite his ups and downs for seven years, rather than have Agnelli deliver the news in person, or at least be present when Cherubini did (why yes, I do gravitate toward House Stark, why do you ask?) strikes me as disrespectful, dishonorable, and, in Agnelli’s case, more than a little craven. Of course, given the way he’s treated people who were far closer to him than Dybala (see: Ceferin, Aleksander), it also doesn’t come as a particular surprise.
Maurizio Arrivabene has also spoken to the press several times on his departure since the Monday decision, bluntly stating that Dybala’s time as the center of Juve’s project ended the minute Dusan Vlahovic arrived in Turin at the end of January. While that may be brutally honest, it was also better left unsaid until the season was over.
Because there is still season left: eight games in Serie A, plus the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. Juve currently have an eight-point lead over the chasing pack for a place in the top four, although with Atalanta still carrying a game in hand it ought to be treated as five for the time being. That’s still a good margin, and it helps to have both Atalanta and Roma still playing in the Europa League and Conference League, respectively.
But Juve have some stiff tests ahead of them, starting with Inter after the international break and finishing the season with back-to-back matchups against Lazio and Fiorentina. In the Coppa, should Juve hold their first-leg lead, it will mean a date with either Inter or AC Milan in the final.
All this is to say every game is still hugely important for this club right now, and having Dybala at the top of his game to contribute is going to be crucial. It remains to be seen just how Dybala is going to handle this on the field. While it’s easy to say that a professional shouldn’t let a messy divorce like this affect his work but footballers are human beings like everyone else. Dybala in particular is a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. When he’s confident, you know it. When he isn’t, you definitely know it. The love he has had for Juventus over the years has been palpable — to the point where he flat-out refused to leave three summers ago — and it’s entirely conceivable that either anger or sadness at the way this has played out could affect his game, which would be a huge problem as the season enters the home stretch.
How Dybala plays over the next two months could very well determine whether Juve hold on to their Champions League spot. It remains to be seen just how he’ll repsond.
Who replaces him?
Ah, the good old rumor mill has already started churning on this one.
The names when it comes to replacing Dybala have come thick and fast since Monday. The earliest reports named Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo and Sassuolo’s Giacomo Raspadori as candidates, while it’s also been mooted that they would look at Raspadori’s teammate Domenico Berardi. And, of course, now that there’s a significant chunk of the wage bill free, the Paul Pogba rumors are ratcheting up in intensity. Then there’s the crazy stuff, such as the downright silly report from Calciomercato and Corriere della Sera that Massimiliano Allegri’s dream replacement is Mohammed Salah.
What does seem clear is that with Vlahovic now in the fold, Allegri looks to be moving toward a more winger-oriented system to support him, most likely a 4-3-3. It stands to reason that at least one winger would be brought in to deepen the pool at that position, which could actually be surprisingly thin when the summer transfer window opens. Technically, the only wide player currently set to be under contract on July 1 is Federico Chiesa — and even he’s technically a Fiorentina player until his obligation to buy kicks in. Chiesa’s partner in the WINGS OF FEDE, Federico Bernardeschi, is also out of contract and it looks unlikely that he’ll re-sign with the team. Juan Cuadrado is also a free agent come June 30, and while the odds of him re-signing are significantly higher, it’s worth noting that the club has dragged its feet on his renewal as well after initial reports that an extension was in place as early as October.
That being said, even though it’s probably safe to say that something gets done there, there will need to be augmentation to the winger corps. Zaniolo and Berardi seem to be the better bets here, as they’re both a bit more natural to playing out wide as opposed to Raspadori, who is more naturally a seconda punta. Both come with some questions, however. Zaniolo is only 22 but has already suffered two massive knee injuries, and while he has the kind of positional versatility that would make Allegri salivate, that sort of thing has also caused Max to ruin a player or two by never letting them settle into a role. Berardi has passed up the opportunity to join Juve once before and has been content to be the big fish in a small pond for quite a while, and his performance for the national team on Thursday was nothing short of a brain cramp under the biggest of situations.
Pogba, as a midfielder, is a category all to himself. There’s also the possibility that Juve negotiate a return at a lower fee for Alvaro Morata, who has thrived out wide since Vlahovic arrived.
All this is to say that Juventus are going to be linked with a metric f$#%ton of forwards between now and the end of the transfer window. It’s going to be endless, and we won’t know until the transfer window is over how successful Arrivabene, Cherubini, and the rest of the front office will have been at replacing their No. 10.
Speaking of numerals...
Who gets the No. 10 shirt?
Dybala has held the No. 10 shirt since 2017. It’s been a period of stability after a good deal of flux. Juve left the 10 vacant for a year after Alessandro Del Piero’s departure, then gave it to Carlos Tevez when he arrived in 2013. His two-year stint was followed by Pogba’s strange dalliance with it. After Bernardeschi was signed and didn’t take the mantle, it looked like Juve would again leave it vacant before it was finally bestowed upon Dybala.
By and large, Dybala has upheld that shirt’s legacy fairly well. He’s the third-highest non-Italian goalscorer in the club’s history and could move into the top 10 all-time before the season is over. But the shirt is unlikely to take another hiatus. For one thing, as good as he’s been in his time at the club, he hasn’t merited a Del Piero-esque pause in the shirt’s legacy. For another, the 10 is a huge marketing tool that the team can’t really afford to leave vacant.
Some have suggested dangling the shirt back in front of Pogba as an enticement to return on another Bosman this summer, but the most obvious candidate is Chiesa. In his two seasons at Juve, he’s established himself as the team’s premier big game guy. If Juve decide to assign the No. 10, it’s hard to make a case for anyone else.
How does this affect the captain’s hierarchy?
Thursday’s debacle in Palermo has made this question even more interesting than it already was. With Italy out of the World Cup, the likelihood that Giorgio Chiellini will retire at season’s end has spiked. Had Dybala been retained, it was likely that the armband would have passed to him, given his position as vice-captain. Now the picture is a lot murkier.
The captaincy usually goes by seniority. Immediately behind Dybala on the list are Cuadrado and Alex Sandro, the latter of whom may end up being sold himself this summer. Leonardo Bonucci is somewhere behind them, with Wojciech Szczesny and Danilo also in play.
But the team has bucked that trend in the past, most recently with Alessandro Del Piero, who replaced Antonio Conte as captain while both were still on the team. Del Piero’s performances and leadership more than merited such a promotion, and it’s simply been happenstance that the next two captains after his departure were simultaneously the most senior and the best for the job.
It’s in this vein that I would propose skipping the hierarchy and handing the armband to Matthijs de Ligt. The fact that such a promotion be an enticement to overrule Mino Raiola should the superagent start pushing him to move is a bonus, but ultimately ancillary to the fact that he deserves it. His leadership on the back line in the absence of Chiellini and Bonucci has been incredible to see, and he’s already had experience wearing the armband at a high level for Ajax, when he captained the team to the Champions League semifinal, knocking out Juve in the process. He’s earned the honor and the responsibility to be captain.
How the team will handle the passing of the torch will be worth watching, especially now that Dybala will never take his place atop the list.