Where Can Paulo Dybala Return to Superstar Form?
At one stage, Paulo Dybala seemed set to become a long-serving icon at Juventus. He was the key attacking contributor to perennial league title winners and an important figure in their run to the Champions League final in 2016-17, when he took over the number 10 shirt a couple of summers back it looked likely to be his for at least the next four or five years.
But that doesn’t seem to be the way that things are going to turn out. “It’s possible that Paulo will leave Juve,” his brother Gustavo Dybala told an Argentinian radio station last week. “He needs a change. He isn’t happy, and he won’t be the only one to leave.” While that position might change now that Massimiliano Allegri -- who, according to reports, had recommended he be sold -- is no longer head coach, it seems to run deeper than that.
The primary issue is the degree to which the team’s approach has been altered since last summer’s arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. “The problems are out on the pitch: Cristiano is Cristiano, and Paulo, Paulo, and he can’t compete,” Gustavo continued. “Various Juventus players are uncomfortable.”
What has happened at Juventus is simply what happens when Ronaldo joins your attack: you become a bit more direct, you cross and shoot more often, and your new star striker gobbles up a big chunk of those shots (when he leaves, the reverse happens).
That is only natural. It wouldn’t make sense to invest €100 million (plus €12 million in extra fees and his significant salary) in one of the best pure goalscorers in the game and then not build your forward line around his primary attributes. But it undeniably has a knock-on effect on other players.
As the previous leader of the Juventus attack, Dybala has found himself marginalised. A total of 22 goals in league play last season has been followed by just five this season. After providing just over a goal or assist for every 90 minutes he played last season, he has produced less than one every two matches this time around -- significantly lower even than he managed at Palermo in his first full top-flight season back in 2014-15. He’s gone from over four to under three shots per match, without any more than a marginal uptick in his key passes. A lower proportion of the team’s attacks are ending at his feet than ever before. A guy who not too long ago was considered a top-20 player in the world has provided just 0.19 Expected Goals (xG) per 90 -- not even a top-300 rate in the big-five leagues.
At 25 going on 26, Dybala looks in need of an opportunity to refresh and reload. “I think there are two things that have kind of changed Paulo’s sporting life,” Francisco Buteler, who coached Dybala in the youth system at Instituto de Cordóba in Argentina -- and was, in fact, the coach who first played him as a forward rather than as an attacking midfielder -- tells StatsBomb. “One was the World Cup, where after being relegated to a position where he received very few minutes, he lost some confidence that he still hasn’t regained; the other was the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, which stripped him of some of his importance and resulted in him losing further confidence. From the moment he made his first-team debut here at Instituto, he has been a protagonist on all of his teams, and now he isn’t.”
So, where next? “Paulo needs a team where there are another couple of players around him who treat the ball well, any team who are more of a protagonist in their playing style, who want more time in possession,” Buteler explains. “Paulo would do well in any team like that. If I had to put a name on it, a team like Manchester City, Barcelona, Liverpool. Those are some options where he could fit in perfectly.”
Those teams certainly meet the brief. They are three of just 11 sides in the big-five leagues this season to have averaged 60% or more possession per match, and three of just nine to have done so whilst also averaging 90 or more pass completions within the final third (that is to say, passes that both originate and are received within the final third). City and Liverpool also rank in the top three in the big-five leagues in terms of their share of the shots in their matches.
But to what degree are they likely destinations for Dybala? He is yet to click with Lionel Messi at international level, and Barcelona probably need pace in behind more than they do an additional elaborator. Unless there are other movements at Liverpool or City this summer, he would have to accept a rotational spot, and it is questionable whether he can press well enough for either of them (in fairness, it’s not something we’ve really had an opportunity to assess during his career to date). If those things could be overcome, he’d fit.
Of the remaining six sides who met both of the aforementioned criterion, a likely price tag in the region of €100 million rules out Real Betis and probably an Inter Milan side only recently released from financial fair play restrictions; Paris Saint-Germain already have a suitably star-studded forward line; Real Madrid look likely to spend their attacking budget elsewhere; and unless Robert Lewandowski leaves, so too will Bayern Munich.
That leaves Chelsea as an ideal landing spot, financially and tactically. It doesn’t look like they are going to keep Gonzalo Higuain, Álvaro Morata will probably remain at Atlético Madrid, and Dybala is just the sort of creative and mobile forward who could slot seamlessly into the centre of Maurizio Sarri’s attacking system. “He can play as a number 9,” Buteler explains. “Obviously, you can’t limit him to the area or put him up against two central defenders and expect him to compete physically, but he can play as a free number 9.” There are two problems: firstly, Chelsea have a transfer ban in force this summer, and there are murmurings they will elect not to appeal it and so use next season as an opportunity to see what some of their younger players are capable of; secondly, Sarri’s future at the club is in doubt, and the next coach might apply an entirely different play style.
There is another kind of option: Atlético Madrid. In the wake of Antoine Griezmann’s decision to leave the club this summer (to where remains to be seen), Dybala has emerged as a possible replacement. Under Diego Simeone, Atlético play a far more counter-attacking style that the potential destinations thus mentioned, but they could certainly provide Dybala with the central role he craves. This season, Griezmann was involved at some point or another in moves that created 0.71xG per 90 on a team that as a collective averaged just 1.03xG per match.
There is likely to be a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing at Atlético in the off-season, with veterans and other key players departing and new faces arriving. But if they can lock down Morata to a permanent deal -- something that the player himself has said he wants to happen -- there is clearly a potentially fruitful partnership to be forged between him and Dybala. “If Paulo plays as a forward, with another quick forward alongside him, he could become a very important player in such a system due to his ability to play the final pass and his goalscoring capacity,” Buteler explains. “If he finds himself with more space to work in, perhaps that would unleash all of his remaining potential.”
The list of Dybala’s potential destinations doesn’t end there. Manchester United are reported to be interested, but we don’t yet have any idea as to the kind of form they are likely to take next season. As such, it’s difficult to offer an opinion as to whether or not they would represent a good fit. He certainly feels like the sort of big-name purchase that has characterised their recent transfer dealings, particularly following other failures to reach the Champions League, but that many of those haven’t come off as hoped suggests he should perhaps be wary.
On the back of a difficult season, the decision Dybala makes this summer will define just how productive his remaining peak years can be and consequently, his legacy come the end of his career. At his best, he is undoubtedly one of the finest forwards in the game; if Juventus cannot currently provide him with a platform to show that, he must find a club who can.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association