This piece was originally published by Joseph Odell on Tale of Two Halves in 2019.
Juventus have started Serie A in their typical bullish fashion. Victories over both Parma and Napoli in Maurizio Sarri’s first two games, although not convincing, have set la Vecchia Signora up nicely going into the first international break of the season.
One Juventus player who will not be sharing the same optimism as the new season begins, is attacker, Paolo Dybala. He has started neither of Juventus’ games so far and only came on for the final 15 minutes against Napoli. This summer has seen him heavily linked with Manchester United and Tottenham- a move in January is still being heavily talked about.
Paolo Dybala started his footballing career at Instituto in his native Argentina, but he was moulded into the world-class forward he is today, during his time in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.
Palermo broke their transfer record in July 2012 to sign the then, 18-year-old Argentine. Dybala still remains the club’s most expensive signing, indicating the huge potential he had. Dybala had scored 17 goals in 38 games for Instituto before Palermo signed him. Unsurprisingly, top clubs in Europe, such as Napoli and Porto were also circling. Zamparini’s persistence and willingness to part with such a huge fee for a still unproven talent enabled him to land his man. Or should I say, boy? Upon his arrival in Sicily, fans were greeted by a freshly-faced youngster, with slender fame and distinct lack of facial hair. U Picciriddu or ‘The Kid’ had arrived.
Maurizio Zamparini, the owner of Palermo, dubbed him as “the new Agüero”. Despite the expectation and large fee paid for the forward, Dybala failed to live up to Zamparini’s bold predictions in his first season in Italy. In 27 Serie A games, U Picciriddu managed only three goals. Palermo were relegated, having picked up a measly 32 points. It seemed that Dybala really still was a kid.
The following season saw Dybala deployed in a deeper position, as he was handed the task of creating chances for Palermo’s infamous striking duo of Kyle Lafferty and Abel Hernandez. Dybala’s campaign this time around offered much more promise than his previous one. Five goals and six assists in a less advanced position showed signs of the Argentine adapting to the Italian style of football, something that he himself admitted was difficult.
“It was tough to adapt,” he said. “The football here is much faster, more physical and tactical.”
With the help of Palermo’s attacking riches: Dybala, Lafferty, and Hernandez, the Sicilian club romped Serie B, and they were back in the big time.
Dybala had just adapted to Italian football, but he would now have to adapt to a new situation prior to the 2014/15 season. Strikers Lafferty and Hernandez were shipped off to England (Norwich and Hull respectively). Dybala was the man seen fit to replace them.
Attacking midfielder, Franco Vasquez returned to the club following a successful loan spell at Rayo Vallecano. He and Dybala linked up to form a devastating partnership. Palermo’s manager Beppe Iachini pitted them both high up the pitch in a 3-5-2 formation.
Perhaps the doubts over Dybala’s ability and maturity resurfaced again six weeks into the new campaign. Palermo were in the relegation zone without a win, as the club picked up only three points from a possible 18. Was this much responsibility on the fragile shoulders of the 21-year-old? This all changed in matchday seven, in what had turned out to be a must-win for a Palermo side, already fighting for their Serie A life.
Midway through the first-half Palermo were given a free-kick 25 yards out. The Kid was ready to become a man, and single-handedly hurl Palermo out the relegation zone. It wasn’t to be. His wicked, whipped free-kick looked to be curling its way into the top-left corner, only to be denied by the woodwork.
Dybala’s luck changed on the cusp of half-time. He took a short corner, receiving a one-two, before gliding past a defender into the Cesena penalty area. He took one more touch to get the ball out of his feet, and then elegantly placed the ball into the left-hand side of Cesena’s net. A goal solely made by Dybala and his magic left foot.
A lacklustre second-half performance eventually caught up with Palermo as they needlessly conceded a penalty, which was duly converted. 1-1. Once again, it was Dybala who was dragging the Sicilians out of trouble. His late pinpoint corner-kick was headed home by Gonzalez. Iachini could breathe a huge sigh of relief as Palermo had the first victory of the season.
Although Dybala failed to make much of an impact in Palermo’s two following games, he found his form once again against Milan at the San Siro, scoring the second goal in a famous 2-0 away win. That sparked a run of five straight matches were Dybala was on the scoresheet. The last of those, against Torino, was arguably the Argentine’s finest performance of the season thus far. In the opening stages of the game, Dybala seized upon the ball in midfield and skipped past a Torino challenge, before sliding the ball 20 yards across the pitch to find his team-mate, Rigoni, who tucked the ball home. Palermo had the lead. That goal was quickly canceled out by Josef Martinez’s strike.
Dybala quickly wrestled back control of the game for Palermo with a sublime goal. Left-back, Lazaar pinged a flighted ball to Dybala as he found a yard of space in the Torino box. The Argentine effortlessly looped the ball over his head with a delicate touch of his left boot. Now one-on-one with the goalkeeper he volleyed the ball into the net, in a goal that typified Dybala’s seemingly infinite ability. Once again though Palermo failed to hold on to their lead. One thing they could hold onto though was their confidence that Dybala was turning into a world-class forward.
Three weeks later, on matchday 17, Dybala was still having the same magnanimous impact on Palermo’s season. In the seven games prior to Palermo’s match against Cagliari, Dybala had scored or assisted a goal in his last seven Serie A games (five goals, four assists). He was undisputedly Palermo’s talisman now. That trend continued in Palermo’s 5-0 rout of Cagliari.
Dybala’s intelligent diagonal run was found by the pass of Barreto, he was through on goal, before being flattened by the Cagliari goalkeeper. Still, with both the confidence and responsibility he held, Dybala stepped up to take the resulting penalty and thumped low into the bottom corner.
Dybala’s second and Palermo’s fourth came as the result of a fine scooped pass from Vasquez. On the half-volley, Dybala slammed the ball home with his left foot.
The Argentine went on to score and assist a further eight goals in the final months of the season. He finished the campaign with 13 goals and 10 assists to his name, impeccable figures for someone so young.
So, Dybala had lived up to the hype of Zamperini. Although, he was not “new Agüero”, he was just Dybala. The same Dybala that Juventus decided to spend £36 million on in the summer of 2015.
Their decision was immediately justified by Dybala’s performances, no more was he the boy who had just landed in Italy. He was a man, that revelled in responsibility. In his first three seasons in Turin he was seen as the jewel of Juventus’ attack. Dybala scored 52 and assisted 22 goals in 98 Serie A matches, an outstanding record. His best season was 2017/18 where he provided a goal or assists every 90 minutes on average.
This all drastically changed in 2018/19, with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Now Dybala is no longer the jewel of the Juventus attack, but a spare piece, whose function is to feed the goal-hungry Portuguese winger. Dybala major role has now vanquished, and no longer is Juventus’ play suited to Dybala. Often last season the ball was quickly shifted out to the left to find Ronaldo. Last season he attained just 0.19 Expected Goals (xG) per 90- a far cry from his numbers in the prior season. Dybala finished the Serie A season with a mere five goals and five assists.
This season Dybala’s chances of consistent game-time do not look like improving either. Ronaldo still occupies the key role in Juventus’ attack, and the returning Higuain has taken the starting position in both of la Vecchia Signora’s opening Serie A games.
Recently, his former youth coach at Instituto, Francisco Buteler, spoke upon Dybala’s difficult situation.
“The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo stripped him of some of his importance and resulted in him losing further confidence,” he stated. “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.”
Dybala is no longer U Picciriddu who arrived on the shores of Sicily in July 2012. He is soon to be 26, and if he wants to return to his rightful place as one of Europe’s elite strikers, then he needs to regain his form from his time at Palermo, at the first few years of his Juventus career.
Of course, how he does that is difficult to answer? Whether he will go out to another club, say Tottenham or Manchester United, or if he stays in Turin, one thing is for certain. If Paolo Dybala is to be one of the best in the world again, he needs to be the centre of his team, the man who holds the attacking responsibility.