Paulo Dybala was the difference-maker for Juventus against Atletico Madrid. His sensational free-kick from a tight angle saw the bianconeri seal their progression into the knockout stages of the competition. Things could have been very different some months ago.
Many things told that La Joya was being pushed out of Turin by Juve. There was a point when Dybala was looking to leave if Massimiliano Allegri had stayed. But since the Italian left the Old Lady, Dybala was always intent on staying at the Allianz Stadium.
That wasn’t the case for Juve though. They were constantly looking to sell Dybala. Manchester United were actively in talks for the Argentine, as they were keen on swapping him Romelu Lukaku. Image rights held up the possible move.
The same did happen for Tottenham at the end of the transfer window. Mauricio Pochettino’s men had a fee of €70 million get accepted by Juve. On deadline day, there was a point when Dybala was almost set for the move. But image rights again proved to be the hindrance, as the move fell through.
The Old Lady was in search of financial gains, after having signed big-money players in Matthijs de Ligt and Cristiano Ronaldo over the last two years. Not just Dybala, but the likes of Daniele Rugani, Gonzalo Higuain, Emre Can and Miralem Pjanic were also seen as sellable players.
But Dybala has been immense this season. He has silently told Juventus that there is no point in selling a player as important as him.
It hasn’t been a campaign in which Juve have been scoring freely. The team is still getting used to Maurizio Sarri’s style. In that situation, a flair player like Dybala has sparkled in an attacking shape.
Dybala has contributed to nine goals in total in all competitions this season- seven of them goals. His free-kick against Atleti was a mere reflection of how he has been a saviour many times for the bianconeri.
Initially, Sarri was more keen on using Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain up front. It was an attempt to get that combination going. Dybala’s integration was slow but La Joya impressed in Juve’s 2-1 comeback win over Verona.
He didn’t score or assist, but he completed five dribbles and came up with two key passes in the game. His second start came in another 2-1 win comeback win over Brescia and the Argentine once again, enjoyed the freedom. He came up with the fourth-highest passes in the game- 61, playing 2 key-passes.
These games were used as a foundation to strike up a chord in the system and with the players. He scored a crucial goal in Juve’s 2-1 win over Inter. His brace against Lokomotiv saw Juve come closer to knockout stages qualification.
In their 1-1 draw with Lecce, Dybala had to slot a penalty away to hand Juve a crucial point. He got the club’s winner against AC Milan. This past weekend, he also sealed the deal for the club in a 3-1 win over Atalanta.
The scorelines show how Juve have been relying on digging out results. A lot of it is down to the immense amount of depth they have and that is proving crucial. Dybala though, has been a constant. Ronaldo’s recent substitutions did cause controversy, as Higuain and himself keep swapping.
Dybala has been playing the second-highest number of key-passes per game at Juve – 1.8. He has completed more dribbles than anyone else – 2.5.
In the a 4-3-1-2 shape, Dybala has shown that his best position lies closer to goal. That is in stark contrast to how Max Allegri was using him last season- out wide on the right in a structured system. Playing centrally has seen him get back to his best.
Juve vice-president Pavel Nedved was full of praise for Paulo after Juve’s 1-0 win over Los Rojiblancos. He told Sky Italia (via FootballItalia):
“Dybala is doing great things this season, you can perhaps see the difference more from last term. He played below expectations last season, but has changed completely and it is above all a change of his mentality. It was all him and I am pleased because he can still get stronger.”
The narrow shape has had a role to play. In the 2017-18 season, Dybala played as a second-striker more often than not- operating 31 times in that position and contributing to 24 goals. As a centre-forward he came up with five contributions to goal.
Perhaps, Sarri drew lessons from it and saw Juve’s inability to sell as a chance to get the most out of him. And Dybala isn’t letting anyone down.