Paulo Dybala is off to a promising start this season with Juventus, but there is a growing dilemma over how exactly manager Maurizio Sarri should utilize him going forward.
Maurizio Sarri would be the first to say that his Juventus side are not yet playing their absolute best football.
In fact, it was one of the main talking points that he alluded to after Juventus’ 2-1 win against Inter Milan.
“I feel we can still improve a great deal more,” Sarri said. “It’s a gradual process, the team has strong individuals and so much strength in depth.”
Sure, Juventus are currently undefeated in Serie A play and reign at the top of the table in their Champions League group, but the general feeling is that the best is still yet to come.
Now before this Juventus side can reach their top form, Sarri still has a number of dilemmas that he needs to address in his first season with the club. For instance, the former Chelsea manager must determine which midfield trio is his strongest and most efficient in both the attack and defense.
But the most intriguing dilemma for Sarri is just how he will utilize Paulo Dybala.
Through Juventus’ 11 games in all competitions this season, Dybala featured in seven of them while totaling a low 352 total minutes. Four of Dybala’s games played have come as a used sub; he combined for 49 minutes as a sub in both Champions League fixtures, league contest against Bologna and the home game against Napoli.
Evidently, Sarri’s dilemma with Dybala does not necessarily revolve around providing him with minutes on a game-by-game basis. The Argentine forward will surely factor in some capacity with the team taking into the account Juve are competing in three competitions and injuries almost seem inevitable in a long season. Instead, the issue largely stems on finding a suitable role for Dybala that is tailored to his strengths as an attacking-minded player and also accommodates to the team’s game plan.
Sarri is not the first and will definitely not be the last in regards to facing this exact situation.
Last season, manager Massimiliano Allegri played Dybala in a number of different positions — including as a central attacking midfielder and secondary striker. However, the Italian manager was not able to find the perfect role which could have allowed for the Argentine forward to flourish and co-exist alongside Cristiano Ronaldo in the final third. As a result, Dybala failed to maintain a tenacious attacking presence as he recorded five goals and an xA of 3.56 in Serie A play last season, both of which were career lows for him with Juventus.
And with the Argentina national team, Dybala is seemingly an outcast among the array of prolific forwards. Thus far, no manager for La Albiceleste has been able to formulate the right tactical game plan that accommodates his play style with the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero.
With Dybala’s career currently at a standstill, Sarri is hopeful he will be able to consistently integrate the Argentine forward into the squad while also finding the perfect role for him. But what exactly could the role entail?
Before determining Dybala’s best fit under Sarri, it is first important to see just how the Argentine forward is performing this season. While a sample size of 344 total minutes might be low, they still can provide Sarri with a good enough indicator to Dybala’s strengths and weaknesses.
Dybala has played the vast majority of his minutes this season upfront as a centre-forward. His four starts have come positioned alongside either Ronaldo or Higuain in Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 setup — a formation which utilizes a midfield of four players with a central attacking midfielder tucked in behind the two forwards. Both forwards and the central attacking midfielder — Aaron Ramsey or Federico Bernardeschi for Juve – in a 4-3-1-2 equally play a vital role in the team’s build-up to the final third. The underlying premise of this formation emphasizes building through the center space of the pitch and having the trident of attacking-minded players consistently link up.
For the most part, Dybala has had more freedom to move out of his positional area rather than remain stationed upfront as a target man. He can drift out to the flanks, drop deep alongside the central attacking midfielder or hover behind the adjacent striker. The 25-year-old’s ability to move across the pitch at will is a staple of his play style.
For example, see here the area where Dybala would be positioned in his usual designated area upfront in behind Inter Milan’s defensive line of five vs where he is actually positioned. By dropping out of his line, he is able to receive the ball along the half-space and from there, the options are almost limitless to what he can do.
This is well exemplified here as Dybala is able to assist in anchoring a quick Sarriball-like sequence where a succession of passes leads to a through ball directed to Higuain.
As mentioned before, Dybala is not the player that prefers to wait around the box and be a target man. Instead, he roams around the pitch looking to gravitate to wherever the team is building up play from. This all not only adds an unpredictable dimension to the attack since the centre-forward is navigating across the pitch at will, but it also strengthens the team’s cohesion in building up play to the final third. Dybala is capable of a variety of different actions such as dropping into open pockets of space to provide a passing option for a teammate. He also regularly drifts out wide to the flanks in order to both stretch defensive lines and prevent play from becoming clogged up through the center.
Dybala’s presence in the build-up this season deserves to be stressed more because of his surprisingly high involvement when compared to previous seasons. In Serie A play this season, he is sporting a 0.50 xGBuildup90, which is the highest of his career and the third most on the team among qualified players (minimum 300 minutes played) behind midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi.
Dybala is typifying what it means to be a playmaking forward with his prowess to link up well with the midfield trio when he drops deep and capability to complement the centre-forward adjacent to him. Generally, managers just ask their centre-forward to handle relatively minimal responsibilities such as holding up play and capitalizing on goal-scoring opportunities, but the 25-year-old is doing that and more with his decisive on-ball play. His precise coordination to either know when to drop out of his line or get off a one-touch pass adds to what is becoming a potent Juventus attack.
Overall, Dybala has shown exceptional poise in his play and a thorough understanding of what is expected of him as a centre-forward in the 4-3-1-2 formation. Clearly, Sarri must approve of the quick progression Dybala is making as one of the two main centre-forwards in the formation. So, if Sarri is content with what he has seen so far and believes the current formation is a permanent viable solution to the team’s attack, then there is no need to make a substantial change.
But Sarri also has other options he may want to explore. For example, one set up he may be able to implement is to keep the same 4-3-1-2 formation but drop Dybala to the central attacking midfielder formation and insert Higuain to play alongside Ronaldo as the two main centre-forwards.
A couple of weeks ago, Sarri acknowledged the idea of playing Ronaldo, Higuain and Dybala together but believes now is not the time.
“If the team in future finds a great deal of balance, then we can try it, but right now that seems premature,” Sarri said in his pre-match press conference of the Bayer Leverkusen fixture.
The trio did play together on the pitch for a mere nine minutes against Inter Milan as Dybala dropped to the central attacking midfielder role when Higuain was subbed on. But they did not show much to garner any traction to the idea of playing together since Inter Milan dominated possession for those nine minutes.
Needless to say, there are certainly positives to the possibility of Sarri playing the trio together.
For instance, Dybala has shown this season that he can thrive — if needed — as a central attacking midfielder. As alluded to before, the Argentine forward often drops deep to the center or half-spaces to pick up the ball and assist in the team’s progression into the final third. More importantly, Dybala’s versatility on the pitch enables him to constantly be a threat when moving in or near the final third.
Of course, mobility on the ball is a key component for the success of any central attacking midfielder as they are tenaciously tasked with maintaining possession. To a large extent, Dybala has shown with his precise on-ball technique that he can not only control possession but also aggressively push the ball upfield. In Serie A play this season, he is averaging 2.2 successful dribbles per game with a 68% success rate and a career high 2.64 progressive runs per 90.
Dybala has just the talent to patrol the team’s build-up and playmaking in the final third as a central attacking midfielder. Tucked in behind Ronaldo and Higuain, Dybala’s elusive movements can open up space for the centre-forward duo to exploit. But there are drawbacks to playing such a rigorous attacking-heavy formation, including the fact that Dybala would be forced to defend in the team’s 4-4-2 defensive setup — an aspect of play that is far from a strength of his.
Sarri certainly holds all the cards when it comes to deciding on just what setup to choose. The 4-3-1-2 formation with either Dybala as a centre-forward or a central attacking midfielder are both suitable options, but the manager must consider all factors when evaluating his options, such as team chemistry upfront. While these two options seem to be at the top of Sarri’s tactical game plan, there are other potential alternatives to determining Dybala’s best role for the squad; he can play as a winger or as a false nine in a 4-3-3 if Sarri decides to revert back to this formation.
It is imperative that Sarri finds the utmost best formation that suits Dybala and the other main attackers in order to produce a fluid and free-flowing attack.