The Argentine No.10 has had a big fall from grace over the last year with Juventus desperate to offload the popular attacker this summer
Shortly after leaving Palermo for Juventus in the summer of 2015, Paulo Dybala returned to Sicily to visit some friends.
During a trip to the beach, the forward naturally went for a swim. It was at this point that “something strange” happened.
“When I was about to get out of the sea, I saw that all of the people were waiting for me on the shore,” he revealed.
Dybala immediately feared the locals wanted to scold him over his €40 million (£36.8m/$44.7m) transfer to Juventus. In reality, though, they wanted to congratulate him.
Dybala often has this effect on fans. They appreciate not only his silky sills but also the passion he shows for the shirt.
It’s why Juventus supporters have been left both bemused and enraged by the club’s decision to put Dybala up for sale.
Within hours of the confirmation that Juventus had agreed to a swap deal with Manchester United involving the Argentine and Romelu Lukaku, ‘#Dybalanonsitocca’ (‘Don’t touch Dybala’) was trending on Twitter in Italy.
Such a backlash may seem surprising given Dybala is coming off the worst season of his Juventus career, one in which he netted just five times in Serie A.
However, the Biaconceri faithful considered the 25-year-old their next great No.10. Until recently, Juventus did too.
Just over two years ago, Dybala scored twice in a 3-0 victory over Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
That night in Turin, the crowd had unveiled a mosaic that read ‘It’s time!’ and it felt like the Cordoba native had taken that message to heart.
The player so long compared to Lionel Messi used his compatriot’s visit to announce himself as a world-class talent in his own right.
Nobody was claiming afterwards that Dybala could reach the Barcelona attacker’s level but, in the immediate aftermath of a dynamic and decisive display, it truly seemed like he could be the next best thing.
Juventus certainly felt that way.
Just two days later, the Old Lady handed Dybala a bumper new contract extension until 2022, in order to fend off interest from not only Barca but also Real Madrid.
In August of that year, they handed him the prestigious No.10 jersey. Dybala made all of the right noises, describing it as the realisation of “a childhood dream”. He meant it, though; they weren’t empty words.
Dybala played like a man possessed during the 2017-18 season, scoring a career-high 26 goals in all competitions.
‘La Joya’ had become Juve’s most valuable player. That changed, though, the moment Cristiano Ronaldo rocked up in Vinovo.
Dybala was enthused by the Portuguese’s arrival, as were the fans. They looked like a match made in heaven and, just like any glamorous celebrity couple, a collective nickname was promptly bestowed upon them, ‘Dybaldo’.
This was anything but an equal marriage, though. Dybala wasn’t asked to play with the Portuguese superstar; he was asked to play for him. As a result, his productivity took an inevitable hit.
In 2017-18, Dybala was directly involved in 32 goals in all competitions. That figure fell to 14 last term.
It is the perfect illustration of just how much Dybala’s influence waned within an attack now built around Ronaldo, which was hardly surprising given he was regularly asked to play a deeper role; almost as an auxiliary forward.
Ronaldo, to his credit, couldn’t have been more supportive, even paying tribute to Dybala by incorporating his struggling team-mate’s ‘gladiator mask’ into his famed ‘Siu!’ celebration after netting against Sassuolo in February.
“Off the pitch there is no problem with Ronaldo, the problems are on it: you can’t do anything with him there,” Dybala’s brother and agent, Gustavo, fumed in May.
He wasn’t wrong either. Despite Massimiliano Allegri’s numerous attempts to fit Dybala into a Ronaldo-led attack, he never found a solution.
New coach Maurizio Sarri believes the Argentina international can play as a ‘false nine’ but confessed – after Dybala played 30 minutes in that role as a substitute in Juve’s 2-1 International Champions Cup defeat to Atletico – that “my opinion counts for zero”.
Indeed, Dybala may not have joined either Manchester United or Tottenham before the Premier League summer transfer window closed but it’s clear that the attacker’s days in Turin are still numbered.
When reports first emerged in February that Juve were open to selling Dybala this summer, sporting director Fabio Paratici immediately moved to shoot them down.
“Who do you get that is better than Dybala?” he asked.
Now, though, it doesn’t seem to matter: the Juve hierarchy simply want Dybala out, regardless of Sarri’s opinion.
It must be said, that the player must take at least some share of the blame for this dramatic turn of events.
Off the field, his change of management – passing from Pier Paolo Triulzi to his brother Gustavo in September 2017 – didn’t sit well with Juve, while director Pavel Nedved also publicly questioned Dybala’s professionalism and requested that he make more “sacrifices in his private life”.
On the field, his lack of adaptability and versatility has been harshly exposed over the past 12 months. Even he attributed his inability to nail down a regular spot in the Argentina starting XI to a positional clash with Messi.
He has no such excuse when it comes to failing to find room for himself in a team containing Ronaldo. His struggles have merely underlined that he can only truly flourish as the support striker in a two-man attack or the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1.
It is worth noting that this summer he has not been courted by Europe’s elite – Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City or Liverpool – but by second-tier sides United, Tottenham and, now, Paris Saint-Germain.
That stellar showing against Barca two years ago was meant to be the start of something special but he’s not produced another performance of that stature in the Champions League since.
As iconic midfielder and former team-mate Andrea Pirlo harshly – but fairly – asked at the tail end of last season, “In what other top team would Dybala play? If he goes to another team, he has to deserve his place.
“I’d keep him because he’s a great player. It’s not as if he’s gone from a great player to a bad player from one season to the next.
“But he’s suffering because of the change of formation and the arrival of Ronaldo.
“Mentally and physically, he has to understand that in Europe there’s another rhythm; it’s not the Italian league.
“If he wants to reach certain levels, he has to improve in everything.”
Juve aren’t going to allow him to do that in Turin so maybe Dybala, and Juve’s fans, just have to come to accept that he needs a transfer to revive his career.
Painful as it may be, perhaps now ‘it’s time’ for everyone to move on.
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