Analysing Paulo Dybala's Difficult Start to the 2016/17 Season

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2016

Juventus' forward Paulo Dybala from Argentina (L) reacts during the Italian Serie A football match Inter Milan vs Juventus on September 18, 2016 at the 'San Siro Stadium' in Milan. / AFP / MARCO BERTORELLO        (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)
MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

Having lost 2-1 to Inter Milan on Sunday, the midweek round of Serie A action provided Juventus with an early opportunity to bounce back as Cagliari visited Turin. The Bianconeri seized that chance, sweeping their newly promoted opponents aside easily in a comfortable 4-0 victory.

The team from Sardinia offered little threat on Wednesday, as coach Massimo Rastelli's men were overwhelmed by a star-studded lineup despite Juve opting to rest a number of players.

Sami Khedira and Leonardo Bonucci were left out of the starting XI, while Patrice Evra joined Medhi Benatia and Claudio Marchisio on the injury list, with the club's official website noting the Frenchman had sprained his knee in training.

Overall, the performance was much improved, with the midfield looking far sharper after Miralem Pjanic was moved away from the central role—a matter discussed in a previous post.

While it must be again noted that Cagliari offered little resistance during this encounter, the Bosnia and Herzegovina international was a much more influential figure throughout.

According to WhoScored.com, Pjanic managed 97 touches—a tally only bettered by one of his team-mates (Dani Alves, who had 138). He certainly capitalised on them, connecting with 91 per cent of his 78 pass attempts and creating three clear scoring opportunities to push the Old Lady to victory.

As can be seen in the video above, he was heavily involved in the goals Juve scored. It was his free-kick that saw Gonzalo Higuain's shot saved by Marco Storari, with Daniele Rugani slotting home his first goal for the club thereafter.

The midfielder then burst into the box and fired at the former Juventus goalkeeper, and this time, Higuain was on hand to tap in the rebound. A well-taken corner from Pjanic picked out Alves on the edge of the box to smash in a third goal before another excellent pass eventually led to Luca Ceppitelli's own goal after some good work from Mario Mandzukic.

While the likes of Andrea Barzagli and Alex Sandro were once again solid performers—the latter commanding the entire left flank single-handedly in another fantastic display—even this emphatic victory failed to ignite Paulo Dybala.

Paulo Dybala struggled again vs Cagliari
Paulo Dybala struggled again vs CagliariMARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

Despite the Bianconeri running roughshod here, the Argentina international remained a shadow of the eye-catching and entertaining player he was last term, as the early stages of the new campaign have proved immensely difficult for him.

"On a personal level, I started last season better so maybe I'm lacking a little confidence in front of goal," Dybala recently told ESPN Argentina (h/t ESPN FC). "But I always try to make my contribution in other ways, running more for my teammates or winning balls back in defensive areas."

Yet Juventus clearly want more from the 22-year-old than effort and work rate, particularly after seeing him bag 19 goals and nine assists in his first season with the club.

Much to the dismay of many media members, he is seemingly playing a deeper role than last term—a view that prompted a response from coach Massimiliano Allegri at his press conference ahead of the Cagliari match:

When you write things, I read them, there’s always something to learn. Then what I do is I get the data and I look at things.

Dybala’s position is the same as last year, neither deeper or further forward. At the moment he’s perhaps shooting at the goal less.

Don’t forget that last year Dybala was—in quotation marks—the ‘novelty’ of the season, he’d been at Palermo but he was a novelty.

This year he’s a player who is known, so he has to vary his play depending on the conditions.

It’s more difficult for him this year because of last year, and it’s always hard to confirm it. That’s normal, we’ve talked about it and he has to remain calm.

Max Allegri was forced to respond to criticism
Max Allegri was forced to respond to criticismAlessandro Di Marco/Associated Press

There was much truth in that statement, particularly when it comes to taking shots. According to WhoScored.com, Dybala managed just two efforts against Cagliari. That tally was equalled by Rugani, Hernanes and Mario Lemina, while Higuain (five), Sandro (five), Pjanic (four) and Alves (three) all took more attempts at beating Storari.

It is far from an isolated case this term, with the same source showing five players bettered his single attempt on goal in the 0-0 UEFA Champions League draw with Sevilla, while in the win over Sassuolo, he again shot just twice.

Allegri was also right to note that opposition defences are better prepared to neutralise Dybala, but while he may not be willing to admit it publicly, the coach cannot fail to realise his talented forward has dropped much deeper on the pitch.

Much of this is related to Juve’s midfield issues, with the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Lemina and Hernanes struggling to hit Dybala with passes, prompting him to then drift off toward them in search of the ball.

As the graphic in the tweet above highlights, the former Palermo striker received just one pass inside the Cagliari box, and that was in a match in which Juventus enjoyed 61.3 per cent of possession and connected with a total of 624 passes, per WhoScored.com.

Perhaps rather than Allegri’s words to the press, more attention should be given to the evidence of recent games such as Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Inter. With just 16 minutes remaining, the Juve boss sent Higuain on as a substitute, replacing Mandzukic as he hoped to improve his side’s attacking threat.

As he entered the field, the Argentina international made a beeline for compatriot Dybala, clearly bringing a message from the bench to keep close to him up front.

Higuain made sure Dybala gets the message
Higuain made sure Dybala gets the messageAdam Digby via Wyscout

The main issue with being so distant from his fellow striker is an inability to affect the game where it matters most: in the opposition penalty area. Not only is Dybala shooting less, but he is also much too far away from goal to influence play. He is still getting the ball, turning and beating a man, but then he is confronted by too many opponents ready to help.

This means that instead of being in the box, where a foul would be a penalty, he is instead hacked down in less dangerous parts of the field, with WhoScored.com showing Sevilla took full advantage, fouling Dybala on no fewer than six occasions.

The same source shows that is a dramatic leap from the 1.6 times per game he was infringed in Champions League action last term, with the Spanish side clearly unafraid to concede free-kicks in midfield areas rather than let Dybala run free.

As the FourFourTwo Stats Zone graphic in the tweet above highlights, it also means Dybala and Higuain cannot link up as they would hope, connecting with just four passes in the win over Cagliari.

Stuck playing sideways passes to midfielders or wing-backs, Dybala needs to be closer to Higuain, just as he was told to be against Inter. Only then can the duo thrive, only then can they help bring the best from each other and only then can the two Argentinians deliver the same incredible goalscoring prowess they both showed last term.

Higuain needs the service his compatriot can provide, but to do so, the younger man must move up the pitch and join the attack. The foraging must be left to others, and it is time Juventus forced Dybala back to where he belongs: in attack, near the box and closer to the opposition goal.