Football is a sport which – for better or worse – is filled with comparisons. Teams, coaches, stadiums and players are regularly measured against each other and it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve a unique identity without even the most tenuous nods to the past.
From early in his career, Paulo Dybala will have experienced what many precocious Argentinian players of his age and younger have experienced – that is, the endless comparisons to Lionel Messi (much like everyone in the pre-Messi era was subjected to in relation to Diego Maradona). In fact, on his wikipedia page he draws comparisons to Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Javier Pastore, Vicenzo Montella, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio no less – which gives you an indication of how difficult it must be for any player who produces a couple of YouTube videos worth of highlights to stand out in the modern game.
Former Italian international Antonio Cassano perhaps summed up the rush to heap such pressure on Dybala best recently. “The comparison between Messi and Dybala? For me Messi is the greatest player in history and you cannot compare him to anyone – maybe a little to Cristiano Ronaldo. Dybala is a great player but is incomparable to Messi.”
Suggesting that Dybala isn’t on an equivalent level to Messi hardly downplays his accomplishments and nor should it. The player himself stated that he just wanted to be ‘Dybala’ rather than a pale imitation of the great man. And at just 23 years-old, he’s already demonstrated his considerable class and forged his own path..
Growing up in Cordoba, it was inevitable that he’d end up in Italy due to his family’s Neapolitan heritage. Nicknamed La Joya (the jewel), Dybala earned his breakthrough at Palermo where he struck up a potent partnership with fellow Argentine–Italian Franco Vazquez. He scored 13 times and provided another ten in the 2014/15 campaign before the Old Lady of Italian football weighed in and brought him to Turin.
In his first few months at Juventus, Dybala scored a goal every 151 minutes, a superior ratio to Del Piero and Tevez in their debut seasons. Mostly though, his brilliance went under the radar due to the goals of fellow countryman Gonzalo Higuain. If anything, Dybala was content to allow others hog the spotlight. He turned down the chance to wear Juve’s famed number ten shirt that was vacated by Paul Pogba preferring to continue with 21.
Towards the business end of 2016/17 though, he began to gain in prominence and show flashes of his world class ability. He buried Barcelona with a lethal brace in the Champions League quarter-final and netted vital goals towards the conclusion of the Scudetto race. Soon after, he was rewarded in the form of a lucrative contract extension running to 2022.
This season, Dybala’s carried on where he left off in May. He has assumed the role of the team’s star, shouldering more responsibility (and finally taking the ten jersey). That is reflected in the figures he’s produced, having already helped himself to 12 goals in eight outings so far this season, which accounts for 60% of Juve’s total.
So what is the key factor that explains his spike in form?
Well it’s hard to highlight any one element in his game specifically that’s improved, but it appears as if his general physical and mental maturation is allowing him to unlock his true potential and deliver more consistently. It’s become incumbent on him to get goals now that the team is built around his skill set (and Higuain’s struggles so far this season). He also has the full backing and belief of his manager Max Allegri, who was effusive in his praise after watching his star man grab a second hat-track of the season against Sassuolo on Saturday.
“He still has room for improvement,” Allegri told Juventus’ official website. “But at times he’s just unplayable. He’s turning into an extraordinary player.”
Where that takes him is another issue. Invariably, the attention Dybala garners for his performances increases the prospect of other elite clubs attempting to prise him away. The club have put significant time and resources into building the Juventus project around him. They’ve tied him to a new contract and even collaborated on Dybala merchandise. There is little place for sentimentality at Juve, but the hierarchy and the squad are hopeful that they will get some loyalty from the player. ”I believe Paulo will stay,” Gigi Buffon said, “and takes Juve to places where we have still yet to go.”
Juventus have fallen short in two of the last three Champions League finals. In order to take that last step and lift their third European Cup, it is imperative that they hold onto the diminutive Argentine, because his career trajectory is only heading in one direction. He wants to just be Dybala, and he’s doing a pretty decent job of that right now.