It caused quite a stir this week when Juventus’ Paulo Dybala was named as Serie A’s MVP for the 2019/20 season. Many argued that Papu Gomez, pivotal to Atalanta’s on going fairy-tale story, should’ve been the correct recipient of the award for another brilliant season in which he provided 16 assists in 36 league games for La Dea.
Of course a large contingent of Cristiano Ronaldo fans flooded social media bemoaning the league’s decision to hand the award to his Juve teammate and not to the Portuguese striker, pointing out how his 31 goals in Serie A effectively sealed the club’s latest title in their streak of unbroken dominance.
Whilst there is an element of truth to those claims, there can be little argument that in a season of uncertainty for new coach Maurizio Sarri, Dybala has unquestionably been the one constant throughout. The Argentine was Juve’s MVP this season, which makes it all the more startling considering how Dybala started it.
The club made little attempt to disguise the fact that they intended to sell Dybala last summer. Juve shopped him around the biggest clubs in Europe, hoping to balance the books and layoff some of the expenditure involved in the Ronaldo deal from the prior summer. A transfer to the Premier League seemed closest, with Manchester United and Tottenham interested. Rumours circulated that Juve were demanding in the region of €70-80m.
However Dybala put the brakes on any potential move. Despite Juve’s apparent desire to offload him, he was happy in Turin, and refused any offer that was forthcoming. “I have not experienced an easy summer,” he told Tuttosport last August. “Obviously hearing your name with every team you don’t want to go to is not a nice thing, but this is football. But I wanted to stay here, I wanted to continue my career at Juventus.”
Despite hoping Dybala would stay, Sarri struggled to implement the 26-year-old into his starting XI in the earliest parts of the season. He was left unused in two of the opening three league games of the season, and got a mere 14 minutes in the encounter against Napoli. It seemed like in Sarri’s 4-3-3 system, there was no room at the inn.
However Dybala became the beneficiary of Douglas Costa’s fragile limbs, and was slowly integrated back into the starting XI in the aftermath of the Brazilian’s injury against Fiorentina. A first goal of the season arrived in the Derby d’Italia in early October – a scorcher that gave Samir Handanovic little chance – and Dybala never looked back.
With Sarri attempting to overhaul Juve’s style of play from his more pragmatic predecessors Antonio Conte and Max Allegri, their performances were often stodgy, lacking in rhythm and dynamism. Games were often won through moments of individual brilliance from Dybala or Ronaldo. A case in point was the game against Milan in mid-November, when Dybala made a mockery of Alessio Romagnoli on the edge of the penalty box before sliding the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma to seal a 1-0 victory over the Rossoneri.
As is always the case against the perpetual champions in Serie A, teams would entrench themselves in their own half of the field and invite untold pressure. With Ronaldo usually operating on the left hand side or on the periphery of the opposition’s box and often double-marked, Dybala would therefore float between the right and central positions, searching for minute pockets of space to manoeuvre in. Like all great Argentine No.10s, his low centre of gravity made all the difference when faced with a wall of opposing defenders.
Dybala was the biggest casualty of Ronaldo’s arrival in Turin, in 2018/19 he posted his worst stats since arriving at the club: 10 goals and two assists from 42 games in all competitions represented a personal nadir. Allegri struggled to accommodate Dybala and Ronaldo in the same starting XI, and there is a belief that relations were so poor between Allegri and Dybala towards the end of last season that had the former stayed at the club, the latter might’ve moved on.
This season however, Dybala has personally contributed to 31 of Juve’s goals in all competitions, and such has been his elevation in importance to the side that the club is sweating on his physical status ahead of tonight’s crucial Champions League Round of 16 second leg against Lyon.
“I love his way of playing,” new signing Dejan Kulusevski told Tuttosport in a recent interview. “He invents magic that is usually only seen on the PlayStation.”
As the club aim to end their prolonged agony of winning the Champions League for the first time since 1996, Sarri will hope that Serie A’s newly-crowned MVP still has more magic tucked up his sleeve.
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