Despite Argentina’s Copa America woes, the Juventus forward is still not in contention for a place after falling short with club and country
Saturday’s damaging defeat at the hands of Colombia has left the uncertainties inside the Argentina camp open for everyone to see. Ineffective in attack and vulnerable in defence, at this point novice coach Lionel Scaloni has a real headache as he tries to form a workable team in time for their second Copa America clash against Paraguay on Wednesday.
Rodrigo De Paul may start ahead of Angel Di Maria; Sergio Aguero could lose his place to Lautaro Martinez. Renzo Saravia is almost certain to step out of the starting line-up after a calamitous display that saw both goals come from down the exposed flank of the new Porto right-back.
One player, however, is most definitely out of contention, to a point where he appears the forgotten man of the Albiceleste squad. Paulo Dybala is once more relegated to the substitutes’ bench, a place he looks set to occupy for quite some time as the result of his inability to play alongside not one, but rather both of the world’s current football superstars.
“What I’m about to say will seem strange, but playing with Messi in Argentina is a little difficult.” Those words, uttered in the heat of the World Cup qualifying campaign at the start of 2017, have hung like a millstone round Dybala’s neck since.
How, precisely, could sharing a pitch with perhaps the greatest player the game has ever seen prove a challenge? Dybala’s candour has come back to haunt him every time he has taken the field alongside Messi and failed to deliver; but those sub-standard performances have proven him exactly right.
The Juventus and Barcelona stars are indeed extremely similar on the pitch, each preferring to bore in from the right-hand side and switch to their favourite left, as well as favouring neat, short touches while in possession before whipping the ball at goal.
Argentina’s experiments with both Messi and Dybala in the starting line-up have been few and generally unsuccessful, with neither player willing – or perhaps able – to adapt their game to accommodate the other.
Leo is Leo, of course, and Dybala merely a very good forward, leaving little doubt over who must give way in the face of that conflict. That is why at the age of 25 the Cordoba native has just 20 international caps to his name, most of those short cameos off the bench or in non-competitive fixtures, and one solitary goal scored in a friendly against Mexico in 2018.
Even worse for the player, the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus marked the second elite superstar he has failed to gel with.
Dybala’s fantastic first three seasons in Turin were built on a fluid partnership with either Mario Mandzukic or Gonzalo Higuain, who departed last year.
With Higuain, Dybala often played in the hole in a 4-2-3-1 system or as a support striker. He would supply the ammunition but he also linked up well with Pipita, scoring a memorable winner at Wembley against Tottenham in 2018 from a Higuain through pass.
Mandzukic, meanwhile, is a striker who prefers to put in the hard yards outside the area and contribute to his team’s overall effort to grabbing the glory himself.
Dybala and Mandzukic also proved supremely effective, delivering three consecutive Scudetti while cementing the young Argentine’s reputation as one of the world’s most promising players.
Ronaldo, however, changed everything. Suddenly Mandzukic’s sacrifice and toil was all in benefit of the ex-Real Madrid star, with Dybala relegated to a supporting role in a team now far more direct and rapid than that he was accustomed to.
From 26 goals in 2017-18, his tally plummeted to just 10 last season as he struggled to carve out a first-team role before coach Massimiliano Allegri, tired of trying to fit square pegs in round holes, finally dropped him to the bench for most of the first half of 2019.
Those same complaints that aired in 2017 emerged again, this time from Dybala’s brother. “Off the pitch there is no problem with [Ronaldo], the problems are on it: you can’t do anything with him there and Paulo is young,” Gustavo fired in May, while claiming that Paulo and several other players were unhappy at Juve.
“There is a good chance Paulo will leave Juve, he needs a change. He is not happy and will not be the only one who leaves.”
Whether Paulo does stay in Turin or not will be determined once Argentina’s Copa America campaign comes to a close, later or perhaps sooner if their pitiful 2-0 defeat at the hands of Colombia is a faithful indication of this squad’s real level.
For the present, though, he will remain on the fringes of the team, unable to complement Messi on the field and, as he showed prior to La Pulga’s international return with a host of mediocre performances marked by fleeting glimpses of quality, unable to act as a real alternative to the Barca wizard either. Indeed, with the emergence of Ezequiel Barco in the Under-20 World Cup, Dybala could well find himself squeezed out between old and new and left out of the set-up altogether post-Brazil as Argentina seek the formula to secure qualification to Qatar 2022.
It would be extremely disappointing to see a star like Dybala’s burn out so prematurely, without a place for club or country. But if he is to overcome this bump in the road and demonstrate to all that 2018-19 was merely a blip, the onus is on the forward himself to become more adaptable, more flexible in his approach regardless of tactics or team-mates.
Even if he is incapable of doing so, he may still go on to have a great and long-lasting professional career. But the tag of ‘the player who could not play with either Messi or Ronaldo’ is a heavy, damning one, and the sooner he sheds it the better.