TBT: Paulo Dybala

In the latest TBT from the Scouted Football archives comes James Bufton's piece on Paulo Dybala. You read about the Juventus forward in the Handbook, but Bufton profiled the Argentine in October 2014, when he was still at Palermo. Enjoy! 

Early Beginnings

Paulo Dybala has not looked back at any point during his journey to the promise land of European football. Born in Laguna Larga, in the province of Córdoba, the young Argentine with ancestry hailing from across the Atlantic – his grandfather born in Poland – began to shine playing the beautiful game at a very young age. He initially plied his trade for local youth outfits until eventually receiving a trial, at the age of ten, with Instituto, the second-tier outfit who nurtured 1978 World Cup winners Mario Kempes and Ossie Ardiles, among other notorious names.

Dybala’s father passed away when he was only fifteen years old, inspiring his decision to board at the club permanently and actively pursue a career in the sport professionally. He has remarked in the past that “If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be here, and I am very grateful. I know he is helping me out from above”. It was evident that this tragedy injected a new purpose to his approach on the pitch and off of it, his objectives were clear and his determination to achieve them without fault. Two years later, in reward of his stellar showings within the academy, he made his debut with the senior side aged seventeen.

Fransisco Buteler, who coached Dybala in the Instituto set-up, had this to say of his former student, upon his leap to the first team: “In the fifteen years I’ve been working with youth teams he is the most outstanding player I have seen; he has all the attributes of a complete player,” he noted. “He is skilful, has the ability to lose two opponents with one move, he has a very good shot and great vision. In the position he is now he is a goal-getter. He wanted to play as playmaker, we convinced him to become a striker, he was called up to the first team, and now he is reaping the rewards. He is a very humble kid.”

This promotion did not serve as a ceiling for what he could achieve though, despite the added pressure he was subjected to, Dybala continued on his upward trajectory, garnering rave reviews as he broke record, after record, after record. In an extraordinary breakthrough, he became the youngest goalscorer in Instituto history, the youngest to appear in thirty eight consecutive matches in Argentina’s professional game, and the first to score two hat-tricks in a season, also holding the honour of most goals scored in successive fixtures with six. In total, he accumulated 17 goals in 40 appearances, his ludicrous talent earning him the nickname ‘La Joya’, which translates into English as ‘The Jewel’, fully warranted after claiming such an invaluable role within the team.

Interest soared in the months following Dybala’s emergence, despite playing in the second division and lacking in experience above that, reports surfaced linking Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus, Milan, Inter and Benfica with interest in his services. Ultimately, he would make the move to Europe, but not to any of the names mentioned above, instead joining Palermo for a fee in the region of £10,470,000 [approx. €12m], as pertransfermarket.co.uk. Rosanero president Maurizio Zamparini announced the deal bringing Paulo to Stadio Renzo Barbera with much enthusiasm, labelling him “the new Sergio Agüero”, among other compliments, and made his belief in his new recruit evident from the off.

It took time for Dybala to settle into his new surroundings and integrate into his new team however, failing to rescue the Sicilians from relegation in his first term in Italy. Matters weren’t helped by the maligned managerial merry-go-round ongoing throughout the season – Zamparini drew his proverbial axe on five separate occasions between September 2012 and June 2013 – however Giuseppe Iachini, the catalyst to Palermo’s return to the top flight, has since changed the 20-year-old’s fortunes. Dybala benefitted enormously from the newfound consistency in the technical area, scoring five and assisting a further six in Serie B as an integral part to attaining promotion at the first attempt.

Thus far, this standard of performance and influence has continued into the new campaign, Dybala has electrified at the forefront of Palermo’s expansive style of play and is causing the most stalwart of defenders problems with his complete repertoire of attacking intangibles. At time of writing, he has produced two goalscoring contributions from six fixtures, and while Palermo are languishing somewhat near the floor of the table, his individual displays are lacking in aspects wherein there is room for improvement. It’s become rather obvious that the side’s hopes of survival will depend largely on how he sustains this current vein of form.

Style of Play

Zamparini’s Agüero comparison two years ago seemed quite outrageous at first, and without substantial precedent it did come across as ridiculous hyperbole, but it has since been justified, at least with regards to shared attributes. Dybala has a similar turn of pace to his compatriot, the same natural instinct within the eighteen yard box, and is also blessed with tremendous vision, and, in my opinion, it’s that latter quality which showcases their likeliness especially. Intelligence of this calibre is impossible to teach, and when you’re able to read the game at this level it offers so much more to a player’s development growing up.

It’s a technical understanding that only certain forwards are blessed with, knowing exactly when to drop into the deeper areas, when to drift into the wider positions, when to play off the deepest defender and how to effectively link the midfield to the attack. Dybala identifies spaces to run into that many strikers simply cannot see and creates angles for his creative cast exceptionally, something I believe he has his earlier days at Instituto, when he was afforded more playmaking responsibilities, to thank. In fact, his past experiences stationed deeper than he is today have affected a large number of his qualities, he’s almost a hybrid between #9 and #10.

For a defender, it’s tough enough to nullify a forward with pace in abundance, but a considerable extent more difficult when that player knows exactly where to be and how exactly to make full use of it. This is certainly appropriate when discussing Paulo, his dribbling is precise and his movement without possession is meticulously thought out, it’s easy to become mesmerised watching this poetry in motion. The numbers support this, too: according to WhoScored’s statistics, he ranks fifth in Serie A for completed dribbles per game with 2.8, completing an attacking fantasy with Franco Vázquez who takes second place. He also has a plethora of easy on the eye skill moves in his locker, able to call upon at a moment’s notice – you can allow him space in order to get a head start on his speed but even then you’re going to be subjected to a technical exhibition with the ball at his feet.

Passing isn’t an ability frequently highlighted when analysing most modern forwards, but, as is the case in so many respects, Dybala is unique to the more orthodox individuals performing across the continent at the moment. He’s best suited to high tempo build-up play, where the best option is often one or two touch passing, and having learnt the ropes playing in this approach he’s become quite efficient at manipulating possession. His 82.8% pass completion rate is matched by very few who occupy the same role as he does and is imperative to Palermo’s overall ball retention in the final third, adding a new dimension to the team going forward. When this circulation stagnates, the side lose all of their impetus, which obviously yields catastrophic results.

Much has been said about Dybala’s peace of mind in and around the penalty area for good reason, if faced with a one-on-one situation he will maintain his composure and should he be crowded out by the opposition with little room to manoeuvre, he will create the chance for himself, either through slaloming his way past defenders or by opening up a new angle entirely. Again, this is only possible because of his footballing IQ and he will rely on that mentality more as teams become better prepared to neutralise him. I’m of the belief that with the correct coaching Paulo can avoid being nullified out of matches, and that exists right now, but whether the hierarchy agree with that sentiment is another matter altogether.

Forecast for the Future

Palermo have played host to a number of extraordinary individuals over recent years and have subsequently gone on to make substantial profit, this is how the system operates at La Favorita, and President Zamparini has recently tipped Dybala to generate similar value. “I am convinced that he will eventually be worth €30m. He is truly talented and can do a lot better”, predicted the eccentric 73-year-old. If history tells us anything it’s that his latest prophecy will prove correct sooner or later, post similar numbers to his final season in his homeland and that becomes more of a foregone conclusion than a forecast. It’s very rare that you find an attacker with the widespread prowess of La Joya along with the guaranteed potential to become even more complete, it’s why this jewel was so sought after in 2012 and will be again in the very near future.