The 60-second story
Name: Paulo Dybala
Date of Birth: 15/11/1993
Height: 5ft 9in
Clubs: Instituto de Cordoba (38 apps, 17 goals), Palermo (76 apps, 17 goals)
If you were looking for an example of the qualities that make Paolo Dybala such a highly-coveted talent - character, persistence, personality, ability – you need look no further than the 25th minute of Palermo’s 2-0 win against AC Milan at the San Siro in November. During a neat passage of Palermo attacking play, a lovely interchange between Edgar Barreto and Franco Vazquez saw Barreto take out two Milan defenders and put Dybala clean through in the box. Latching onto an exquisite through-ball, completely unmarked, Dybala should score, but his low shot is well saved by Diego Lopez. Head on his hands, it was a poor miss given the nature of the chance.
Less than a minute later, however, Dybala was wheeling off in celebration. Again played into space, this time through the centre and heading towards the right hand side of Milan’s penalty area, Dybala controls the ball on the move, uses unforeseen physical strength to shrug off centre-back Christian Zapata, leaving the 6ft 2in defender in a crumpled heap on the floor, before charging into the box and rifling the ball from the narrowest of angles into the opposite corner of the net.
Many strikers, cowed by the shame of spurning such a glorious opportunity only a minute earlier, would have reclined into their shell. Not Dybala. A truly classy goal, it was a 60-second story in itself: one that summarised all that is good about the young Argentine forward who’s been one of Serie A’s most outstanding performers this season and has scouts around Europe purring.
Why you need to know him
By now, Dybala is probably used to all the attention. Here is a player who’s been admired ever since he was 17 and playing in Argentina’s second division at Instituto de Cordoba. There, the ‘joy of Laguna Larga’, as he was known, hit 17 goals in his one and only season in Instituto’s senior team, helping La Gloria fight for promotion to Argentina’s top division in a memorable campaign.
Dybala was born in the Cordoban district of Laguna Larga, but his Polish and Italian roots recently caused a tug-of-war for his international allegiances, before Dybala quashed the rumours by confirming to La Repubblica that the sky-blue and white of Argentina is the shirt he ‘dreams of playing in.’
He joined the club’s junior teams aged 10 and moved to Cordoba at 15, determined to make it as a professional after the death of his father. “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here,” Dybala commented days before making his Instituto debut in August 2011. “I owe him everything, and I know somewhere he’s looking down at me still.”
Dybala couldn’t have dreamed of a better transition to first team football. By October of his first professional season, one month before his 18th birthday, Dybala was an Instituto hero. Late into a particularly notable performance in a 1-0 win against Gimnasia La Plata, Dybala was substituted and left the field to a huge ovation. “Dybaaaala, Dybaaaala!” screamed the crowd at the Monumental de Alta Córdoba. “El pibe de la pensión” – the kid from the hostel, Instituto’s treasured La Agustina academy, had arrived. But he wouldn’t stay for long.
Battling against the likes of Rosario Central and River Plate – whose historic relegation to the second division leant that season’s Primera B Nacional unprecedented media coverage, Instituto – led by Dybala – would experience a thrilling but ultimately heartbreaking campaign, missing out on promotion in the final week of the season before losing a promotion playoff to San Lorenzo.
Dybala’s performances and goals however gave him star status, winning rave reviews both at home and abroad. Napoli, Internazionale and Manchester City showed tentative interest, but Palermo would swoop fastest, signing him for a club record €12 million fee that would end up closer to €15m after an acrimonious, controversial and long-drawn-out transfer saga.
Dybala’s first and only season in Argentine football ended with 17 goals in 38 games and the distinction of becoming Instituto’s youngest ever goalscorer, breaking a club record held by the 1978 World Cup winner Mario Kempes. But the transition to Italian football was slow. Palermo were relegated, and the striker, still not 20, scored just 3 goals in 28 appearances.
Dropping down a level to Serie B did little to change Dybala’s fortunes. He wouldn’t score a league goal until March 2014 and drew criticism from Palermo boss Gennaro Gattuso. The magic touch had deserted Dybala. Had Palermo signed a dud?
Injury kept him out for a number of months, but on his return Dybala was a player transformed. Under the guise of new manager Giuseppe Iachini and with fellow Argentine strike partner Ricardo Vazquez, Dybala’s 2014 took him to new levels.
Between March and May he hit five goals, during which time his team won 12 games from 16. Palermo were promoted as Serie B champions and Dybala has since carried his exceptional form into Serie A, scoring nine goals and providing six assists in 17 games. The quality of his play, invention and ruthlessness in front of goal mark him out as one of Serie A’s best players at present and it’s no surprise Europe’s big dogs are looking on with longing glances.
The first place to start is with that left foot. Don’t let Dybala onto his left foot. The Argentine has as sweet a left peg as you’ll find, equally capable of brush-stroke finesse or brute force.
What’s notable about the 21-year-old is the variety of goals he’s scoring for Palermo. From beautiful, audacious curlers like his goals against Genoa and Cesena to examples of raw, powerful targetman forward play like the goal in that 2-0 win over Milan or his first goal of the season against Sampdoria. It’s an encouraging sign – a hint that this is no one-trick pony.
Dybala is also versatile; athletic, agile, with good technique and an ability to fit into different tactical systems in attack. Dybala grew up as a mediapunta but has converted to more of a No.9, and this flexibility stands him in good stead. “Initially he played a similar role to Juan Roman Riquelme,” wrote Marcos Villalobo, an Argentine journalist for La Manana de Cordoba. “But moving to the middle line of attack allowed him to use his speed, shooting instincts and technical skills. He has a huge potential to be a football star.”
Dybala has been compared with Sergio Aguero, and while such equivalences can be lazy and simplistic, in build, movement around the forward line and tendency to dazzle through improvisation there are certain similarities. He will try to score from anywhere, and this unpredictability makes him a fearsome opponent.
For a striker playing to such a high-level right now it’s extraordinary just how one-footed he is. Every one of his nine goals this season have been scored with his left foot, and indeed Dybala hasn’t scored a goal on his right foot since a five-yard tap-in for Instituto in a 4-0 win at Atlanta in 2011. And let’s not even get started on headers (or the complete lack of).
Clearly, finishing chances that don’t involve that trusty left foot could use improving, as could his general work-rate in defensive situations: pressing from the front is a skill the Argentine hasn’t quite mastered yet.
Dybala lacks the butcher’s dog levels of enthusiastic chasing that have become almost a prerequisite in the skill set of the modern forward, and would likely need to improve this aspect of his game to further enamour a top club.
"Within two years, he's going to be better than Cristiano Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi and [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic," Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini told Mediaset television. "It would take 40 million euros to take him away from us. He's the best striker in Serie A."
Bold words from Palermo’s outspoken club president, but then again this is the same man who once called the English ‘pirates’, ranted that all referees ‘should be put in prison’ and once threatened to cut off his players’ testicles and eat them in his salad. Pinch of salt and all that.
Did you know?
Dybala’s transfer to Palermo laid bare the ugly side of modern football transfers. The imbroglio involved not just the buying and selling clubs but a variety of third-parties and subsidiaries, leading to accusations, court cases and even death threats. According to Dybala’s older brother Gustavo, he was called by a ‘well-spoken man’ at 3am one July night in 2012 and threatened with death if his younger brother failed to agree to be sold.
What happens next?
A thousand rumours linking him with Europe’s top clubs - he's already seen his name appear in headlines alongside the names of Premier League trio Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. "My desire, since I was a young boy, has always been to play for a big club and to play in the Champions League,” Dybala told Sky Sport Italia.
With his contract entering the final 18 months, the kid from Laguna Larga could end up following in the footsteps of Javier Pastore, Edinson Cavani and other star South Americans at Palermo and leave Sicily for pastures new sooner rather than later.
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