“Messi is Messi, who plays in Barcelona. I am Paulo.” Even amid the euphoria of a historic victory for Juventus, the man responsible for taming the Catalan beast was typically modest about his contribution. Unfortunately for Paulo Dybala, his protests may prove futile. Two top-drawer goals in Tuesday’s 3-0 win have inspired inevitable comparisons with Lionel Messi, his compatriot and idol who could only watch as the 23-year-old phenomenon took centre-stage.
So far the pair have enjoyed precious little playing time together in the same team. Injuries to both Messi and Dybala over the past 12 months have hampered Argentina hopes of making space for the dynamic duo in the same national team, and the sole occasion on which both men started for the Albiceleste ended in a disastrous first-half red card against Uruguay for the younger man, who left the field in tears.
Barcelona’s hopes of landing Dybala, meanwhile, would seem to have ended at least for the time being after Juventus tied ‘La Joya’ down to a lucrative new five-year contract almost immediately after his Champions League heroics. The question is, could the pair function together in a world-class team, or should Dybala be considered the heir to Messi rather than a partner in crime to the Barca wizard? Is there room in any team for two pint-sized geniuses who boast the best left feet in the business?
Picking a professional football XI is not merely a case of filling the squad with superstars. Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez do not work so effectively as a forward trident solely because they are outrageously talented footballers, but because each man’s strengths and style perfectly complement the work carried out by the other two. Dybala’s improvement over the last six months is a testament to that fact. A relative slow starter at Juve, the youngster has improved immeasurably – certainly on the Champions League stage, having already starred domestically last term – since coach Massimiliano Allegri gave him a free role just off Gonzalo Higuain in and around the area.
He may start somewhat more central than Messi, who has license to roam on the right at Camp Nou, but the heat maps compiled from the pair’s league outings at the weekend, albeit a curtailed one for Dybala who was taken off injured, show a remarkable similarity in the position each occupies for their club.
Messi, of course, is involved in every aspect of Barcelona’s approach, to a far greater extent than Paulo. Even on Tuesday, Dybala’s finest hour, Leo touched the ball 20 more times, completed more passes and took more shots than his compatriot. But the decisive moments of the clash all belonged to the younger man.
Dybala touched the ball four times in the area, double the number Messi managed. And two of his three shots finished with Marc Andre ter Stegen picking the ball dejectedly out of the net, while the Barca standard-bearer was all but suffocated under the relentless attention of the imperious Giorgio Chiellini. The statistics from the Champions League clash tell their own story: Messi was forced due to his own team’s shortcomings to continually strive to create something from nothing, while the former Palermo and Instituto man revelled in a Juve side whose balance and potency far outstripped that of the visitors.
Champions League catastrophes notwithstanding, Leo remains the finest player of his generation. At 29 he remains at the height of his powers, with an outrageous 45 goals in 44 Barcelona outings this season, dragging a less-than-convincing Blaugrana to the final stages of La Liga and in Europe. Moulding a partnership between the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and his apparent heir is a conundrum that will need to be solved by Jorge Sampaoli or whomever eventually takes the reins of the troubled Argentina team, and if both Messi and Dybala are set on replicating their club roles that task will be made extremely difficult.
It is difficult, but not impossible. Sampaoli has an impeccable track record in this sense. The ex-Chile coach drew on his Bielsista heritage to build a winning team around three key players: the irrepressible Arturo Vidal working box-to-box, the mercurial playmaker Jorge Valdivia pulling the strings in a stationary trequartista role and Alexis Sanchez roaming the final third from out wide.
So effective was the system that the identity of the centre-forward was almost irrelevant; a mediocre front-man like Eduardo Vargas finished top scorer in Chile’s 2015 Copa America triumph almost by default, fed incessantly by the stars around him in a glorious demonstration of dynamic team play. Neither Vidal, nor Valdivia, nor Sanchez were indispensable on their own, but as a trio they were too strong for anything the rest of South America could muster in defence.
As the years roll by it is not inconceivable to imagine Messi dropping back down the pitch, sacrificing his prodigious goal tally to take a more integrated role in the team and thus prolong his career. Dybala then would be left to take a starring role popping up across the penalty area, working off Messi’s incursions and stretching the defence to breaking point. Having failed to find a single reliable creative partner in the Argentina team since Juan Roman Riquelme’s retirement in 2009, Leo ironically could find himself performing the role of the Boca Juniors idol to help Dybala succeed him as the best player on the planet.
At Camp Nou, too, the impossible task of finding a successor for Andres Iniesta would suddenly be made a lot easier if Messi took up creative duties in the middle of the field, carving out the spaces for his young compatriot to make hay. It is hard to see right now, but in the modern game, no successful tactic or playing style lasts forever.
Those who belong to the elite of world football are continually adapting in their quest for greatness. The teenage Messi who began as Ronaldinho’s creative foil went on to practically create the false nine position (or, at least, perfect it), before reinventing the wheel again in his move to the right.
Dybala too began life in the rough and tumble of Argentina’s Nacional B as a support striker, dropped back down the field upon moving to Italy and has now returned to his first position with the Old Lady. The pair may seem too similar to function as a duo, but if each can adapt their game ever so slightly to accommodate the other there is no reason not to think they can form a formidable partnership in the years to come.
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