By Ian Levy (@levydsrgop)
When Carlos Tevez left Juventus for Boca Juniors in the summer of 2015, Massimiliano Allegri knew he needed a versatile striker to fill his shoes. Tevez underwent a renaissance in Turin, where he won two league titles, reached a Champions League final, and led the team in scoring both seasons. (13/14 under Conte and 14/15 under Allegri)
Juve signed Paulo Dybala, another Argentine, for 32 million euros following something of a breakout season at Palermo, where he was one of two players in Serie A to hit double digits in goals and assists. Juventus needed a second striker to play off Morata, Mandzukic, or Zaza. It was the perfect match. Dybala led the team in goals and assists and Juventus secured a fifth consecutive scudetto. Dybala established himself as world class player with Ballon d’Or potential. His talent did not go unnoticed as rumours placed him at Real Madrid and Barcelona.
No need to wait for the blaugranas to sign Paulo to see him play with Messi. Dybala made his national team debut on October 2015 against Paraguay. Incredibly enough, Dybala only has 6 caps for Argentina totalling 190 minutes and has only shared the pitch with Messi for 45 of them, the first half vs. Uruguay. Injuries to both players at different times and bad AFA management (nothing new) has prevented us from enjoying these two magicians. But can they really play together?
Argentina XI vs Uruguay
Romero; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Mas; Mascherano, Biglia; Dybala, Messi, Di Maria; Pratto
During that first half against Uruguay, Messi and Dybala swapped positions constantly. When Leo was wide right, Paulo occupied the central zone. When Paulo was wide right, Leo was the one who played in the hole, often dropping deep enough to play as a third number five. This is the only possible way Dybala and Messi can play together, in a 4-2-3-1.
Dybala and Messi are a very similar protype of player. They are both left footed, both hit magical free kicks, both can score with ease, both embrace the provider role, and they both need to play in the same zone to be most effective. They can share the zone in a 4-2-3-1, but not in a 4-3-3. Argentina lacks the width that Messi and Dybala get from their outside backs in their respective clubs. Sure, they both start at the right, but their tendency is to pinch in centrally and create from there, leaving the flanks to Alba, Sergi Roberto, Dani Alves, or Alex Sandro. Argentina does not have an outside back that will open the field and allow the wingers to play centrally.
The problem is finding the right partner for an aging Mascherano, who seems undroppable for Bauza. A Biglia-Mascherano midfield is too flat, so Banega is the short term solution. However, Mascherano is too slow to play that position, and should be replaced in 2018. He is, nonetheless, necessary in the squad for his leadership and experience. Another undroppable is Di Maria, whose best football comes when he cuts in from the right wing. Di Maria is much less effective and much more frustrating when he plays on the left. He could play in a midfield trio like he did under Ancelotti, but that would push Dybala out to the left wing.
Great players can always play together, under any manager in any formation. Argentina cannot afford any more tactical blunders. They already lost three finals, the generation is aging, and although they have many talented players who are hungry to wear La albiceleste, Bauza (Martino in the past) refuses to call them up. El Patón has started to put in new blood in his team – see Pratto for the underachieving Higuaín and Agüero – but it is not enough. Time is up for Di Maria, Masche, and Zabaleta. Argentina will surely qualify to the World Cup, but their expectation is not to qualify, it is to win. Messi is not getting any younger and he deserves to win a title with his national team.
Ian Levy is a retired collegiate soccer player at UT-Dallas. Obsessed with the beautiful game, Ian is currently studying, living and learning in Buenos Aires.
Follow Ian on Twitter @levydsrgop