As predictable as seeing the New England Patriots secure another Super Bowl appearance, the 2018-19 season has seen Juventus march relentlessly towards yet more silverware. Already in the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia and last-16 of the UEFA Champions League, the Bianconeri have opened up a nine-point lead at the top of the Serie A standings.
They have already lifted a trophy this term, too, seeing off A.C. Milan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to win the Supercoppa Italiana and—with Cristiano Ronaldo in fine form—it is almost impossible to imagine their domestic dominance being halted any time soon.
Monday evening saw Max Allegri’s men make short work of rock-bottom Chievo, dismantling the Veronese side with ease as they recorded a comfortable 3-0 triumph despite an outstanding penalty save from Chievo goalie Stefano Sorrentino. Yet the Juve boss will be fully aware that, thanks to the presence of CR7, this campaign will not be judged like his previous four with the club.
It might seem unfair to a man who has secured a league-and-cup double each season, but this June could well be that a repeat of that is deemed to not be enough. Instead, Allegri is almost expected to steer the Old Lady to Champions League glory. The rights and wrongs of demanding such a high standard can be debated endlessly, but this is where we are: anything less than a European triumph is going to be viewed as a failure given the huge financial investments made last summer.
With that in mind, it is perhaps no surprise to see the Bianconeri seeking to make marginal gains wherever possible. The coach has rotated players in and out of his starting XI and made subtle tweaks to his formation, looking to release some previously untapped potential by trying different combinations of players in midfield and attack.
One of the biggest improvements since Ronaldo’s arrival has been in Mario Mandzukic, the powerful striker benefitting from the “gravity” generated by the Portuguese forward. Defenders are understandably pulled in his direction and that opens up space for others, with the Croatia international capitalizing on numerous occasions.
In contrast, Paulo Dybala’s form has dipped when playing alongside the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. A combination of sacrificing himself deeper or wider to the right, as well as diminished responsibility for set pieces and penalties have seen the No. 10 take a back seat, his role becoming that of facilitator rather than being instigator he was in the past.
On the surface, Dybala’s tally of seven goals and four assists looks healthy enough, but aside from his winning goal against Manchester United, those contributions have not come in big games. Scoring four times in the two meetings with BSC Young Boys, Dybala’s only other strikes came versus Bologna and Cagliari, while he set up goals for others in the matches with Sampdoria, Fiorentina and Chievo.
Most tellingly, only one of those goals—in December’s loss against Young Boys—came with both Mandzukic and Ronaldo on the field. That lack of big game impact cannot go unnoticed, particularly when teammate Federico Bernardeschi has appeared to be a much more effective foil for the aforementioned duo.
Looking stronger, more dedicated and playing with much greater focus than last term, the Tuscan has been sharp and decisive with his touches while holding a higher position on the field compared to Dybala’s tendency to drift deeper when playing the same role.
This is not to criticize Dybala in any way. His talent, ability and skill speak for themselves, it is just a matter of finding a way to improve a Juventus team that is looking for even the slightest edge over the most elite of opponents. Based on what we have seen so far this season, there is a strong case to be made that Bernardeschi is simply a better fit next to Allegri’s preferred choices in attack.
In turn, that would allow those three to be rested in the league and Coppa Italia, with Dybala waiting to make bigger contributions in a different formation. As we have seen, Juve can switch shape and style against almost any other Serie A side and still emerge triumphant, so this solution could benefit them on multiple fronts.
“La Joya” remains a vital player for the Bianconeri, and one that will play a big part in their future, but for this season, he might not be the answer. Instead, for a team who need to capitalize on the window opened for them by the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps—even though Paulo Dybala is a more talented player—starting Federico Bernardeschi is the way to achieve that loftiest of goals.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.