Massimiliano Allegri has already confirmed that Paulo Dybala will not make his Juventus return before the international break. While the Bianconeri have won two of their three matches in the Argentinian’s absence, there has nonetheless been a significant impact on their style of play.
With the Old Lady preferring a 3-5-2 formation, much of the creative burden falls on the second striker. Dybala has played that role with aplomb since moving to Turin, buzzing around either Gonzalo Higuain or Mario Mandzukic. It’s a dynamic familiar to Bianconeri fans - think Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli, or Alessandro Del Piero’s partnership with David Trezeguet.
However, with Dybala absent and Marko Pjaca also sidelined, Allegri has been forced to deploy Mandzukic and Higuain as a pair. In truth, it’s a rather ill-fitting dynamic. Both men are penalty box operators, uncomfortable with dropping deep and taking players on.
Higuain is the better of the two in this role, and has operated notably wider and deeper in the matches against Sampdoria and Napoli. Pipita doesn’t have the creative instincts of his compatriot though, and he’s looked frustrated while Mandzukic has been left isolated up top.
In the last three games, the Croatian has had just one shot - which, to be fair, he scored - while Higuain has found the back of the net just once. Both players work well with Dybala, but they don’t complement each other.
La Joya’s spell on the sidelines has also made the Bianconeri a more functional outfit. Against Napoli, there were only seven successful take-ons for the home side, all of them outside of the box and most of them out wide. Compare that to the win at Empoli, where there were 21 successful take-ons, mostly in central areas.
Of course, the Partenopei are a far better side than Empoli, but the switch is indicative of a shift in the creative burden. Most teams, especially in Serie A, will look to sit in and frustrate the champions. Dybala forces teams to come out, opening up space for others.
If the 22-year-old drops deep to receive the ball, his long-range shooting means he can’t be left alone. That forces teams to press him, and the youngster’s prowess in the dribble can unlock a stubborn side. If a midfielder drops back to deal with Dybala, it frees up Sami Khedira or Miralem Pjanic to get forward. Should a defender step out, there will be breathing space for Higuain or Mandzukic.
In his absence, the attacking burden is shifted to the wing-backs to an even greater degree. Of the four goals against Sampdoria, one was a Mandzukic header from a Cuadrado cross, two more were Giorgio Chiellini efforts after set pieces.
Against Napoli the first goal was again scored by a centre-back, Leonardo Bonucci volleying home in the aftermath of a corner. Higuain’s winner came after the ball broke to him on the edge of the Napoli box, the Argentinian having dropped deep only to see his chipped through-ball intercepted.
Having more than one way to win is essential for any side. Indeed, Napoli and Roma would do well to take heed of Juventus’ ability to get results in different ways. In the long-term though, the Bianconeri can’t keep relying on crosses and set pieces.
An option would be to use Alex Sandro and Cuadrado in more advanced roles and use a lone centre-forward. After all, it worked fantastically well for an hour against Bayern Munich last season and would allow Allegri to rest his injury-prone centre-backs.
The return of Claudio Marchisio should help, freeing Pjanic to take up a creative role further forward. In addition, the squad will achieve greater cohesion as the season progresses - it’s worth remembering at this point last season Allegri’s side had taken 15 points and still romped to the Scudetto. Right now they have 27.
However, it’s clear that Dybala’s absence is being felt. A win over Lyon would all but secure Champions League qualification, and Tips Daddy is where to find the odds on that happening tonight, but Juventus will need La Joya to be fit and firing if they’re to make the impact in Europe that’s expected of them.