It may seem like a random time to be suggesting this – after a week in which Roma won two games, with all three goals spread across them scored by Paulo Dybala – but an idea sprang to mind during the most recent victory over Fiorentina. Could La Joya become useful for the Giallorossi in a deeper, midfield role?
Or, perhaps more accurately, does he represent what they actually need there?
This isn’t a suggestion that he should be playing as far back as Nemanja Matic or Bryan Cristante. Obviously not. But Roma are lacking someone like Dybala in the box-to-box regions. Despite being their main goal threat at present, having scored 10 times in 16 appearances so far, is the World Cup winner actually the best equipped member of the squad to function as that number eight type of midfielder?
Roma’s midfield has been their weakest area this season. Matic and Cristante have not been inspiring together, even if each has their own merits. Furthermore, Lorenzo Pellegrini – despite maintaining a good amount of assists – just hasn’t quite been able to grab games by the scruff of the neck.
Mady Camara remains an enigma during his loan spell, while Georginio Wijnaldum has been a big miss throughout his injury lay-off.
Jose Mourinho has in turn looked at some younger players like Edoardo Bove and Benjamin Tahirovic to step in and step up. However, both still look raw, when Roma urgently require functionality in their role.
At present, there is too much of a gap between Roma’s attack and those behind them, which is limiting the number of chances they can create in matches. It has led to some uninspiring displays, even when results have sometimes been positive still.
Cristante can open games by hitting areas with aerial balls, like he did for the pre-assist for Dybala’s second goal against Fiorentina. But it can be a bit of a hit-and-miss strategy. Roma need to find a way to play through teams too.
And when Pellegrini is off colour, Roma require another source of inspiration to drive the ball through the thirds. Dybala, with his ball-carrying ability, is the only other player presently looking like he can.Embed from Getty Images
In spite of his small frame, the former Juventus star is strong, and can hold his own against physical opponents. Hence, even in more combative territory, he can be impactful.
The Argentina international was not afraid to come deep in the Fiorentina game, using his nifty footwork to manoeuvre the ball towards better territory.
Retaining the ball at his feet, Dybala just makes things happen. As evidenced by the players that came on against Fiorentina when he and Tammy Abraham went off – Ola Solbakken was summoned for his debut and Andrea Belotti got another chance – there are plenty of options who can play in the most advanced areas, allowing him to influence things from further back.
Therefore, as a number 10 in style (even if he declined that as his shirt number when joining last summer), Dybala can connect with different attack-minded players to offer something else. So, what if he became a number eight and started from a bit deeper?
He would have to play with more tactical intelligence, which he is capable of, but should still have the licence to get into that territory outside the box from where he can be effective. Indeed, he was on the periphery of the penalty area for his first goal against Fiorentina, a nicely struck volley that, although going in with a hint of a deflection, demonstrated his power and technique.
Therefore, at least until Wijnaldum returns and gets back to his dynamic best – and although the first phase is close, the second may take time – maybe Dybala could be an option to help thread Roma’s midfield play together.
Of course, it may be a strategy that backfires if it would nullify his impact up front. How Eusebio Di Francesco used Javier Pastore at Roma initially could be a cautionary tale, but so is practically every aspect of Pastore’s career at the club; Dybala has much more credit to his name than his fellow former Palermo man – and in turn, more potential to waste if he is used in a more restrictive role. But he has the attributes to thrive in various spaces and will be adjusting his game at the age of 29 anyway.
In a 3-5-2 formation with a flat midfield (as opposed to a 3-4-1-2), what’s to say Dybala couldn’t flank a holding pivot like Matic in an identical role to Pellegrini, feeding a partnership like Abraham and Belotti or Abraham and Zaniolo? It isn’t beyond reason. (Although it is worth noting that with Zaniolo’s own dribbling abilities, he could be more effective in a role like this too; it would be closer to how he originally emerged at the club, even if he has become more about power than creativity since).
That said, Dybala’s average position was still the furthest forward against Fiorentina, even more than Abraham’s. Thus, although he can drop deep and inspire better flow, he is a decisive option higher up the pitch.
Of course, the likes of Abraham, Belotti and Zaniolo have all been struggling for goals of their own too. If they were functioning properly, this idea might have more legs, but Dybala is having to step up as an attacker for Roma right now. After all, that’s what he is.
And if Jose Mourinho has got this far through Wijnaldum’s absence without having to utilise this idea for Dybala, then the concept will probably remain hypothetical. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fairness.
With the way he has been scoring and assisting, it probably is sensible and reasonable to retain Dybala in a front two or similar. This article has merely been a suggestion rather than something that needs to happen – and absolutely isn’t a change that should be permanent.
But the ideas proposed hopefully haven’t been a waste of time. There is something to think about there, potentially.
Think of it this way. To get the best out of Dybala, Roma do need to use him higher up. But for Dybala to help get the best out of Roma, a deeper role might have some logic behind it.
For now, let’s just keep enjoying him and the goals he is providing – and, thereby perhaps ruling the above theory out, hope the club do what it takes to keep him happy in Rome.