By Rory Smith
Paulo Dybala had no reason to think he would be leaving Juventus this summer. When the Argentine forward departed for Brazil, and the Copa América, at the end of last season, he presumed he would soon be back in Turin (and not just because of Argentina’s record at the Copa América).
Indeed, if anything, he was excited by the prospect of returning. Last season was probably the most frustrating of the four the 25-year-old Dybala has spent in Turin. His coach, Massimiliano Allegri, had recalibrated his side to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo, relegating Dybala to the fringes — either of games or the team — more often than he would like.
Still, the summer had offered hope. Allegri, surprisingly, had left the club, replaced by Maurizio Sarri. Dybala thought he would be well suited to Sarri’s fast, technical style, the precise pinball that had brought him such success at Napoli, and won him the Europa League at Chelsea.
It was something of a shock, then, to discover that Juventus did not see things the same way. Dybala was told the club needed money, and that it had decided he might be the source of it. He was offered the chance to join Manchester United, in a swap for Romelu Lukaku. He was almost sold to Tottenham Hotspur.
That Juventus needed to find some way of balancing the books was not a surprise, perhaps not even to Dybala: paying Ronaldo’s salary was onerous enough, and this summer the club had invested heavily in the Dutch defender Matthijs De Ligt, too.
More unexpected was the fact that it was prepared to sell Dybala — la joya, the jewel, as he is known — in order to do it.
The explanation is simple, but it contains a message that Europe’s elite class of superclubs would do well to heed.
Juventus tried to sell Dybala — and instead succeeded in selling Moise Kean, a teenage striking prospect of considerable promise, to Everton — because it could not sell the players it actually needed to shift. The likes of Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuain and perhaps even Blaise Matuidi were all on the market as Juventus tried to rejuvenate its squad, but the club could not find takers for any of them.
The vast majority of clubs cannot afford to match those players’ salaries; those that can are not the sort of teams that tend to buy castoffs. So Juventus, getting desperate, turned to Dybala, Kean and the right back Joao Cancelo: selling players it should want to keep because it cannot sell the players it no longer needs.
Juventus is not the only one of Europe’s aristocrats caught in the trap. Real Madrid does not quite know what to do with James Rodriguez and, in particular, Gareth Bale. Barcelona struggled to find a home, permanent or temporary, for Philippe Coutinho until Bayern Munich agreed to take him. Paris St.-Germain does not want to keep Neymar, and he does not want to stay, but their unhappy union may have to continue for some time.
It is easy, in this situation, to blame the players. But it is better, perhaps, to look at the clubs: to ask if perhaps they might use this summer as a learning experience, a chance to fine-tune their recruitment policies, moving away from stockpiling as many players as possible and toward a more focused, scientific, youth-oriented approach.
Elite players nearing their 30s should not be on long-term contracts. They should not be signed for large fees or guaranteed market-defying salaries on a presidential whim. Clubs should not be assembling rosters packed with 25 high-profile senior internationals.
There is a chance that all of this will work out in the end: it might require a spider diagram to explain it, but essentially if Neymar leaves PSG, then Dybala may move to Paris (or be part of a swap deal for Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi). All of the dominoes may yet line up just right. Even if they do, though, there is a lesson from this summer for Europe’s great houses. If they do not learn it, they may yet find themselves undone by their own gluttony.