Right before halftime in Juventus’ Champions League match against Atletico Madrid, Juve won a freekick on the right side of Atletico’s penalty box at an acute angle to the goal, a few yards away from the corner flag. Two players stood over the ball, one of them being Paulo Dybala. The normal procedure for freekicks at this angle is to swing the ball in for a header to a teammate.
But Dybala had other plans. Instead, he decided to score one of the most spectacular goals of this Champions League campaign — a freekick from an incredibly difficult angle that clipped the underside of the bar, taking the goalkeeper and everyone watching by surprise.
“Dybala scored a goal that nobody could have advised him to do,” Sarri said. “The first thing that a coach says in that situation is: ‘What the fuck are you shooting from over there?’ And therefore what he did was extraordinary.”
Dybala explained what led him to go for goal:“I feel in good shape, I try to give my best and at times can risk something a little more audacious as things are going well for me, and I want to make the most of that.” Audacity seems to be the answer behind Dybala’s magnificent goal, but it could just as well be reframed as creativity since the two ideas are intertwined.
Players in the professional ranks are mostly all incredibly talented and technically gifted. The base-level ability of professional soccer players is high, something that only becomes clear when clips of players in training are made available. Then we can see that a defender who the public might think is technically inferior, like Dybala, is actually capable of much more than they show during matches. It’s just that in the matches, players are trying not to make mistakes, and so they mostly stick to safe, standard, manager-approved actions.
What separates the best players from the rest is how they employ their ability. That’s where creativity and audacity come in. So much of greatness in sports, what tends to lead to the most spectacular moments, is a player not just seeing the game differently than others but doing something others wouldn’t do. Many players can score the goal Dybala did, but only a few can stand at that angle and think, “fuck it, I’ll go for it,” and be willing to live with the possibility of failure and admonishment if they miss.
That audacity is fragile, though, and usually needs the proper conditions before it can be exercised. Sometimes we make too much of confidence in sports as a way to explain why players are on a good run of form or struggling when there are usually more tangible explanations. But confidence still plays a big role in how players perform. Players are capable of much more when they feel good about themselves, and this good feeling is helped by a manager’s support.
Just as Dybala said he was able to attempt that freekick because “things are going well for me and I want to make the most of that,’’ Sarri also noted after the game that the player is, “in a very positive period of form, so right now he is making the difference.”
A freekick like Dybala’s is often described as a moment of magic. And the sport is littered with these great moments when an individual player seems to conjure something wonderful out of nothing. But these moments often don’t out of thin air. They’re consequences of a nurturing environment. Dybala is able to be audacious because he has the skill and personal courage to do so, and because he knows he has the trust and support of his manager. Dybala’s revival under Sarri attests to that.