Former players know to cavort with mafia associates and 24 managers in just 11 seasons should tell its own tale; Unione Sportiva Città di Palermo is by no means a stable club. Since current owner Zamparini first bought Palermo in 2002, the club has experienced a somewhat mixed existence. Promotion to the Serie and flirtations with European competition have been more often tempered by disappointing league finishes, a managerial carousel to make even Roman Abramovich blush, and last season, relegation.
This degree of inconsistency and uncertainty is most definitely not conductive to producing and developing youth players. When managers know that they will be given several seasons to build a team and gradually earn success, then they can take a risk on a young player, and know that they have the time to develop these youngsters into genuine stars. If the manager knows that they are only likely to get six months at the most to be successful, and a poor run could see them out of a job in a matter of weeks or even days (as has been the case at Palermo), then the risk of using young players is simply too great, there is not enough time to develop them, experience will always be favoured.
However, for all of these issues, Palermo do have a couple of real jewels emerging in their first team. Although several young players are worthy of mention, the two that really stand out are Pablo Dybala and Abel Hernandez. These two fantastic prospects are 20 and 23 years old respectively, and so have been flagged as future stars for a while now, and will be very familiar to any FIFA or Football Manager. As with any young starlets, Dybala and Hernandez have frequently been labelled as ‘the new x and y (insert suitably talented and similar players’ names) In the case of Dybala and Hernandez, comparisons have been drawn, quite inevitably, with compatriots Agüero and Cavani, great praise indeed, but how accurate are these comparisons, and how fair is the level of expectation being placed on these young players?
In short, probably not. In the case of Abel Hernandez, it is very much a case of potential over product, and at 23, the Uruguayan is running out of time to live up his billing as a world class player of the future. A bustling bundle of pace and strength, Hernandez is still far from the finished article, with his movement, decision making and finishing simply not yet of the high standards of club favourite Cavani. Hernandez is a player that constantly flatters to deceive. He burst onto the scene at his with a quick five goal haul in just four games, a feat that quickly earned Hernandez a move to Uruguayan giants Penarol. It was a move that wouldn’t last long, with Palermo soon moving in for the young forward. All in all, Hernandez scored just 12 goals during his time in his home country, which in 38 matches is not a bad record, but not an extraordinary one either. Considering almost half of those goals came in a four match hot streak, it perhaps set unrealistic expectations for Hernandez.
Upon signing for Palermo, Hernandez found himself behind Cavani in the pecking order, and games, and goals, predictably both dried up. Hernandez did not make more than 30 appearances in a season the entire time he played in the Serie A, nor has he achieved double digit for goals in any season prior to Palermo’s current Serie B challenge. With a stellar record at international level, albeit against lesser sides, and his club relegated, many expected Hernandez to move during the offseason, with Tottenham, Arsenal and a host of Italian clubs reportedly interested. However, Hernandez stayed put and his decision has reaped dividends. With Palermo top of the table and looking to bounce straight back to the top flight, Hernandez is playing at a lower level with regular playing time and 10 goals in just 14 appearances, already his best ever goal scoring season.
It may be that Palermo’s relegation has been the best thing to happen for Hernandez’ career today. Soon to entering what should in theory be his prime years, Hernandez is running out of time to hone that potential and physicality that he undoubtedly possesses into consistent world class talent. It seems unlikely now that Hernandez will ever live up to his billing as ‘the new Cavani’. There could be a great player in there somewhere, and it could be this year out of the spotlight will be the making of Hernandez, however, it could be just as likely that Hernandez has simply found his level. If Hernandez is finally starting to show his promise after seasons of frustration, Dybala continues to confound expectations, and not positively. Upon signing the young Argentine, club President Zamparini announced “We have got Paulo Dybala – the new Sergio Agüero”. High praise and high pressure for a young man still learning his trade.
The hype surrounding Dybala was justified however. Making his debut at just 17 for Argentine second division club Instituto de Córdoba, Dybala was to score 17 goals in 40 appearances in the Primera B Nacional, breaking records previously set by legend Mario Kempes for goal scoring and consecutive appearances. His physique, position, ability and work rate have as previously mentioned, earned frequent comparisons to compatriot and Manchester City star Sergio Agüero. What is so frustrating is that the praise had seemed justified; Dybala is a player with pace, poise, poaching ability and extraordinary balance, but the goals are gone. As has Dybala’s confidence; just 3 goals in 40 games for Palermo does not tell the tale of a happy striker. Even the drop down to the Serie B has not helped Dybala’s form, which has been further hampered by the player’s own versatility, with the Argentine regularly deployed out of position, either in the hole behind the strikers, or even out wide.
The managerial carousel will not have helped Dybala’s development, and nor will his being shoved into every possible position to try and accommodate all of Palermo’s talented attackers. What Dybala desperately needs is a run of games in his favoured position and more than anything, a few goals. Once the confidence starts flowing again, it will be easier to judge just how good Dybala can be. However, even with age on his side, Dybala, much like Hernandez, no longer appears to be the world beater he was once touted as. Potentially good players? No doubt. The new Agüero and Cavani? Not likely.