A good player is the one who understands and reads a game much better than the one who scores the winner. Similarly, the role of a defender changes the dynamics of a game by bringing more quality and depth to the whole squad. A team without quality in defence can never be considered a great team. Thereby the significance of having a solid defensive shape is significant for any team. For instance, we can’t image a Barcelona playing Tik-taka without Carles Puyol or Chelsea’s title-winning side without John Terry. Hence the value of character, a defender draws into the game is priceless. Such a quality player we are fortunate enough to observe this season would perhaps be Manchester City’s, Ruben Dias.
Ruben Dias, a £65 million signing from Benfica in the summer, has helped transform Manchester City’s defence into an absolute powerhouse within a couple of months. Struggling miserably prior to his arrival, Manchester City were in freefall under Pep Guardiola. Unable to find the right motivation for John Stones or Aymeric Laporte or any of their predecessors, Guardiola struck gold when he landed Dias. Since his arrival, the club has the meanest defence in the division, conceding 13 goals in 21 league matches not to mention the team spends the majority of their game in the opponents half. Not to mention, Ruben’s quality in associating his play with his fellow defenders has boosted the confidence of others as well. But how did Manchester City gain such a solid defence structure?
During the last campaign, City conceded the second-largest amount of goals (35) in a Premier League season since Pep took over. Struggling to adddress their defensive frailties, morale was running very low by the end of last season. The need to bring in replacements for the long-gone Vincent Kompany was one of the most challenging aspects City had to face in recent years. Defensive tryouts in Eliaquim Mangala, Nicolas Otamendi and several others failed to succeed. Not to mention Manchester City had spent a reported $500 Million on defenders in the last 4 Years. Nathan Aké, another centre back, was signed from Bournemouth for $51 million last year, is another example of how desperate City were in the last few seasons, trying to strengthen an area that had cost them too much in recent memories.
Dias’s arrival came on the back of a shocking 5-2 home loss to Leicester City. It was the first time a Pep Guardiola team has conceded 5 goals and it has been two decades since Manchester City suffered such a similar fate. The importance, Pep was discrete about his new signing was evident throughout his first few games at City. In Dias’ first 25 starts they’ve conceded 10 goals, meanwhile, they managed 18 wins and had only lost once. Not to mention, the goals City conceded per game have gone down from 0.8 in the 25 games before Dias was signed, to 0.4 in the next 25 games since.
If we keep aside the stats, one attribute which is unquestionably the best Dias offers is his sense of understanding of the game. Even during his tenure at Benfica, the 23-year-old had managed to find a key partnership in the middle of the park. He had built a solid central defensive partnership with the veteran Pepe and Brazilian Jardel, creating a high defensive line, quite similar to Manchester City. This provides Dias, more area to progress, which he likes to do a lot.
Dias has an amazing range of passing as well, from diagonal balls to direct through passes, crosses and vertical passes through defensive lines. His ball-playing ability is also exceptional considering his stats erstwhile at Benfica. He had 11.74 progressive passes per 90 minutes, along with an 85.7% passing accuracy during his last season. Dias in general covers space quickly to close down opponents as they receive the ball, and is ready to engage early on while on the back foot. This is not a good idea, if you are not sure about your approach. But Dias’ ability in winning aerial duals and tackles is exceptional. In the Primeira Liga during his final tenure, he managed to come out top in 69 per cent of his aerial duels. Though he stands at 6ft 1ins, he is also good at using often using his upper-body strength to move his opponent off the ball and move ahead. This ability, unusual for a central defender, in 2019/20 in Portugal, he won the ball more times per match through tackling than he did interceptions.
Now comparing it with his maiden run in England, Dias has managed to rejuvenate John Stones, thus creating a solid defensive back line for Manchester City. The duo have only conceded one goal in 11 matches together. Their most brilliant outing was probably against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-final, a tie where the Red Devils weren’t constantly put under check. Dias was shouting out instructions like a leader, thus bringing the best out of those around him during the game, often encouraging the team to sit back and counter on the break.
This shift in Guardiola’s all-out attacking style has further favoured the club to be more firm under pressure. With Dias in the middle, Cancelo and Walker are enjoying more freedom to progress further. Also, defenders under Guardiola have to contribute to the team’s attacking phase, particularly when the opposition sits with a low block, with an intention to defend. Here, Dias contributes a new characteristic by finding spaces in defensive lines while playing from the back. This opens up the game quite easily for City, thus enabling attacking players to stay upfront rather than dropping back to gather the ball. One player who benefited the most from this is Debruyne. With Fernandinho’s absence, this ball progression failed despite Rodgri’s role becoming more and more important under Guardiola. Dias meanwhile averaged 90.76 passes in opposition this season only to be bettered by Stones, who sits at 91.91 passes and is currently the best in the league. Increased efficiency at the back enabled a better quality upfront with City having the third-best conversion rate in the league.
In terms of goals conceded, City shipped 13 goals from 14.7xGA (expected goals against) which is as it stands is the best record in the league. They have also managed 39 goals so far this season. Not to mention, the interesting stats, prior to the arrival of Diaz to what it is today is absolutely incredible as well.
Dias has all the modern attributes needed to be a centre-back playing in a fast-paced game which is quite suitable for the Premiere League. Dias is a really strong defender as well and being in the centre-back position helps the team on both sides, thus providing the depth of play Manchester City needed from their defenders. These qualities excel well with any top teams or any formation, making the young Portuguese a long term asset for any team. Not to mention Guardiola now had the choice to place a back-three while in possession, with Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, and John Stones thus enabling the wingbacks to find more game upfront. This advantage has favoured the 23-year-old to shift his style of play to a more dominant player in the game, with back to back aerial duels and successful tackles. If we set aside Chelsea’s 90th-minute consolation goal at Stamford Bridge back in January, City would have gone for a 10th straight Premier League clean sheet by now.
In Guardiola’s words, after John Stones and Ruben Dias had kept their sixth clean sheet in six appearances starting alongside each other at Southampton, Guardiola explained why Dias has changed the structure of Manchester City defence in recent games.
“He is able to lead the line, the same with John. Our club bought an exceptional defender – especially for the personality.”
For Manchester City, everything is going pretty good at the moment, but they should also be worried about City’s injury concerns with Laporte and Stones. A terrible loss to one of the would-be devastating for Manchester City going forward this season. But with Dias, Manchester City have been finally relieved of their search for a defender. As Guardiola noted, Dias is not Vincent Kompany, but he can be a great player, a player for their Future.