Manchester City have spent a fortune over their defence in recent years, but may have finally got it right with the signing of Ruben Dias from SL Benfica this past summer.
In the aftermath of Manchester City’s 1-1 draw against Liverpool just before the international break, there was a lot of praise for the City defensive duo of Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte from supporters, teammates and pundits alike.
Replying to one such tweet of appreciation, Laporte, who has been nicknamed the ‘Door’ by the Manchester City fans for his ability to not let opponents past him, seemed to come up with a new nickname for his new defensive partner. The Frenchman posted a ‘door’ emoji referring to himself, alongside a ‘lock & key’ emoticon, in reference to Dias.
? x ?
— Aymeric Laporte (@Laporte) November 9, 2020
One way to look at it would be that Dias has been the ‘lock and key’ that has made the ‘door’, i.e., Laporte more secure. One can also infer it as the Portuguese international being the ‘key’ to unlocking his defensive partner’s best form after an injury-riddled campaign at the Etihad. Either ways, there is no denying the impact that the 23-year-old has had since making the jump to England from Portugal this past summer.
Manchester City’s cry for a leader post Vincent Kompany’s departure
Over the last decade, Manchester City have been the most successful club in England and a lot of credit for all that they achieved has to go to former player and club legend Vincent Kompany. The Belgian had his fair share of injury troubles, especially towards the latter stages of his time at the club, but his commitment to the cause, leadership and that ability to organise things at the back was key to the success that City achieved, be it under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola.
So, naturally when the former Belgian international called time on his stint at the Etihad in 2019, it left a gaping hole in the backline for Manchester City – a hole that they chose not to address in the summer last year. What followed was a disappointing defence of their Premier League title, undone by a lack of defensive organisation.
Without Kompany to hold things together and Laporte spending the majority of the campaign out injured, Manchester City struggled to remain tight at the back. John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi had regressed beyond imagination, forcing Guardiola to use midfield general Fernandinho as an emergency makeshift centre-back.
Manchester City ended the 2019/20 campaign conceding 35 goals. One might argue that they were quite solid considering that it was the second-best defensive record in the league for the season. However, a look back at City’s defensive performances in their previous two title-winning campaigns tells a different story.
In 2018/19, when Manchester City edged Liverpool out by just a point, they conceded just 23 goals in the league. A year prior to that, in which the Sky Blues breached the 100-point barrier in the Premier League, Guardiola & co. had let in only 27. Their ‘Expected Goals Against’ (xGA) metric for last season (37.00) had also gotten significantly higher in comparison to 2018/19 (25.73) and 2017/18 (24.51).
All this was a clear indicator that Manchester City needed to tighten things up at the back. Most of all, the now-dethroned champions needed a leader to steady the boat at the back, someone who could take up accountability alongside and in the absence of Laporte, something which was clearly not lost on Guardiola and the club hierarchy.
— TheMCFCView (@TheMCFCView__) September 29, 2020
Cheque books were pulled out as the Cityzens splashed the cash on Nathan Ake – a left-footed centre-half who could cover for Laporte, and Ruben Dias, in the hope that he could form a stable partnership alongside the Frenchman.
Dias living up to the billing and more!
Prior to his move to Manchester City earlier this year, Dias had been heavily linked with a big-money move away from Benfica for quite a while now. The Cityzens’ neighbours, Manchester United, were actively pursuing the Portuguese defender for quite some time, while Tottenham Hotspur were also credited with an interest in the summer. There have been admiring glances from the likes of Arsenal and Barcelona as well.
But, it was Manchester City who beat everyone to the punch by sanctioning a club-record £64 million deal to land the 23-year-old a couple of months ago, with Nicolas Otamendi moving the other way as part of the transfer. And boy, has that worked a treat for Guardiola & co.!
In the seven games that Dias has featured for his new employers across all competitions this term, he has led the team to three clean sheets, while letting in just four goals in the process. It must be noted that Manchester City have faced free-scoring sides such as Leeds United, Liverpool as well as a dangerous Arsenal unit during this run.
Manchester City had conceded as many as six goals in their opening two Premier League games of the campaign, but have shipped just three in their five matches since Dias arrived. The Cityzens had an xGA differential of -2.41 before he joined and that has improved significantly to +2.54 in the five games that he has played.
— Man City Report (@cityreport_) November 8, 2020
The game against Liverpool prior to the international break, in particular, was a standout one for Dias and Manchester City, well and truly announcing that the Mancunians have finally found the solution to their defensive woes of the past.
Tailor-made for Guardiola’s setup
It is no secret that a Pep Guardiola team usually dominates possession in every game they play. And for the ex-Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s tactics to work seamlessly, he needs to have a particular kind of centre-back, who is adept at carrying the ball out from the back and spraying accurate forward passes, while having the tactical acumen and organisational skills to successfully deploy a high-backline that the manager so craves.
Guardiola had Gerard Pique at Barcelona, he utilised Mats Hummels to great success in such a role at Bayern Munich and in Dias, he now seems to have found his man at Manchester City as well. In the Portuguese league last season, the 23-year-old ranked first in the entire division for passes into the final third, forward passes and passes completed.
Ruben Dias' 19/20 stats for Benfica! ?
Thoughts on the move Manchester City fans ? pic.twitter.com/mGLaSjOCGz
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) September 28, 2020
And it is safe to say that the Portuguese international has carried on from where he left off last season. While the sample size isn’t that big, in his five Premier League appearances so far, Dias has completed 372 of his 399 attempted passes at a brilliant success-rate of 93.2%. No other central defender, who has played five or more league matches this term, has a better pass-completion rate than the Manchester City ace.
Only Thiago Silva, Gabriel Magalhaes and Virgil van Dijk have averaged more passes per ninety minutes than Dias (79.8), among centre-backs to have played five games or more. At the same time, the Manchester City man has completed 91 forward passes. The likes of Silva, van Dijk and Harry Maguire have had more forward passes but that shouldn’t diminish the contributions of Dias to this Manchester City side.
At the same time, the Portuguese international has impressed in the defensive side of things as well, winning a highly-impressive 85.71% of his aerial duels, while racking up a ground duel success-rate of 64.29%. In total, the 23-year-old has made 19 clearances, 4 interceptions and 3 blocks in his five league outings.
A reliable partner for Laporte and a leader at the back
While Dias’ impact on the pitch can be gauged from the aforementioned numbers, his arrival has had a major impact on his teammates, mostly on defensive partner Aymeric Laporte. Since joining the Cityzens back in January 2018, the Frenchman has shown his abundant quality but has struggled to find a reliable partner to form a stable defensive partnership at the back.
However, that appears to have changed now, with the central defensive axis of Dias and Laporte seemingly working brilliantly for the Mancunian giants. In the four games that the duo have started together in all competitions, Manchester City have let in just two goals, while managing two shut-outs. While the partnership is still very much in its budding stage the signs are certainly promising.
Playing the right-footed Dias, who is more than adept at picking passes from the deep, alongside the left-footed Laporte in the backline provides the balance that Guardiola has been craving in his team for quite some time now, opening up new passing angles on the field to develop attacking moves.
But, it is the leadership aspect that Dias has brought in that has made him such an instant hit at the Etihad. Speaking of the impact that the Portuguese international has had since coming in, Manchester City youngster Taylor Harwood-Bellis said (h/t Manchester Evening News),
“He’s come in and just kind of moulded in – it’s like he’s been there for ages, really. He’s come in and shown he’s a good leader and a good footballer as well, so it’s another one for me to look up to and take information off.”
The same theme has been touched upon by fellow defender Kyle Walker as well as manager Guardiola, and it is not hard to see why.
Dias, thrust into the first-team picture at Benfica in 2017, when Victor Lindelof joined City’s cross-town rivals, showed no signs of being overawed by the big stage. Having captained the Portuguese Under-19 side in the European Championships back in 2016 and the Under-20s in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2017, leadership comes naturally to the defender. In fact, he captained a crucial Europa League knockout stage game against Dinamo Zagreb when he was just 21 years of age.
Dias is a vocal presence at the back, which along with his ability on the ball and the aerial presence that he brings to the table makes him the ideal foil to Laporte, filling Manchester City with hopes that they have finally got it right with their defensive signings, that they might have stumbled upon a defensive partnership that will take them to greater heights in the years to come.