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Rúben Dias

Benfica to Manchester City, £65m

Profile
Vincent Kompany’s departure, even if by then he was past his impressive peak, perhaps troubled Manchester City more than they would have expected. They lost not only his leadership and his authoritative defending, but a composed presence in the centre of a defence in which John Stones and Benjamin Mendy remained relatively inexperienced figures. If Aymeric Laporte is among Europe’s finest defenders, when he has been unavailable, Pep Guardiola has often felt little choice but to play Fernandinho out of position in central defence, and therefore to sacrifice him from where he is so influential at the base of midfield.

Nathan Aké was signed from Bournemouth for £40m in an attempt to strengthen their central defensive options before, in Rúben Dias, a club-record £65m was then invested in a 23-year-old Portugal international central defender finally considered the long-term successor to the decorated Kompany. “It is really exciting to be part of such a talented squad and to play for a world-class manager like Pep Guardiola, who has a proven track record of developing young players like myself,” Dias said upon his arrival. It is perhaps Dias’ 2020/21, more than any other, that will determine the success of City’s.

Tactical analysis
Dias’ biggest strength is his desire to defend on the front foot. He is proactive in his approach, covers ground quickly to close down opponents as they receive the ball, and is ready to engage early. Though he stands at 6ft 1ins, he is also adept at poking possession away or stealing it, often using his upper-body strength to move his opponent off the ball.

A prominent technique when dispossessing an opponent involves Dias wrapping his leg around them and approaching the ball from the side. Doing so is most effective when an opponent tries to receive on the half-turn, but even if they succeed in keeping their back to Dias he reaches to stick a toe out around their side (below). If that risks attackers turning him and bursting into space on the opposite side to that which Dias has committed to winning the ball from, it is yet to become a common occurence. It is testament to his tackling technique that, unusually for a central defender, in 2019/20 he won the ball more times per match through tackling than he did interceptions.

Like most leading central defenders, Dias adapts his technique once inside the penalty area. When defending deep – or when exposed higher up the pitch – he takes a more reactive approach. He seeks to apply the same initial pressure, but once inside the area reduces the frequency of lunges and attempts to tackle around an opponent.

In the Primeira Liga in 2019/20 he won 69 per cent of his aerial duels but proved less effective, aerially, the further he moved upfield. Though longer run-ups provide increased momentum, he was most effective when winning aerial balls in deeper positions and not when advancing to defend against a number nine who has withdrawn into midfield, or a free central midfielder. When he is drawn out to challenge, opponents can potentially capitalise via a flick-on.

Dias, perhaps crucially, has a good passing range. He can play longer passes from deep, and to the extent he provides an effective method of penetration, especially when he has time to execute his desired pass. He plays clipped passes, diagonally, over the opposing central defender with sufficient backspin to slow the ball’s momentum and to make it easier for runners to reach his pass.

Given his preference for hassling opponents for the ball, Dias often ends up recovering it higher up the pitch, from where his long, diagonal passes are no longer options. He will therefore instead seek to play passes into feet, beyond what remains of the opposition’s midfield, and potentially to carry the ball out of defence and into midfield to draw in opponents. He proves most effective doing so when driving through the right inside channel before sliding a pass through to the right winger or attacker making a run into that channel (below).

Role at Benfica
Dias consistently featured in back fours at Benfica; his managers during his time there favoured either a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 and selecting him as their right-sided central defender (below). It was in their 4-4-2 that his ball-playing abilities were particularly influential, when their use of a front two gave him increased options and often increased spaces to play his passes into. Not unlike City, even beyond their front two or lone attacker, Benfica – in Luis Pizzi, Carlos Vinícius and Rafa Silva – offered penetrative runs from wide positions around a fluid striker, giving him further targets, and ones he was often able to find having carried possession beyond the first line of a press and contributed to their ability to control midfield.

That his most recent, consistent central defensive partner was Ferro – a player neither particularly imposing nor strong – meant Dias becoming their most aerially assertive defender, and on the occasions Ferro tried to and struggled to win the first contact, Dias moving to aggressively defend the second phase. When he previously partnered Jardel, who lacked pace, he learned to cover across to his left and to adjust his positioning in preparation to defend from deeper territory, tracking blindside runs and defending side on to ensure he could continue to contribute on the front foot.

In each of those systems Benfica’s wingers were instructed to move infield while their full-backs advanced. Dias was therefore regularly required to move forwards to delay attacks while their defensive positions were being recovered; defending with that concentration and aggression can particularly prove effective when a team is at risk of being countered. 

Similarly, his anticipation made him a good judge of when to foul his opponents. Dias reads the game, recognises when a particularly potent threat exists, and responds by committing the foul before that threat grows beyond his control.

Rúben Dias

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