Manchester City announced the addition of Ruben Dias two days after the team conceded five goals to Leicester City. Only four days after that, Pep Guardiola inserted him into the starting eleven and the defensive woes of the previous weekend have yet to resurface. Evidence continues to grow that City have found themselves a truly great defender and Guardiola’s constant faith in him along with the team’s impressive defensive record when he’s involved are the most convincing arguments of that.
Dias has been the only unquestioned member of the backline since his arrival, playing 98% of the available Premier League minutes with his only reprieve being 20 meaningless minutes against Burnley with City already five goals ahead. No other center back has a minutes ratio greater than 37% in that time, leaving Dias as the core of a sturdy defense in the midst of regularly changing circumstances. He has operated comfortably on both sides of central defense while simultaneously adapting to play alongside four different center back partners. Pep even trusted him to act as the only true center back in that weird defense that was equal parts three and four at the back deployed against Arsenal in only his second match with the club.
Guardiola’s rating of Dias should inform ours, especially given how difficult it is to quantitatively evaluate defenders as individual defensive metrics are often misleading, a challenge well illustrated by the famous Paolo Maldini quote – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”. That statement is appropriate when discussing Dias, who ranks in the 7th percentile in tackles won per 90 minutes among Premier League defenders (min. 360 minutes) because he has made so few mistakes in his positioning this season. Ultimately, the way to identify good defenders is to identify good team defenses, and there has been no defense as good as City’s with Dias on the field.
City are allowing 0.76 expected goals per game in the eleven league matches Dias has played, a number that would be far and away best in the Premier League. It would also make them one of the elite defenses in recent memory with only three teams exceeding that rate of chance prevention since 2014-15 (which is the extent of UnderStat’s expected goal data). One of those squads was the 2016-17 Chelsea team that won the championship while the other two were Pep Guardiola’s title winning teams. Those previous iterations of City’s backline had a luxury that Dias does not however; those defenses were spearheaded by an otherworldly high press that destroyed opponent buildups before they could leave their own half.
Those rabid high presses sheltered the backline more than this year’s toned down version and the defense Dias now leads has been forced to sustain more opposition possession in their own half, yet thrives nonetheless. Dias is benefitting from a frequently used double pivot that has pushed City’s holding midfielders to increase their successful defensive actions per 90 minutes by ~15% from the previous three-year average, but the central defense is the engine fueling this resistance.
A natural leader, Dias is visibly vocal in organizing a defense that successfully pushes opponent possession away from the most dangerous areas around the box, allowing their worst shot quality in the past four years and maintaining the rate of passes allowed within 20 yards of goal from the previous two. Dias contributes further by reading shooting lanes well to block shots and tracking runs effectively to be in position for easy ball recoveries.
While the sample size for a Dias led defense is small and that inherently creates suspicion for regression, the 6 goals in 11 matches it has allowed puts the defense on a pace that has not been matched since 2004-05 Chelsea. It is unlikely City maintain that level of excellence, but the underlying metrics suggest the quality of this defense is real. Does Ruben Dias deserve all of the credit for that? Of course not, there are a ton of factors that contribute to the ultimate product on the field. But amid all of these factors, Dias has been the most constant one. So when you’re listing the reasons why City have developed into the top defense in England, put Dias right at the top and give him recognition for what he is – one of the best center backs in the Premier League.