English Premier League

City’s Defensive Wall Reshaped?

On Manchester City’s acquisition of Rúben Dias and how it may or may not fix their defensive issues…

Manchester City finally got their center back target this summer. Rúben Dias, the promising young Portuguese center back that launched into the spotlight in Portugal’s Nations League triumph, joins the Citizens from Benfica for £62 million plus £3 million in add ons, with City and ex-Porto center back Nicolás Otamendi going to Benfica for £13.6 million. City’s long hunt for defensive reinforcement finally comes to an end. Securing the signature of Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké earlier this window, Pep remained on the hunt for a top-line, world class partner to Aymeric Laporte. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was their top target, but after trying and failing to pry him away, the club redirected their search toward other options. Rúben Dias was the deal they could get across the line, and, value for money, is probably the best deal they could have gotten this summer, even better than had they signed Koulibaly. But more on that later.

You know the structure of this by now; we talk about how this move fits for the player and for the club that signed him. Let us talk about the player first, as Rúben might be more of an unknown prospect for many Premier League fans.

Rúben Dias emerged from Benfica’s world-famous academy, bursting onto the scene in 2017. He won the award for the best young player in Liga NOS for the 2017-18 season, making the Portugal squad for the 2018 World Cup. While he did not feature at the World Cup, he came back and had another phenomenal season, helping Benfica to the league title and making the Portugal squad for the Nations League Finals, starting alongside Jose Fonte in the heart of defense in the final against the Netherlands. Another strong season with Benfica saw him garner significant interest from other clubs, finally sealing a move to Manchester City earlier this week.

Even after everything he has accomplished so far in his career, Rúben is only 23. His first move away from Benfica was always going to be colossal in determining the path of his career, and a wrong move could stunt or derail what has been a fantastic start to a career. There are very few clubs that he could have joined that are more talented than Manchester City, and joining the Citizens puts Rúben immediately in the position to contend for and win major honors in one of the best leagues in the world, as well as consistently play Champions League football, something that Benfica were not able to guarantee. He also comes into the club in a very good position to feature immediately. City’s defense has been less than great over the last year, especially with the extended absence of Aymeric Laporte. Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were never able to reach the level needed to fit into that defense, and Eric García has not shown the consistency needed to see if he is able to reach that top level. Fernandinho, at age 34, was often asked in the last year and a half to play in defense, and Rodri had also been asked on occasion to deputize at center back. With Otamendi leaving and García heavily pushing for a move away, there are quite a few opportunities opening up in defense, and Laporte is really the only nailed-on starter in central defense. Rúben comes in with the experience and talent needed to contend for serious playing time early on. This seems to have been the best move the young Portuguese could have made. He joins a team brimming with world-class talent, contending for major honors, and that still has an opening he could realistically fill immediately. Pep also loves ball-playing center backs, so Rúben gets to learn from one of the best in the world. When looking at all of the clubs that were linked with a move for him over the last two years, choosing City was the right move.

So this move was a home run for City, right? Well, for the most part, yes. There are multiple facets of this move to discuss from a City perspective, so let us look at them all one at a time.

First, let us talk about what I said in the introduction. City signing Rúben Dias was a better deal, value for money, than if they had signed Kalidou Koulibaly. This is no disrespect to Koulibaly. He is one of the best center backs on the planet, a true world-class player that would have made City’s defense much stronger. However, Koulibaly is also 29. Yes, the obsession with player ages in this sport is ridiculous, but it is still obvious that you would not be able to get much out of Koulibaly at a world-class level at this point, and you would lay out a significant amount of money in order to do it. Rúben may not reach the level of Koulibaly, but he still is a great player and, at only 23, has plenty of room to grow and become a world-class player. Koulibaly was City’s top target, but they may have gotten the better deal at the end of the day. Rúben also better fits the mold of what City need in a center back.

There is a lot that can be said about Rúben as a player and how he fits into the City defense, but all of those ideas can be simplified and summarized into one sentence:

He reminds me quite a bit of Vincent Kompany.

No, this is not the first time you have heard this comparison, and it will definitely not be the last time you hear it. I imagine that, by the end of the season, you will be sick and tired of hearing it. But it is true.

Vincent Kompany is a City legend, and their defense has never really been the same since his decline took him out of the team regularly, leading to his departure from the club in 2019. Since his departure, that right-sided center back position has become a black hole, with Stones, Otamendi, and García being unable to fill it. Rúben comes in sharing many traits with Kompany. Neither player is particularly quick, but they are both very good positionally and in reading the game. Both players are very strong in the tackle and very good in the air, winning a high percentage of their aerial duels and tackles, and they are daring enough to step up and pressure the attacker in order to win the ball back. They both function well in a pressing defensive line, able to make the right tackle when needed. They are both very good on the ball, able to pass out of the back and set up their teams going forward, or just placing a pass needed to relieve pressure. They are both very good on set pieces, using a combination of strong athletic ability and good timing to be important in attacking and defending set pieces. Footballing-wise, they are seemingly cut from the same cloth. There is a lot that is similar between the two players, and, in theory, there is no better way to fill the void Kompany left behind than to bring in a player that is almost identical in playing style to him.

Most importantly, however, is that both Kompany and Rúben are very vocal leaders in defense. Many pundits and journalists have commented on how “quiet” the City defense is relative to several years ago. The void left by Kompany’s departure can be heard, as the booming voice of the Belgian, barking orders and instructions at his defense, is now gone. This seems like a very small thing, and that it should not be an issue for a team as loaded financially and in player options as Manchester City, but it can be massive. Having loads of talent is one thing, but ensuring they are organized and working as a cohesive unit is still important in having a very good team, especially in defense, where coordination and organization is immensely important. Communication in defense is important in relaying instructions to your teammates, such as when to press high or where to play the pass or when you need help marking an open runner. Lack of communication creates confusion, and when confusion strikes a defense, goal-scoring opportunities are conceded. During their peak under Guardiola, that City defense was a well-oiled machine with Kompany at the heart of it, directing his defense on when to press and where to be. He was the leader on the pitch, relaying Pep’s plan in real time. Since his departure, no one in the defense, or even in the team as a whole, has been able to fill that void.

Rúben comes in as someone considered a natural-born leader, having captained several youth teams during his formative years. Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira considered him a future club captain, and he will likely be one of the players in consideration to captain Portugal upon the eventual retirement of current captain Cristiano Ronaldo. He carried a significant amount of respect among his teammates in the dressing room, and that leadership was carried out on the pitch as well. Like Kompany, he is a very vocal player, shouting instructions to his teammates and making sure the high defensive press, which Benfica also has utilized, is executed effectively. In this sense, he is seemingly a like-for-like replacement. If he is able to build the same rapport with his teammates in Manchester that he did in Lisbon, he may grow into the effective leader that City have lacked since Kompany’s departure.

Now let us address concerns, as I do have some. The tag line of this article says how this signing “may or may not” fix City’s defensive issues. I do not believe it fully will, but that is because these issues are not as simple as not having good enough players. Yes, Rúben will likely be a better player than Otamendi, Stones, or García and, especially following the myriad of mistakes García made in City’s 5-2 loss to Leicester this past weekend, it is clear that having great players is a difference maker. However, he is not a magic “quick fix” for this team, and he should not be considered the savior of City’s defense, as many of the problems with City defensively do not stem directly from their center backs. Shown specifically in their league loss to Leicester and their Champions League loss to Lyon, their team press is quite disorganized. Most of the time, the defensive line does not follow the midfield and attack in the team press, and the attack and midfield are not always coordinated in when to press. As a result, if the opposing team is able to play through the first one to two layers of pressure, the pitch opens up massively for them.

For example, look back at Leicester’s first goal in their recent 5-2 win (Vardy’s first penalty). City’s defensive line did not follow their midfield and attack into the press, so when Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy was able to evade the pressure from De Bruyne, he had practically the entire pitch open in front of him. This allowed him to find Harvey Barnes in space, who ran at a terrified and backpedaling City defense and led to the penalty being won. The same applies to that match against Lyon, where Houssem Aouar specifically was able to find himself in space with time to pick out passes if he was able to get around the initial pressure. Sure, Rúben’s ability to step further up, challenge the attackers with pressure, and work in a high press can help here, but this is not an issue that he alone can fix. His leadership and on-pitch direction can help, but this is also a tactical issue. Guardiola needs to be the one that finds the solution, whether it be compensate more in midfield for his defense or finally find the “Fernandinho replacement”-level talent that many think is in Rodri. Regardless of everything I said before about how great of a signing this could be, the expectation on Rúben’s shoulders should not be the need to be a cure to all that ails City’s defense.

While the structural issues in the City team may remain, this is still a great signing. Rúben Dias is a fantastic young player, really growing into his own as a footballer and a leader and is destined for a great career. City shelled out a significant amount of money to sign him, but with his track record, it seemed to be a very logical deal. While not their main target, Pep has gotten the man who could be a fixture at center back for years to come, finally replacing the influence Vincent Kompany had in their team.

Yes, we are all tired of City signing defenders, they have only spent around £400 million on defensive players under Pep, but I swear this is one that should work out very well for them.

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