The 2020/21 season is nearing its conclusion, and with many of the Premier League’s top stars having enjoyed stellar campaigns, social media has been rife with fans debating who should win the prestigious PFA Player of the Year award.
Many names have been put forward by fans, however, there is a small selection of players genuinely worthy of the honour.
Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes has carried his side throughout the season and look almost certain to finish the season as runners-up. Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane is on course to become the first Premier League player to top both the goals and assist charts in the same campaign. Ilkay Gundogan is another contender given his Yaya Touré-esque effect on Manchester City this season.
However, there is one man whose contributions have been so immense, he is simply too difficult to overlook - and his name is Ruben Dias.
A Portuguese international since 2018, Dias left Benfica for City on 29th September 2020, just two days after Pep’s side shamefully conceded five against Leicester City. Yet, whilst Dias was expected to have a positive effect on City’s backline upon his arrival, nobody could have anticipated the sheer magnitude of his impact.
Less than a week after arriving in Manchester, Ruben Dias started against Marcelo Bielsa’s zealous Leeds side in what can be considered somewhat of a baptism of fire given Leeds’ notoriously high-tempo style, but the Portuguese shone on his City debut, he made several key blocks, he remained composed in possession and dominated aerially. Without his contributions, City would have likely lost the game - just as the Blues did in April’s reverse fixture where Dias was not involved.
From that game onwards, Dias established himself as the de-facto commander of the City defence, clean sheets quickly began to accumulate but with City sitting in 8th place, seven points behind Liverpool on New Year’s Eve, few would have predicted that Guardiola’s men would be anywhere near the title race, but Dias alongside his defensive counterparts have been paramount in City’s latest title charge.
In previous seasons under Guardiola, City’s potent attack has been their strongest weapon. But this season, the statistics contrastingly suggest that City’s strong campaign is substantially more resultant of their astute defence rather than their attacking prowess. Specifically, the stats show that City have almost struggled to score goals in comparison to previous seasons with City’s goals per game ratio dropping from 2.68 goals per game last season to just 2.09 this term. These statistics not only highlight the side's lack of a proven goal scorer, but they also highlight the absolute necessity of Dias’ contributions this season.
Thanks to Dias’ influence, City have recorded an impressive 17 clean sheets this season whilst Pep’s side have conceded over one goal in just three of the 28 league matches that Dias has featured in. Furthermore, a notable stat is that a staggering, 34.78% of the goals that City have conceded this season have come during the four games that Dias has missed, thus further evidencing that Dias’ impact has been phenomenal and that without him City are markedly inferior defensively.
One aspect of Ruben Dias’ season that has seemingly gone under the radar is just how quickly he adapted to Pep’s demanding style of play, a challenge that many players initially struggle with. Since Guardiola took charge in 2016, several top-quality players such as Rodri, Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte (amongst others) all took time to adapt to Pep’s system, but Dias has proven to be a rare exception, and this perhaps further demonstrates his quality and footballing intelligence as Dias’ ability to promptly adapt to Pep’s system has proved paramount in City’s strong campaign.
Aside from being defensively excellent and an exceptional reader of the game, a key reason for Ruben Dias’ seamless adaptation to Pep’s sophisticated system is his seriously overlooked ball-playing ability. Whilst it was quickly apparent upon his City debut that Dias is more than comfortable in possession, the stats further highlight Dias’s significance in City’s possession-based system.
Remarkably, Dias has completed more passes than any other player in the Premier League whilst impressively averaging 93.9% passing accuracy, a stat bettered only by John Stones (94.1%), Dias has also produced the most long-passes in the league whilst no centre-back has completed more progressive passes than the Portuguese international. These striking statistics exhibit that Dias is far more than just an outstanding defender, he has been the catalyst and the rock-solid foundation of City’s superb campaign.
Throughout the season due to Ruben Dias’ defensive prowess, ball-playing ability, commanding presence, and colossal impact since joining the club, it has been suggested by fans and pundits alike that Dias’ transformative effect on City’s backline is reminiscent of the impact that Virgil Van Dijk had at Liverpool and the statistics support this observation.
To evidence this comparison, in the 2019/20 campaign City conceded an average of 0.92 goals per game, although this season that figure has notably plummeted with City conceding just 0.54 goals per game throughout Dias’ 28 league appearances. This upturn in defensive form since Dias’ arrival statistically resembles Van Dijk’s impact at Liverpool. During the 2017/18 campaign, Klopp’s side conceded an average of 1.21 goals per game before Van Dijk’s January debut; this figure dropped considerably to 0.64 in the 14 league games that he featured in that season.
Consequently, these statistical similarities indicate that the comparison is legitimately warranted, and with Dias having had a strikingly similar impact at City as Van Dijk had at Liverpool, it is reasonable to suggest that Dias deserves comparable recognition for his consistently stellar performances this season.
Whilst these statistics are of course impressive, they don’t tell the whole story of Ruben Dias’ considerable influence on the City defence. In his short time at the club, Dias has shown himself to be a natural and fantastic leader yet despite being the youngest of City’s defenders (excluding Garcia), he is relied upon by Guardiola to command the backline and to lead by example, and he does so expertly.
Ruben Dias’ vocal presence at the back has helped to inject confidence into his defensive counterparts with several of his teammates turning in markedly improved performances compared to the previous campaign. For instance, Dias’ assuredness at the back has allowed Pep to give Joao Cancelo the freedom to venture forward, consequently enhancing the teams attacking play.
Dias is also seen as a key part in the resurgence of John Stones with the Barnsley Beckenbauer currently enjoying the strongest form of his career. Additionally, it could be said that Oleksandr Zinchenko and Rodri have also benefited from Dias’ defensive competency and commanding presence, with the duo no longer having to overcompensate for an unreliable backline and they have resultantly shown significant improvement.
Since Dias joined the club, his impact has been enormous; he has provided consistency and stability to what was an unpredictable and vulnerable backline, a galvaniser, he delivered the commanding defensive presence that the team have sorely missed since Vincent Kompany’s departure, and without him, City would be nowhere near the position they are in today.
Moreover, it is inarguable that Ruben Dias has had a truly seismic impact on Manchester City and deserves extensive recognition for his contributions this season. Yet whilst the likes of Harry Kane and Bruno Fernandes (amongst others) have had exceptional seasons and warrant praise for their efforts, common sense dictates that Ruben Dias is the rightful Player of the Year.
You can follow the author Brandon on Twitter here: @BrandonEvans_18
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