Riyad Mahrez scored two goals but it was a victory born of a superbly organized defense by Ruben Dias…
“He’s the guy who will replace Vincent Kompany, if you will. £ 65million, again a huge figure, but if that doesn’t work I think maybe that’s the end of Project Pep, ”said Jamie Carragher in September, joining a long list of experts and fans clearly baffled and slightly disappointed by the signing of Ruben Dias, a 23-year-old from Benfica who the most – if they were honest and ignorance was socially acceptable in 2020 – had barely seen play. It wasn’t Kalidou Koulibaly or Jules Kounde or Dayot Upamecano; it was the largely unknown and unannounced Dias, who had never made it past the Champions League group stage and who had never played outside of Portugal.
No one hailed him as the man who would help Manchester City regain the Premier League title and reach the Champions League final for the first time; that would have sounded ridiculous. It didn’t look like a marquee signing even though it came at a marquee award. If anything, it seemed a little hopeless, after the embarrassment of this 5-2 demolition by Leicester City. The fact that Benfica suffered a premature exit from the Champions League and that Nicolas Otamendi turned in the opposite direction added to the suspicion that Dias was the best available choice rather than anyone’s first choice.
He would definitely be everyone’s first choice now. The signing of the season in the Premier League. One of the Premier League players of the season. The central half of the season in the Champions League. Every applause given to Virgil van Dijk as Liverpool dominated should now go to Dias, who not only brought his own excellence but uplifted the performance of every player around him. John Stones defied logic with his rebirth; Dias trained him to shine and together they transformed an imperfect Manchester City side into a near-perfect side.
Against PSG, Dias was simply phenomenal. Like John Terry in his glory, Dias blocked shots with his head, physically trained his teammates in position and was always exactly in the right place with exactly the right touch. Being a full defenseman at 23 is as remarkable as Phil Foden being the full attacking midfielder at 20. It’s just as early and just as valuable for City this season which threatens to be the greatest in club history. He replaced Vincent Kompany both as a defender and as a leader and his age means he could stay and potentially improve in this role for the next decade.
Ruben Dias is absurd. What a defender
– Liam Twomey (@liament_twomey) May 4, 2021
Would John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko have celebrated a moment of supreme, committed defense had it not been for the presence and influence of Dias, who kind of made sliding and blocking cool at a club that usually only celebrates the elegance. That victory over PSG contained flashes of the latter from Foden, Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne, but it was a triumph born out of true courage – from Fernandinho, Kyle Walker, Stones, but largely Dias.
Erling Haaland and now Neymar have been completely chained by this city defense. Just as Pep Guardiola stopped overthinking the final stages of the Champions League, his players stopped overplaying. Against PSG they were happy to be disciplined on defense and incisive on the counterattack, doing for PSG what so many teams have tried and largely failed to do at City over the past four years. They enter the Champions League final after conceding just four goals in 12 games. The vulnerable underachievers are now pure steel and the man with the soldering iron is Dias.
The end of the Pep project? We are nearing its peak.