Manchester City didn't want Ruben Dias to play for Benfica against Moreirense last Saturday.
The sides had already agreed on all aspects of the €68million transfer, and it seemed rather irresponsible for the player to risk injury in a routine league fixture for what would soon be his former club.
And yet, the centre-back was adamant. Even though fans were not present and the stands remained empty, Dias wanted to bid farewell to the team that raised him. He received the captain's armband on such an occasion, and duly rose to head home the opener after just 20 minutes – that was his first goal since February.
Pep Guardiola might not have been happy with the chances taken, but he should most definitely be delighted with the player's attitude. Dias is a magnificent young defender, who is rightfully considered one of the very best in the world in his age group, but he is a leader, first and foremost.
Those qualities were evident from the very beginning. Dias was the captain at every age group at Benfica academy, and in the reserve team as well.
"I made him captain. There was no doubt it would be him. He takes responsibility and does so naturally. He is a very good communicator,” Benfica B coach Helder Cristovao said.
Naturally, Dias was the captain at all the youth national teams. He led Portugal to the semifinals at 2016 European Under-19 championship, where they somewhat unfortunately lost to Kylian Mbappe's France in the semifinals. His impressive performances were recognized when he was included in the symbolic team of the tournament. A year later, he captained the Under-20 team at the World Cup, and Portugal were eliminated by Uruguay in the quarter-finals on penalties. Dias took the first effort in the shoot-out and converted it. That is what leadership is about for him.
Upon returning to Lisbon that summer, the youngster started preparing for inclusion in Benfica's first squad. Having excelled in the reserve team in the second division for two seasons, Dias was promoted following Victor Lindelof's departure to Manchester United. The Eagles are at times reluctant to give chances to their academy graduates, as examples of Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Cancedo show. Dias also had to wait until the age of 20, but he was patient and confident. When the opportunity arrived, he took it with both hands – and almost immediately became irreplaceable in the starting lineup.
Just a month after making his Primeira Liga debut in September 2017, Dias played in the Champions League for the first time. Somewhat ironically, it was a game against Lindelof's Manchester United. The Red Devils won 1-0, but couldn't ignore the young centre-back's astute performance. Ever since, they topped the list of potential suitors to sign Dias, while Juventus were also mentioned as a possible destination.
Benfica tried to insist that their prodigy is not for sale. The president Luis Felipe Vieira claimed: "Ruben will be our next skipper". His rise was indeed meteoric. By the end of the first season, Dias was included in the World Cup squad by the coach Fernando Santos.
He might have watched all the matches in Russia from the bench, but after the tournament the wily specialist couldn't imagine the national team without him. One of the youngest players in the team, Dias became a leader nevertheless, and his contribution to winning the Nations League simply cannot be overestimated. Not for nothing was he chosen as Man of the Match in the final, as Portugal kept a clean sheet and defeated Holland 1-0 in Porto last summer.
Dias partnered Jose Fonte in central defence that night, and the veteran centre-back, who is 14 years older than Dias, only has warm words for his colleague:
“He is humble. He is very skilled with the ball at his feet. He has a good pass between the lines. He reads the game well, and attacks the ball well in the air. He is strong in duels. In short, he is just a very good defender".
At that point, it became obvious that Dias wasn't a potential star anymore. He was a world class centre-back already, and Benfica knew they had to act quickly. A new contract until 2024 was signed, with a release clause of €100million. The red half of Lisbon hoped that could be enough to keep the "future captain" and the ultimate homegrown academy product for long years to come, but Benfica are still a selling club.
They managed to keep Dias in 2019, after winning the championship title. This summer, after finishing second to Porto and losing to PAOK in the Champions League qualifiers, the Eagles didn't have an option but to cash in on their very best player.
It is hardly surprising that Manchester City are the destination, given Pep Guardiola's willingness to pay hefty sums for defenders. Manchester United lost out once again, while Juventus were much less interested in Dias after signing Matthijs de Ligt a year previously – even though those are different types of stoppers, and Giorgio Chiellini personally complimented the Portuguese.
At the Etihad Stadium stadium, Dias will be expected to become Vincent Kompany's heir. Not only is he right footed defender who prefers to play of the right side of the stoppers duo, but he should take over the Belgian's leadership duties. Aymeric Laporte is a magnificently skilled player, and Nathan Ake is a promising prospect, but neither are true leaders. John Stones' future at the club is doubtful, Eric Garcia is on his way to Barcelona, and there is an urgent need for a vocal and influential defender who is capable of making himself heard – on the pitch and in the dressing room. Dias is exactly the right type for that.
In short, he is just a very good defender.Jose Fonte
The Portuguese should also add steel and robustness to the Manchester City rearguard. Ever since he made his debut for Benfica, Dias was constantly criticized by opponents for tough tackles and even brutality. One shouldn't judge him too harshly, though, as he has only been sent off once in his entire career.
"I am a central defender, and that position requires me to be aggressive. I am a fighter, but I fight for every ball within the rules of the game", he claims.
Nicolas Otamendi was supposed to fill that role at Manchester City, but the Argentine's decline left a huge void. Now he is heading in the opposite direction, while Dias is about to replace him and save Guardiola from regular humiliations. It is quite symbolic that the announcement was made just as the Citizens were thrashed 5-2 by Leicester City at home.
Could Dias prove to be Kompany and Otamendi in a single package? That is not out of the question. Guardiola is getting a proper physical central defender who is comfortable with the ball, loves building play from behind and especially enjoys sending accurate long balls – he had averaged almost nine long passes per 90 minutes at Benfica during the previous three seasons.
Man City have signed plenty of expensive defenders in the Guardiola era. But, there is a reason why Dias is the costliest of them all.