For some time now, Rúben Dias has been the reigning Premier League player of the season. With no particularly notable luminary from a Manchester City team that had dominated the division, the credit fell to the new signing at the end of 2020/21. Liverpool were a non-entity, with the injury of Virgil van Dijk, among others, completely derailing the campaign.
The prize may end up in the hands of Man City one more time. Mohamed Salah is rightly the frontrunner, but Kevin De Bruyne was also mentioned in the conversation. As for the Premier League title, it still seems more likely than not to return to the Etihad, although Liverpool will continue to ramp up the pressure. But a year after the award, labeling Dias as the best player in the league seems increasingly out of place.
There is no need to rewrite history. Dias undoubtedly had a good season and that’s what the price reflects: it’s not necessarily a statement of overall quality. But even then it felt like a pretty random choice – Manchester City had a very good defensive record, so recognition was given to the shiny new defender in the back line. In reality, the miserly goalscoring record had more to do with the near-total domination of every game.
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This season it was a similar story. Dias, and every other defender for that matter, hasn’t had that much to do. Man City conceded 78 shots on goal, 18 less than the second-baddest defense in the league (Liverpool, in case you’re wondering). Some of that can be attributed to good defense, but it usually comes back to average possession. Opponents can’t shoot if they don’t have the ball, and Pep Guardiola’s team had the ball 68 percent of the time.
For the most part, it was the Champions League where Manchester City came under the most pressure. At the Santiago Bernabéu, we can honestly say that Dias succumbed to its weight.
Most clearly, his brash challenge gave away the penalty that gave Real Madrid the win. But with all three goals, questions can be put to him. Stripped of the protections the Manchester City system usually affords him, Dias was exposed as extremely fallible.
Essentially all defenders have bad moments and that doesn’t make Dias a bad player, but it should do away with all comparisons to Van Dijk. Manchester City may have paid nearly as much for the Portuguese central defender (£65million to be exact), but he’s just not in the same league as the Liverpool man.
First, there is the rashness. This was evident during his time in Portugal, and it has remained. While it’s mostly masked by the relatively low amount of duels he’s exposed to at Man City, Dias isn’t comfortable with players rushing towards him. He made 30 league fouls this season, against only 10 by Van Dijk.
This is indeed one of Van Dijk’s greatest assets. Where the Champions League has brought out the worst in Dias, that’s where the Dutchman’s strengths came out most clearly: players like Lautaro Martínez and Darwin Núñez simply gave up on the 30-year-old at various points in their respective draws. Liverpool.
To quantify it: Van Dijk has a remarkable success rate of 81.8 percent over dribbling in the league this season. Dias has improved significantly in this regard since winning the Premier League Player of the Season award, but still only wins 43.8 per cent of his tackles against the dribble – a clear difference. To bring the point home, he has dribbled past Van Dijk more than four times as often in this campaign.
Then there is Air Force. Physically, the main area where Dias needs to be elite is, but the numbers simply don’t reflect this. While he may be big and strong, that doesn’t translate to dominance in the air. The Manchester City defender has won an average of 58.6 percent of his aerial duels this season, against Van Dijk 76.8 percent. In Real Madrid’s second goal, the relatively small Rodrygo towered over the Portuguese defender, who did not even get off the ground.
That’s before we mention the intangibles. Strictly speaking, Dias didn’t lose a duel for the first Real Madrid goal, but he hesitated and let Rodrygo intervene. Van Dijk takes the lead in such situations. He radiates control and wards off the sense of panic that descended on Manchester City’s rear.
The sheer contrast between last season and this should prove enough that Van Dijk is the difference maker for Liverpool. He is one of the best who has ever played in this position. Dias may be a £65million defender in the modern game, but that doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near his counterpart – a solid centre-back cannot be compared to an era-defining defender.