Manchester City visit a struggling Liverpool side this Sunday having won their last 13 games in a row across all competitions. Nine in the league alone, which has driven them to the top of the Premier League table.
In those nine games, they’ve kept a phenomenal eight clean sheets, conceding just once (a 90th-minute consolation in a game they were leading 0-3).
This is incredible for a side who, in their first nine games of the season, won just four times and were prone to defensive lapses.
So, what happened? Well, the change in City’s fortunes has been partly credited to the arrival of Ruben Dias in the summer.
Rúben Dias for Manchester City against Manchester United:
◉ Most touches (107)
◉ Most passes (92)
◉ Most clearances (6)
◉= Most tackles (3)
◉ Most shots blocked (2)
What a signing he has been for Man City. pic.twitter.com/NoVybNr8Vj
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 6, 2021
The Portuguese defender joined City for £61m late in the summer transfer window and made his debut in gameweek three, the match immediately after their massive 2-5 loss to Leicester at home.
A lot of hope was invested in Dias fixing the defence and, to his credit, he kind of has. The Benfica academy product doesn’t stand out as a passing maestro like other City centre-backs, but he is such a solid defender and so consistent in his positioning and awareness that he radiates composure within the back-line. Which is exactly what a City defence that can be as hypnotised by their own passing football as the opponents’ was in need of. Someone who was always alert.
“He’s one of the guys who can keep his concentration levels at max all the time,” according to his teammate at international level, José Fonte, who told Squawka’s Jake Entwistle this week that no centre-back partner in his career has impressed him more in terms of the ability to stay focussed.
“He’s already one of the best [centre-backs], I must say. It’s not easy to go to Manchester City and just impose yourself like he did. He’s made everyone else better. ”
Van Dijk wasn’t very talkative at first
“Communication is vital,” continued Fonte. “Just by talking, [defences] prevent so many attacks – by putting people in the right position.”
So great has Dias’ impact been that comparisons have been drawn with the great Virgil van Dijk and the instant impact he had at Liverpool, where his arrival took an exciting side and propelled them into the stratosphere.
And communication, along with the organisation it creates, is what City have missed since Vincent Kompany left the club in 2019. While they have talented defenders, none were able to take hold of the back-line as the Belgian did.
Until Dias, anyway, a 23-year-old central defender with the communication skills of a veteran. “Ruben Dias is young but he talks a lot,” Fonte added, which isn’t a common characteristic in young defenders. It’s not something a 24-year-old Van Dijk had nailed down yet upon arriving at Southampton in 2015, for example.
As Fonte reveals: “When Van Dijk arrived [at Southampton], he was already a monster and he was already a top, top player, but he wasn’t very talkative. And one thing that he started doing more was communicating a lot.
“Maybe he was just a little bit shy when he arrived. But the fact is, by the time I left, he was at the same level as me in giving orders to the team.
“You see him in games now, bossing people around. When you talk, it changes the energy. When you start screaming at people, they’re gonna wake up. And you can see the difference in Liverpool’s squad when Van Dijk doesn’t play.”
ON THIS DAY: In 2017, Liverpool agreed a world-record fee for a defender with Southampton for the transfer of Virgil van Dijk.
🏆 Premier League
🏆 Champions League
🏆 Super Cup
🏆 Club World Cup
🏆 UEFA Men's Player of the Year
That £75m fee was a bargain. 🤑 pic.twitter.com/zZIieqTYqg
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 27, 2020
In Van Dijk’s first half-season, Liverpool made the Champions League final. In his first full season, they finished second in the Premier League and won the Champions League. And in his second full season, they won the Premier League, in perhaps the most dominant fashion ever.
So obviously, as Dias has only been at City for half a season, such achievements cannot be compared; but what about how they started? What about the transformations that have followed the arrival of each centre-back?
In 2018, Van Dijk played 14 Premier League games for Liverpool. So far in 2020/21, Dias has played 19 games for Manchester City.
In all those games, Liverpool lost three, drew four and won the remaining seven. They kept an impressive eight clean sheets and conceded just nine goals to maintain their place in the top four.
Since Dias began playing, Man City have lost just once (away to Spurs) in the Premier League, while they’ve drawn five times and won 13. Even more incredibly they’ve conceded just seven goals and kept a colossal 12 (twelve!) clean sheets. They’ve also risen from eighth in the league to first, three points clear of second place with a game in hand.
These numbers clearly favour the post-Dias City side. But then, under Guardiola, they’ve mostly been solid defensively, anyway, and have actually conceded the fewest goals in the competition since he took over.
On the other hand, Van Dijk came to a Liverpool side that had already lost 5-0 and 4-1 earlier in that season, had drawn 3-3 with Arsenal and conceded three to Man City in the game before his debut. After the Dutchman’s debut, no one scored more than two league goals against them for the rest of the campaign.
And when defensive leaders get quality help, greatness ensues; Van Dijk was joined by Alisson in goal to start the 2018/19 league season and Liverpool hit a run of frankly ludicrous defensive power.
In their first 20 Premier League games together, Van Dijk and Alisson drew three times and won 17 (seriously), conceding eight goals and keeping a whopping 12 clean sheets. In fact, from the start of 2018/19 up through to football’s hiatus in March 2020, Liverpool lost just two and drew seven of their 67 games, winning 58 of them while conceding 43 goals and keeping 33 clean sheets.
For those keeping score, basically half of Liverpool’s games (49.25% to be precise) ended without the opponent scoring a goal. This wasn’t all down to Van Dijk and Alisson, for sure, but the defensive platform they built for everyone else was key to the Reds’ rampaging run that saw them come within one point of the 2018/19 title all but seal the 2019/20 one in dominant fashion.
Van Dijk also has stock from the Champions League, where the Reds made the final a few months after his signing. We have to wait to see how Dias and City do, having only played the group stages so far and, of course, in other senses, Van Dijk will blow Dias away statistically, because in 2017/18, Liverpool’s style of play asked their centre-backs to be more active in making duels than Manchester City, where defending is mostly organisational.
As Fonte said of Van Dijk: “If we’re talking specifically about duels, I have to say Van Dijk [was the best I played with]. He doesn’t lose duels normally, either in the air or tackling.”
So, has Dias had as big an impact at Manchester City as Van Dijk did at Liverpool? It depends on how you want to define it. Results-wise, over the short-term? Yes, absolutely. But Virgil van Dijk’s legend wasn’t made in six months, and if Dias wants to ascend to the same level of regard as the Dutchman, then he has to keep on going over the next several years, keep on communicating, keep on thwarting strikers, keep on winning matches, keeping clean sheets and start hoovering up trophies.
Once he does that, if he does that (and on current form, you wouldn’t bet against Man City), then we can talk.