‘Rúben could never relax’: how Dias became a Manchester City rock

There is a quiet ambition at Benfica to build a team of academy graduates capable of winning the Champions League. It is a pipe dream as their best talents are soon sold off for eye-watering fees. The latest to fall into that category is Rúben Dias, who returns to Portugal on Saturday hoping to realise the ambition of a club who earmarked him as future captain as a teenager.

Chelsea stand in the way of Dias ending his first year at City as a European champion and partially fulfilling his former club’s ambition, alongside Benfica graduates Ederson, João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva. Some thought his £63m move to England a gamble but Dias has proved himself to be one of the world’s best centre-backs by winning the Premier League and Carabao Cup, not to mention the personal accolade of football writers’ men’s player of the year.

Benfica signed Dias as an 11-year-old after he impressed coaches in a game against the club. It was not his natural ability that caught their eye but his leadership skills and they thought they could mould him into a great player. Dias was deemed an average talent but his on-pitch communication would help him become a club and international captain.

Dias progressed through the academy, destined for leadership, becoming captain for club and country in his youth. His organisational skills have been seen at City, where he has helped to turn a muddled defence into the best in England, a sign his qualities are not purely based on technical ability.

It is anticipated he will join City’s five-man leadership group next season. “He does not need the armband to be a captain; everyone recognises he is the leader on the pitch,” says his former Benfica and Portugal under-19 teammate Dálcio. “He was captain for all the age groups at Benfica and he will be City’s captain in the next few years, for sure. He was the captain for our national team even though he was younger than most of the team. There you saw what a leader he was. He gets the best out of everyone.”

Neymar feels the force of a Rúben Dias challenge during Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain.
Neymar feels the force of a Rúben Dias challenge during Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain. Photograph: Christophe Saidi/SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

At City he has impressed coaching staff with his dedication in the gym to ensure he is up to the physical rigours of the Premier League. He has settled quickly, helped by the fact that Benfica and City have similar passing styles throughout their system, a reason Pep Guardiola likes players formed at the club. Dias has always anticipated what is needed to reach the next level. His first taste of competitive football at Benfica came in the second tier for the B team.

“Rúben Dias worked with several coaches and we all have the same opinion,” says the Benfica B coach, Nélson Veríssimo. “In addition to his quality, he had a great focus and was always very confident in his goals and the path he wanted to go through until reaching the first team. He managed to make this journey, with the help of all those coaches, but, above all, due to his quality, competence and hard work.”

It was not a meteoric progression to the first team for Dias, who knew he needed to perfect his craft in the B team, for whom he played 55 games. Stepping up too early could be detrimental, he realised, so he maintained focus, learning against experienced pros. “He had his chance,” Veríssimo says, “and, as everyone expected, due to his quality, commitment and concentration, Rúben grabbed it.”

Rúben Dias wins a header against Zenit Saint-Petersburg while playing for Benfica in December 2019.
Rúben Dias wins a header against Zenit Saint-Petersburg while playing for Benfica in December 2019. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

Fewer are harder on Dias than the man himself. He has barely put a foot wrong at City, and when he does commit an error he thinks about how to correct his technique or thought process. “Making a mistake is normal and Rúben knows this but he reacts by making sure he learns how to never do them again,” Dálcio says. “This is the evolution of Rúben, how he gets better as a defender, as he knows if he makes one mistake the team will concede goals. He does not commit too many mistakes, that’s for sure.”

The preparations for his big night at the Dragão have been formed over more than a decade for Dias. He is very careful when it comes to diet and his Benfica teammates had to remind him to have interests outside football.

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“He would always make strikers angry in training, as he treated every session like the Champions League final,” Dálcio says. “Most players are careful of their teammates in training but his tackles were always like in a match. He is very serious as he knows that’s how you get to the top. Sometimes you have a relaxed training sessions but Rúben could never relax – he always has to be working hard. If the training session was 10 minutes, he would do 20.”

The extra hard yards were put in for moments like Saturday night. If City win, Dias’s success will be celebrated not only in Porto but in Lisbon, too.


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