At Manchester City they start every season with an election. Each member of the squad votes who should be captain. The winner takes the armband and the next four become deputies, forming Pep Guardiola‘s leadership group.
This year’s quintet of experienced characters are Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker. Occasionally there are some surprises; Sergio Aguero dropping out of that group after last September’s ballot and the nine nominations Nathan Ake received.
Ake, a summer recruit from Bournemouth, had only been training for a few days, yet had clearly made an impression.
The results suggest City’s players are open to change and you wonder how many votes would have dropped in the box for Ruben Dias if he had arrived earlier.
Ruben Dias missed Manchester City’s captain voting process but has shown leadership
Nobody has mentioned Vincent Kompany since this 23-year-old turned up from Lisbon
Dias missed the voting process. He did not join from Benfica until two days after a 5-2 home defeat by Leicester — a scoreline that feels consigned to a bygone era.
Given what has happened over the following four months, Dias will surely become the latest new member of the leadership five when the players head to the polls this year. Around City, there are already murmurings that Dias will pull on the armband in the future. Put it this way: nobody has mentioned the absence of Vincent Kompany since this 23-year-old turned up from Lisbon.
‘You’re saying that, not me,’ says Dias, smiling awkwardly. It becomes clear he is not a man to embrace compliments. ‘The thing I can say about me is that no matter the age, you are either one type of person or not, you are either the winner or not. That’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of, ‘Are you ready or not?’
City have kept 15 clean sheets in 23 matches involving Dias, conceding nine goals
His question does not need answering. But for the avoidance of doubt, here’s his case. City have kept 15 clean sheets in 23 matches involving Dias, conceding nine goals.
They have been breached three times in their last 16 games, one a freak deflected own goal by the man himself and another a last-minute consolation at the end of a demolition job on Chelsea.
The air of defensive defiance, a cornerstone of previous title wins, has returned. While Dias flatly refuses to take credit, the high-fives and fist bumps between him and reinvigorated partner John Stones at every block, every tackle, reveal a shift in culture. Suddenly, City love defending.
‘The other day someone said to me here in the club, ‘Ah, amazing, another clean sheet’,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘And I just said the thing that gives me most pleasure is not even the clean sheet. It’s the other team not even making one shot on goal. The thing that gives me the most pleasure is that my keeper doesn’t make a save.
‘I’m a defender. I’m there to defend. Nowadays the idea is that a defender needs to do much more. My focus has always been on becoming better and doing more but I’ve never forgotten that, first of all, I’m a defender.
‘If not me, then who else will take pride from defending? It gives me pleasure to make the other team feel powerless.’
Dias’s statistics are interesting in that sense. He is nowhere near the top of Premier League lists for clearances, blocks, interceptions, tackles or headers and that goes a long way to illustrate how good he is. The reading of the game, the positional sense. No mistakes.
Dias is nowhere near the top for most tackles in the league but his positional sense is brilliant
With him and Stones in tandem, City have conceded one goal in 11 matches, but above that, they never appear in danger for any length of time. When one is dragged away, the other mops up. A seesawing double act.
‘The connection with John has been just brilliant,’ Dias says. ‘But I would like to say that it’s not just me and John. A brilliant example of that, I think it was against Brighton. We were winning 1-0 but struggling and then I see Kevin and Gundo dying on the pitch. You know, running back, running forwards. Dying.
‘That moment just said to me, if these guys are running like that, who will not? If these guys give everything for the team, who will not?
‘Trust is given. Trust is earned. So when you start to build that defensive point of view, if we’re not conceding, we’re closer to winning, and then everyone starts to believe in it. They see your will to accomplish that. That makes this team strong.’
Dias spends much of his time pointing and instructing rather than merely cajoling.
His old academy coaches at Benfica say an aptitude for leadership was apparent by the time he was 10 and that outweighed his ability.
With age and growth, the ability caught up and here he stands as a £62million player. He walks and talks like a leader.
Dias insists his centre-back partnership with a resurgent John Stones (right) is exceptional
Dias believes his communication skills have helped major things happening in City’s area
One passage of play during Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa — ‘a proper Premier League game, why I love this league’ — when the visitors broke into the box with the score goalless, was typical. Dias smelled the danger and knew Stones needed to cover a runner. He almost pushed his mate into the correct position as Villa approached. Between them, they snuffed out the danger.
‘John was doing perfectly at controlling the space,’ Dias says. ‘And then I came from behind and John probably doesn’t see me. I’m just telling him, ‘I’m here’, and he can cover the outside. It was me trying to tell John fast — because we don’t have all the time in the world — that he had help.
‘I have never done it (leadership) because I knew I was being watched. I’ve always done it because it was needed, because I didn’t want to suffer goals.
‘Many times some people would try to misunderstand it. But after they got to know me, they would always have the same opinion: he doesn’t do it just to show it.
‘When people speak to me, they see the mentality, they see the focus. They see how badly I want to be on top. Most of the time, my communication is just the most simple things that prevent the major things happening.’
That last sentence encapsulates Dias’s game and his personality. He does not enjoy fuss. Even in this interview, for which he arrives late after doing an extra recovery session, it is obvious talking about himself is not a favoured pastime. He admits that offering insights into his life does not come naturally. There is a sense that he does not really understand all the commotion.
Bernardo Silva (left) helped him settle in his new surroundings but his voice is growing louder
He does reveal he has asked both his parents to stop working — ‘they have worked a lot, done many things’ — and it sounds like he’s bought them a new house, although he won’t confirm that as it’s a little too personal.
Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Joao Cancelo, all formerly of Benfica, helped him settle in his new surroundings but his voice is growing louder inside that dressing room. The move to Manchester with singer-songwriter girlfriend April Ivy has been seamless, given they were confined to a flat in Lisbon beforehand anyway.
Older brother Ivan, also a defender, is also in the North West searching for his next club.
‘Sometimes I dress up to go to the supermarket!’ Dias laughs. ‘There has been a lot of Netflix. There is a show on fire right now: Lupin. I love it. Political thriller Designated Survivor as well.
‘What I know now about this city is the way people breathe football… there is just something else here, something special. Even the grass. The environment. It is different. It goes a bit further in Manchester.’
There is regret that the defender’s teary farewell to Benfica was in an empty stadium
All of this is communicated in exceptional English, learned at school. There is regret that his teary farewell to Benfica was in an empty stadium. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe as major influences, he rattles off a list of those who have shaped his career. With Portugal, that includes 19-cap Luis Neto. With Benfica, the rarely-picked Lisandro Lopez, now at Boca Juniors.
‘I had big privileges with those players on my way up,’ he says. ‘I dealt with people with character. I am a guy who likes to listen. I will always be someone looking for constant adaptation, always looking to become better.
‘Here at City they understand me and I understand them. Obviously I feel good about how things are going. You know, I could never surprise myself because I was not expecting anything. That’s just the way my brain works.
‘Praise will only happen if I stay the way I am. If I start to get too excited, the praise will stop. So, yesterday I play the game and if I’m not who I am during the next one, then people forget. I like my acts to speak for me.’