Intangibles, Scouting & Ruben Dias

Tiago Estêvão
7 min readMay 8, 2021


Over the last few days, particularly post-CL semi-final, I have had dozens and dozens of people tweet at me about Ruben Dias. In case you didn’t catch it: I was very critical of Ruben Dias as a player in Portugal and, consequently, of his move to City. It is now seen as a resounding success story. I wanted to address it and, while I didn’t want to write an entire piece because people have been annoying online, a simple tweet or thread couldn’t convey the nuance that the topic deserved. I was kinda wrong, I was also kind of right — and that’s interesting, so lets discuss it.

Allow me to take a paragraph for a small rant. If you’re one of the many bothersome people tweeting at me with screencaps of tweets of mine: do not worry, feel free to quote tweet — they’re not deleted, nothing is. I’m never going to be the person who goes back to delete old tweets because a player turned good or vice versa. Hindsight is 20/20. If you’re working in scouting or tweeting about the topic, you’re bound to have misses. Either that or you have no opinions at all and I don’t know what you’re doing in this area. And much like I can guarantee you my ratio is damn good, I can also guarantee you I have had plenty of misses way worse than this one — and they’re all #online ready for your perusal.

Okay, rant over. Onto why this is interesting: most scouting “misses” (in my experience, anyway) come via play-time — talents being played in the early career years vs having their careers stall and then never be able to hit ceiling you thought they had — or an unexpected transformation of who they were as a player. Example 1: Diogo Leite was never given the game-time I thought he deserved, has had his career stalling for years and has made all old tweets about him very tough to defend (including a truly undefendable one comparing him and Dias. Boy did that gamble not pay off). Example 2: Gonçalo Guedes was a good player in Portugal, but became a very different player one once he left, completely transforming his ability in possession. This drastically changed what I thought his ceiling would be and even his positional fit.

Ruben doesn’t fit either of these scenarios, though. In fact, I still think he is similar to the player he was a year ago whilst at the same time acknowledging that he has been a positive addition for City. This is contradictory and quite unique, which makes it interesting.

Here is pretty much everything I pointed out negatively about the player prior to his move: comfortable being a part of build-up but not a progressive passer; can struggle positionally; flaws defending open space; flaws with body positioning when approaching one v one situations; mistake prone and poor at measuring his aggression (committing too early; going to ground and resorting to fouls too often). Worth mentioning that he cleaned up his game in his last season with Benfica, particularly in regards to the last two points, but not enough to make me assume they wouldn’t come into play as he made a big career jump. The positives: a super imposing physical skill-set and all the intangibles you could dream off.

And yet, a full season later, here we are with Ruben a good fit within the City system. Guardiola ironed out a lot of RD’s game and figured out a way to maximize his influence in the City system whilst protecting him at the same time. Dias developed positionally and has cleaned up in his individual battles: less mistake prone and resorts to fouls a lot less often.

But the system fit is, ultimately, the most impactful part in his success. In possession he fits just fine, has plenty of players tasked with ball progression instead of him and plenty of passing lanes every time he has the ball. Defensively he has been given a relatively simple role, he is tasked with winning his individual duels and has been solid aerially. He has been quite risk-averse in his approach and, given City’s dominance, he performs actions off the ball a lot less often than he did before — makes his positional improvements more impactful and his mental side (being sharp throughout, while awaiting for his turn to perform defensively) more important.

“Major media outlets pointing to the one differing piece of City’s defense is the kind of 1+2 logic a child might employ when asked to think critically, as nothing really suggests he’s anything other than a physical specimen who performs that relatively simplistic role when the system demands it of him.”

Talented writer and City fan Nico Morales has this quote in his latest article (go follow him on Twitter @Nico_OMorales) and, while perhaps harsh, I fully agree with the sentiment that being inserted in the best defensive team in the world has improved Ruben Dias and disagree with the idea that he was the catalyst for the improvement of said system. City are a better defensive team than they were last year because they’ve improved their pressing, with better coordination between the back-line and front pressing, and general defensive shape. Their CBs are less exposed than a year ago. Dias has played his role well, ironed out some of his flaws faster than I expected him to and ended up being a good fit by offering something different to the others in the squad.

Another angle I didn’t take in consideration previously is Dias’ availability record. He has a super clean injury record and is now on his 6th season in a row playing around or over 3000 minutes in all competitions. As my dear friend and colleague Ben (follow him @Torvaney on twitter) tweeted about the other day, minutes played may seem like a basic metric, but its a very valuable one. You overlap that with the injury records of Laporte, Stones, Ake and even Eric Garcia, and Dias automatically turns into City’s most reliable CB.

Next up, the intangibles. This has always been the facet of Ruben’s game that pretty much just couldn’t be criticized. Captain at a young age, super well spoken; has always been portrayed as a reliable athlete, locker room leader, ideal personality type who always puts in a 10/10 in practice sessions. I said as much at the time of his move and yet, I didn’t do it enough justice.

Classic scouts tend to overrate the mental side, whilst analytics-based ones tend to underrated the impact of these skills. I’ve been guilty of being closer to the latter group in this specific thing and its something I have to iron out in my work process. His personality has obviously made a positive impact and I didn’t think enough about how this would transfer to his game on the pitch. This type of player is more coachable, more receptive to feedback, which has surely helped in his development in England and is then key if he is the one coordinating the backline on the pitch.

It also helps him in his bad moments: Ruben still has bad approaches to plays, which could leave City in trouble a lot more often if they weren’t so well organized collectively. He got turned a couple of times even as recently as the semi-final in Paris. And yet, the rest of his game is barely affected by it. He’s one of the rare players who seems unaffected when he makes a mistake, as opposed to compounding it with others, crumbling mentally and letting it slide into a bad performance.

The other side of this coin is that his mental side, never-say-die attitude and willingness to put himself on the line of fire for the team is also something that people love. Which leads to a collective overrating of how good he has been and to situations like him getting a man-of-the-match award in a CL semi-final for taking a couple of shots to the face. Secure on the ball and important with those last ditch blocks, but painful to see from the perspective of the 5–6 players who were better than him on the pitch that day. Alas, I’m getting off track.

Sidenote: PSG pushing City back (more than PL teams tend to do, anyway) did provide him with a better situation to stand-out. I still think, in many ways, he is better in a deeper defensive block and I’m curious to see how he does with Portugal at the Euros. Lord knows we need a CB to rise to the occasion.

On the transfer itself, I approached the idea of Ruben being very different from all the other defenders at City (even most defenders under Pep) as a negative — as him being a poor stylistic fit. Looking back, I think that is probably exactly why they wanted him in the first place. I didn’t think of that possibility until recently. Dias was never going to be Stones or Laporte, but they already had Stones and Laporte.

That said, as I’ve been saying for years now, transfers are to be judged at the time of arrival, not later. If you’re the best team in the world, with an infinite supply of cash and the entire market at your disposal, you don’t have to gamble on getting someone whose flaws the coach will have to iron out. Granted, having the best coach in the world increases your odds dramatically but I still believe there was better value in the market.

I was wrong in multiple things in regards to Ruben’s move to City, several of which are things I will learn from and take into my daily process in this fun football world we live in. I also think that if you unironically believe he should be a Balon D’Or candidate, you should probably try and find a “which new sport should I get into” quiz online. Maybe Buzzfeed can help.



Tiago Estêvão

Professional Football Performance Analyst | Uefa C Coach