Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Dani Olmo. They all have one thing in common – the Dinamo Zagreb academy. The Croatian club has produced some of the biggest names in world football and the latest star in line is Josko Gvardiol.
Nicknamed Pep thanks to sharing a similar last name to Man City’s Premier League winning manager, Gvardiol has attracted interest from Europe’s biggest clubs. Perhaps the best compliment he received was the interest from Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa. El Loco is football’s godfather with an exceptional eye for talent and Gvardiol was on his radar even though Leeds eventually failed to get their man.
A left-footed centre-back who can also play left-back, Gvardiol is already a prospective future great at such a young age. He graduated from the academy straight to the first team, which even Modric did not do. After joining Leipzig, the defender has gone from strength to strength.
He has been so brilliant that Chelsea were ready to offer € 90 million for his services. However, Leipzig not only rejected the offer but also signed Gvardiol to a new contract. Under the new agreement, the Croat will stay at the club till 2027.
Playing career so far
Josko Gvardiol started his footballing education at the age of 6, when he joined NK Tresnjevka, staying there for two years. He was picked up by Dinamo soon after and he joined the academy in 2010.
He was soon identified as a future leader and was touted to be the academy’s next big product from a young age. He was deemed to be ready for the first team at the age of 16, an honour bestowed only upon current Chelsea man Kovacic.
He was a part of the first-team squad for the 2018-19 season, at just 17. However, Gvardiol started the season with Dinamo’s B side that plays in the Croatian second division. He made just three appearances for the second team before making his senior debut as a substitute in October 2019.
In his first start for the Zagreb first team, Gvardiol scored the only goal of the match. His role in the first team reduced for the next few months before returning to play an integral role in the final stretch of Zagreb’s Croatian title win towards the end of the 2019-20 season.
— GNK Dinamo (@gnkdinamo) November 2, 2019
This season Josko has made 23 appearances for Dinamo who are once again top of the league and look set to retain their title. Midway through the season, it was announced that Gvardiol will be leaving Zagreb in the summer of 2021 to join Bundesliga side RB Leipzig for a reported fee of 20 million Euros.
While the Bundesliga may have been a huge step up from the Croatian league, it did not faze Gvardiol. The youngster made 29 appearcnes in the league and was so good that he made FootTheBall’s Bundesliga team of the season.
Josko has also featured for Croatia’s national team youth sides, most recently with the U21 squad for whom he has scored a goal as well.
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After joining Leipzig, Gvardiol took no time establishing himself in the starting line-up. The Croatian played 2413 minutes in the league and helped Leipzig to a fourth-place finish. In addition, Gvardiol ranked as the fourth-best player on the Expected Threats (xT) metric. The xT metric measures the total offensive output that a player offers. And when it came to xT from passes, there was no one better than him in the Bundesliga.
🚨 TRANSFER ALERT 🚨
Marcelo Bielsa wants another defender at Leeds. They are reportedly in talks for Dinamo Zagreb's 18-year-old Joško Gvardiol. Here are his stats at a Premier League standard – a very aggressive defender with close to average quality, good ball retention:
— smarterscout (@smarterscout) August 31, 2020
Soccerment ranked him as the third-best defender in Bundesliga last season. In addition, he also made the fourth-most passes in the league. The Croat was an essential reason for Domenico Tedesco’s incredible turnaround at the club after being appointed manager.
What the stats don’t tell you
The young Croat is an imposing figure at 6 ft. 2 inches. His aerial ability is exceptional but his height does not reduce his pace as is often the case. He is swift and quick across the ground and recovers very well.
His physicality compliments his technicality well. He can play three positions – a centre back in a four man back line, left back, and a left sided centre back in a three man back line. Only technically and tactically adept players can maintain such flexibility without compromising on quality.
Gvardiol’s one-on-one defending is amongst the best as far as young centre backs go, which can be put down to him playing the full back role during his formative years. His stature allows him to dispossess individuals easily.
He is very press-resistant akin to Manchester United left back Luke Shaw. Josko has a great ability to carry the ball out of defence, irrespective of where he is playing, allowing a smooth transition from defence to attack. His passing range is impressive, as one would expect from a modern-day centre back and his game reading has signs of promise.
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What makes him special
Unarguably, the most important aspect of being a defender is making the right decisions. While defending is primarily a reactive art, proactiveness can make one’s job considerably easier. Gvardiol, even at a young age, has shown exemplary decision making skills – an invaluable skill.
He knows exactly when to go for the interception and when to delay. When to drive forwards with the ball and when to offload it. When to commit to the tackle and when to take a step back.
Moreover, Josko’s physical development ensures that he is a nuisance for attackers to play against. He easily bullies off strikers and wingers when they have the ball and is very difficult to dispossess when he is in possession.
Josko is also very progressive in his passing which is an asset that few defenders boast of. He has the right combination of brain and brawn which gives him a very high ceiling as a defender.
Josko Gvardiol just had the best season of his career at Leipzig. The Croat was by far the best player for his team. However, he can get much better, which will be a delight for Leipzig. Having a left-footed centre-back in the back line allows a broader range of build-up play options. Therefore, the demand for players with this particular skill set is very high across Europe.
One expects Gvardiol will continue to develop at Leipzig in the coming years, and should he keep up his development, one of Europe’s super clubs will soon be knocking on the door for Josko’s signature.