RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol has had an incredible eight months. The Croatia international starred in the 2022 World Cup and, at the tender age of 21, has now become the second most expensive defender in the world after signing for Manchester City for €90m (77, £5m/$99m). But how did he get here?
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How did he start his career?
Gvardiol spent his early years on the rough concrete pitches of Zagreb and first played for local side Tresnjevka before joining giants Dinamo Zagreb aged eight. There he progressed steadily through the youth ranks, showing a level of maturity beyond his years and was moved from midfield to defence.
“Seeing him at 17, it was amazing how good he was, both mentally and physically,” Dinamo’s former academy director and first-team manager Zeljko Kopic told Goal. .
After impressing in the UEFA Youth League, Gvardiol made his senior debut in 2019. As a left-footed centre-back, his play was characterized by his comfort on the ball and his ability to interrupt play with sturdy tackles. Such was his maturity that Dinamo coaches avoided the traditional option of sending him out on loan – as they had done before with other academy stars.
“Unless maybe [Mateo] Kovacic, I can’t remember the player who had a more unanimous decision than Josko,” Zoran Mamic, who led Dinamo on two stints, told ESPN. “Even [Luka] Modric had to be loaned out before he got his chance. With Josko, no one said he had to go on loan. Only him and Kovacic, aged 16, were ready for the first team.”
Progress in Leipzig
Gvardiol quickly outgrew its surroundings. In September 2020, and amid interest from Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, it was announced that he would move to RB Leipzig at the end of that season for a fee of €16 million, remaining on loan at the Dinamo so far. The Bundesliga side had made a name for themselves as a haven for burgeoning talent, something both the player and his representatives were well aware of.
Damir Krznar, former academy director of Dinamo Zagreb and now head coach at Maribor, recounted a conversation he had with Gvardiol before the transfer. “He also had an offer from England and at that time it was a divide,” he told Sky Sports. “Which is better? Going to England or to Leipzig? When I spoke to him, he said: ‘I chose Leipzig just because I think it’s not halfway that I have to do to go to England, to go to the best league in the world’.”
The move to Leipzig was an important step. The pace of the Bundesliga, the sophistication of tactics and the quality of the opposition were all several notches above what he had encountered in the Croatian top flight. It was a test of Gvardiol’s will to compete at the highest level, despite still being only 19 years old.
But compete he did. After settling in, Gvardiol quickly found his feet in the heart of Leipzig’s defense and took his game to a whole new level. His performances showed a player who is not afraid to impose himself, not only physically but also as a leader on the pitch. He quickly established himself as a fan favourite, playing 29 Bundesliga games that season and ensuring that the loss of young defenders Ibrahima Konate (€41.5m to Liverpool) and Dayot Upamecano (€42.5m € at Bayern Munich) the previous summer was not feeling so bad.
An unforgettable World Cup
Yet, while regular Bundesliga viewers quickly became familiar with Gvardiol’s abilities, it wasn’t until the 2022 World Cup that the defender announced himself on the world stage. Playing for a Croatian side that many considered to be past their prime, and with their talismanic 37-year-old captain Luka Modric, few tipped the scales. Vatreni make a deep run in Qatar. And yet, with Gvardiol’s help, Croatia conceded just three goals in their run to the semi-finals.
In the end, Lionel Messi’s genius propelled eventual champions Argentina to a 3-0 win over Croatia in that fixture – make Gvardiol look a bit silly at one point – but the 21-year-old finished the tournament as one of its stars, finish with a goal and man of the match in a 2-1 win over Morocco in third place play-off.
“I expected something like this,” Krznar told Sky Sports. “He played flawlessly. [at the World Cup]. There was a mistake, maybe, against Messi for the third goal against Argentina… but it’s not a mistake, it’s Messi!”
Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said at the tournament: “Gvardiol is the best centre-back in the world. He is so mature. His way of playing, with the grace in which he controls the ball, is amazing.”
Marcotti: Gvardiol could be better than Dias for Man City
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Josko Gvardiol’s potential move to Man City from RB Leipzig.
Premier League dream
With such skills, it’s no surprise that every top club in Europe has been following his progress in recent years. Openly keen on a move to the Premier League, the defender also opened up about his Liverpool-supporting father Tihomir and how he idolized Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos as well as Messi. So when Chelsea made a bid of €97.5m in 2022, it seemed like a formality for him to join them.
“I was really confused because a month before the window started, I was upstairs with the [Leipzig] sporting director and he said, ‘Yeah Josko, we’re not going to sell you, we need you, we believe in you’ and I was like ok it’s okay, I can stay here, I like it here, everything I need to work on myself, to play, to win something else,” he told The Times.
“It was like that until the last two days. My agent called me and said that Chelsea are extremely interested and of course you are certainly thinking of a serious offer from a huge club like Chelsea. Leipzig said they didn’t want to sell. In the end, I really struggled with that decision, but we didn’t make a deal.
Now, however, City have made their dream come true.
What should he work on?
At just 21 years old, Gvardiol is of course far from the finished product. Yet he seems to encapsulate the essence of modern defense, combining tenacity and physical strength with technical skill. In Mamic’s opinion, he’s a ‘totally modern centre-back’.
His former youth coach for Croatia, Tomislav Rukavina, told Goal in 2021: “His enormous self-confidence, his leadership qualities and his courage remind me of Thiago Silva.”
And, in the same vein as Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk before him, it can be hard to spot glaring weakness, as he’s also fast, “so even if he makes a mistake he can come back,” adds Mamic. His physique even makes up for any lack of height at 6ft 1in, with his vertical leap – which he showcased with his goal against City in the Champions League in February – a sight to behold.
Will he be up to City?
Gvardiol appears to be a good fit for Pep Guardiola’s side, having finished the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign fifth in passes per game (71.3) and with the ninth-best pass completion rate (89.3%) .
Moreover, his ability to choose a pass from distance should help City move quickly from defense to attack, with the youngster returning a long ball success rate of 59.7% last season, ranking 12th out of 112 players. of the Bundesliga to have attempted 100 or more.
Apart from his obvious attributes, Gvardiol is also versatile and capable of replacing left-back in the same way Nathan Ake did for City in the 2022-23 campaign. His newfound status as the world’s most expensive defender won’t come as much of a surprise to those who have followed his career from the very start, but he can only improve under Guardiola and play for one of the best teams in Europe. The sky really is the limit.