For a country of less than four million people Croatia have developed a remarkable number of elite footballers the last couple of decades. One of the most recent additions to that proud heritage is Josko Gvardiol, Manchester City’s 77-million-pound summer purchase. What was it that convinced City to make Gvardiol the second most expensive defender of all time?
By Lars Sivertsen, Football Expert for Betsson
Croatia’s impact on world football for a country their size is well known, and in addition to being part of this rich heritage, Josko Gvardiol is more specifically yet another brilliant footballer to come out of Dinamo Zagreb. The club has won 16 out of the last 17 league titles in Croatia and continue to use their dominant position to attract the most promising young players in the country. When Croatia reached the big final in 2018, six out of 11 starters and both the players that came off the bench had at some point played for Dinamo. Croatia reached the semi-finals last year, a total of eight out of the starting eleven had either been developed at or played for Dinamo. It’s no surprise then that big European clubs always keep a close eye on Dinamo and any young players they have coming through.
A few years ago, one of those young players was Josko Gvardiol. He started establishing himself in the Dinamo first team in the summer of 2020, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds were immediately keen on bringing him to England. Gvardiol himself would later reveal that he had spoken to Bielsa regularly and that he’d been impressed by the proposal from Leeds, but that he ultimately didn’t think moving to England at the age of 18 was the right decision for his career. Instead, he signed for RB Leipzig, but was loaned back to Dinamo for an entire season so he could keep developing as a player in more familiar surroundings. After he eventually did move to Leipzig the next summer, he quickly adapted to German football and established himself as one of the best young defenders in Europe. This reputation was further bolstered by impressive performances for the Croatian national team.
So what does the numbers say? Well, central defenders are notoriously difficult to judge on stats, because so much of what they do is about positioning, about how they solve problems together with their fellow defenders and how they react to dangerous situations. Still, looking at his statistical profile on the FBref website, his passing numbers really do stand out. Last season he played more passes than 99% of the other central defenders in the Bundesliga, had a higher pass completion rate than 93% of them and completed more “progressive passes” than 84% of defenders in the league. So in this case the numbers back up what anyone will notice when they watch Gvardiol play: That he’s a defender who is very comfortable passing the ball, who is happy to be a central part of his team’s build-up phase and that he is unusually good at playing accurate forward passes from the back. He played more accurate “switches” (“Passes that travel more than 40 yards of the width of the pitch”) than 90% of the other central defenders in the Bundesliga, which again is something that really stands out when you watch him. His ability to ping the ball into wide areas with accuracy and the right amount of pace on the ball is truly excellent. As an added bonus Gvardiol completed more “progressive carries” than 82% of central defenders in the league and had more “successful take-ons” than 97% of them. So in addition to being good at playing the ball out from the back, he also excels at carrying it forward when the opportunity allows for it.
For many years Pep Guardiola seemed suspicious of central defenders, and repeatedly tried to re-purpose central midfielders to play in that role. Now the Catalan genius seems to have gone in the complete opposite direction: Manchester City’s brilliant run to the treble last season came with a formation that often saw the team start with four central defenders, with one of them moving into midfield when the team had possession. This total shift in approach from City meant that it made total sense for them to go into the summer transfer window hoping to sign the best ball-playing central defender they could get their hands on. Josko Gvardiol clearly fits the bill.
Experienced scout and football executive Tor-Kristian Karlsen is particularly fond of Gvardiol. Earlier this year he compiled a list for ESPN of the top 39 players in the world who are under 21 years of age, and he placed Gvardiol 9th – making him the highest ranked defender on the list. “Left-footed, and what a left foot it is”, Karlsen told The Lars Resort podcast. “Short passes, and especially the cross-field switches which are brilliant, struck with precision, with the right pace and power. Excellent at playing out from the back”.
But it’s not all about Gvardiol’s ball-playing abilities. He’s also, crucially, a very good defender. “He’s got great pace over longer distances. He can match most of the quickest forwards around in a sprint”, Karlsen says. “As many centre-backs, and even world class ones, he can struggle on the turn and be a little bit static, but that’s in the nature of him being a big guy. I think that’s something that to a certain extent comes with the territory of being a centre-back. Great in the air. Very assertive. Plays with authority, personality. What I also like about him is that he’s decisive. He reads the opponent very well and when he goes for it he doesn’t hesitate. He has a natural authority that you rarely see in 21-year-old defenders”.
The casual fan may have noticed Gvardiol for some of the wrong reasons over the last 12 months. He was part of the RB Leipzig defence that was fully dismantled by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium back in March. But on their day Manchester City can do that against most teams on the planet, and seems a bit wrong-headed to be too harsh on a 21-year-old defender for failing to stop something that was more of a collective calamity. He became the subject of memes when he was made to look foolish by Lionel Messi last year, but, well, Lionel Messi is Lionel Messi. For the last 15 years or so defenders being bamboozled by Messi at some point has been more of a rite of passage than black mark on their CV. And aside from that unfortunate incident with Lionel Messi he was one of the best defenders at the tournament.
The price tag is considerable. In fact, if the press reports of his transfer fee are accurate, he is the second most expensive defender in the history of the game (press reports claim City paid 77 million pounds for him, just shy of the 80 million Manchester United reportedly paid for Harry Maguire). But Manchester City are no paupers, and with ball-playing central defenders key to Pep Guardiola’s new system the transfer makes a lot of sense. The short version is this: Manchester City wanted to add another ball-playing central defender, and in the last two seasons Josko Gvardiol has stood out as very possibly the best young ball-playing defender in the world. So they went out and bought him.
Listen to The Lars Resort podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-721285592