RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol may still just be 20 but he plays like a seasoned veteran - and has the full beard and battled-hardended demeanour to prove it. But what else is there to know about the Croatia international?
Club: RB Leipzig
Country: Croatia (10 caps, one goal)
The 6'1" defender started out at NK Tresnjevka as a seven-year-old, where he was taken by his father Tihomir, an amateur footballer himself. A year later in 2010, Croatian giants Dinamo came calling, and he stayed there for over a decade until his switch to Leipzig in summer 2021.
Over the course of the 2018/19 season, 17-year-old Gvardiol helped Dinamo to the UEFA Youth League quarter-finals - where they lost on penalties to English side Chelsea - and lifted the Croatian youth league title.
He was promoted to the second team the following campaign but, after making just two appearances, was promptly called up for first-team duty and made his Zagreb debut in October 2019. Having represented Croatia since starting out with the U14s in 2016, Gvardiol also made his U21 debut a month later against Lithuania.
Gvardiol - named as one of The Guardian's 60 Next Generation European footballers ahead of the 2019/20 campaign - featured a total of 11 times in the league last year as Dinamo clinched the title. He also got his first taste of UEFA Champions League football at the start of 2020/21, with two qualifying matches as Zagreb were knocked out in the third round by Ferencvaros.
His debut season at Leipzig in 2021/22 was a breathtaking one, the youngster seamlessly adapting to life at the highest level and securing a regular spot in the starting line-up. In total he made 29 Bundesliga appearances, scoring twice, while he also featured a further 17 times across the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and DFB Cup. Head coach Domenico Tedesco hailed the centre-back’s “mental strength” as among his chief attributes, while he also became a full Croatia international over the course of the season.
Plays a bit like: David Alaba
Perhaps the most important aspect of Gvardiol's game is that he is a left-footed centre-back. This provides a fantastic outlet for Leipzig as they can line up the Croatian alongside a right-footed centre-back, with both totally comfortable in the position they are playing.
Alaba has perhaps established himself as the world's best left-footed centre-back, and Gvardiol has many similarities. You may think 6'1" is no mean height for a central defender, but his real strength comes in exactly that - his strength. Gvardiol is rarely bullied off the ball by his opposition, and in the physically demanding Croatian league, has learned exactly how best to use his body to his advantage. He has also built his confidence on the ball, where he is just as comfortable bringing possession out of defence as he is playing the ball to a teammate in a better position.
Did you know?
Due to the similarity between his surname and "Guardiola", Gvardiol is known as "Little Pep" in a nod to the ex-Bayern Munich tactician. The nickname was even more fitting in his younger years, with Gvardiol first playing in central midfield before Zagreb youth coach Dalibor Poldrugac moved him back into the heart of the defence.
What they're saying
"Everyone is talking about this boy. All the top clubs in Europe know him. Gvardiol is an extraordinary talent. He can play great long balls, is a fine technician and is physically very strong. It would be a logical step for me if he switched to the Bundesliga. He has the quality." - Former Bayern striker and Croatia international Ivica Olic
"With Josko Gvardiol we were able to sign one of the greatest European defensive talents. As a left-footer, we will be positioned even more variably with him in the squad. At 18 he is of course still a young player, but his overall development - both athletically and personally - is already very mature. Joško will be able to gain more experience and match practice in professional football in Zagreb over the next few months before he joins us in summer 2021. We will then continuously build up and further develop Joško according to our philosophy." - Former Leipzig sporting director Markus Krösche
"I'm very happy to be able to make this step to RB Leipzig. The club is among the best in Europe and has a very clear style of play. As a young player, it was important for me to come to a club that can help me take the next step in my career. That is exactly what RB Leipzig is all about. The club has shown several times how players can develop and improve here." - Gvardiol
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