RB Leipzig's Josko Gvardiol is one of the most exciting players to come out of Croatia in recent years. - © Imago
RB Leipzig's Josko Gvardiol is one of the most exciting players to come out of Croatia in recent years. - © Imago

Josko Gvardiol: Who is the RB Leipzig and Croatia centre-back?


RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol may still just be 21 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?

Josko Gvardiol

Age: 21
Club: RB Leipzig
Position: Centre-back
Country: Croatia (19 caps, two goals)

Key stats

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.

Watch: Gvardiol's best goals, assists and skills

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 that 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.

Gvardiol's debut season at Leipzig in 2021/22 underlined his top-level credentials. He made 29 Bundesliga appearances, scoring twice, whilst featuring a further 23 times across the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and DFB Cup. He became a full Croatia international over the course of the campaign, and started every game during his country's run to earning the bronze medal at the 2022 World Cup, even scoring the all-important opener in his side's 2-1 triumph over Morocco.

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 partner, with both totally comfortable in the position they are playing.

Alaba has perhaps established himself as the world's best left-footed central defender, and Gvardiol has many similarities. You may think 6'1" is no mean height for such a physically demanding position, but his real strength comes in exactly that - his strength. Gvardiol is rarely bullied off the ball by his opponent, having learned how best to use his body in the school of hard knocks that is the Croatian league. He has also built his confidence on the ball, where he is just as comfortable bringing possession out of defence as he is playing it to a teammate in a better position.

Gvardiol (l.) has outfoxed the best in the business, including Robert Lewandowski (r.). - Sebastian Widmann/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

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

"Gvardiol is the best central defender in the world. He's so mature. The way he plays, with the grace he controls the ball - it's amazing." - Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic

"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." - Croatia assistant coach and former Bundesliga forward 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." - ex-Leipzig sporting director Markus Krösche