Josko Gvardiol officially becomes an RB Leipzig player on 1 July 2021, but will be with the senior Croatia team at UEFA Euro 2020 before then. - © Matija Habljak/PIXSELL via images/Pixsell
Josko Gvardiol officially becomes an RB Leipzig player on 1 July 2021, but will be with the senior Croatia team at UEFA Euro 2020 before then. - © Matija Habljak/PIXSELL via images/Pixsell

Why Josko Gvardiol could join Andrej Kramaric and Josip Brekalo as a key player for Croatia


A left-footed centre-back with top-level experience and still just 19 years old? It’s no wonder big things are expected of Josko Gvardiol at RB Leipzig and in the Croatia national team.

The defender was still just 18 when, in September 2020, Leipzig announced he would be joining them from July 2021 on a five-year deal from boyhood club Dinamo Zagreb.

"We've signed one of the best defensive talents in Europe," purred Markus Krösche, Leipzig's sporting director at the time. "As a left-footed defender, he makes us more versatile in defence. He's still a young player, but is very mature both as a person and a footballer.

"Josko can pick up more experience and football with Zagreb over the coming months before joining us in summer 2021."

He has done exactly that. The 6'1" defender featured in 25 of Dinamo's 36 league matches in 2020/21, making 21 starts to help the side win the Croatian league title for a record 22nd time.

Gvardiol, who is known as "Little Pep" due to the similarity between his surname and that of former Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, also played twice in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds before making 10 appearances - scoring once - in the Europa League proper, where Dinamo progressed to the quarter-finals before losing to eventual champions Villarreal.

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic was clearly impressed. Despite being uncapped at senior international level and having made just five appearances for the country's U21 side, Gvardiol was included in the Vatreni's 26-man squad for UEFA Euro 2020.

The only teenager in the pool, he is more than two years younger than the player closest to him in age, Domoagoj Bradaric. And this, it is worth remembering, is the side that finished as runners-up to France at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Clearly, then, he has talent. Gvardiol might not be first choice centre-back at Euro 2020 given the presence of Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Duje Caleta-Car and Mile Skoric, but given that the former duo will both be 32 by the time the tournament ends, he is very much being groomed as a long-term successor.

Indeed, perhaps the most important aspect of Gvardiol's game is that he is a left-footed centre-back; if not a rarity in the game, such players are certainly harder to find than their right-footed brethren. This is significant because in playing alongside a right-footed centre-back, both players are totally comfortable in the position they are playing, able to tackle and pass with their stronger foot.

"Gvardiol is an extraordinary talent," said former Bayern striker and Croatia international Ivica Olic. "He can play great long balls, is a fine technician and is physically very strong."

Gvardiol can also operate at left-back, and indeed played there 25 times for Dinamo in 2020/21, but Borna Barisic is likely to start there given his impressive season in Scotland with Rangers.

Dalic, at any rate, is aware of Gvardiol's versatility: "He's been playing at left-back recently and has done very well, even if his main position is at centre-back. But he's shown he can play as an attacking left-back who brings a lot of quality going forward. He's also shown great power and energy in defensive phases, which is really impressive."

Gvardiol was a mainstay of the Dinamo Zagreb side that won the Croatian league in 2020/21. - Goran Stanzl/PIXSELL via images/Pixsell

And that is something Dalic is looking to improve given that his side lost five of their six UEFA Nations League matches in 2020, conceding 15 times in the process in defeats to Portugal, France and Sweden, while the team also lost 1-0 to Slovenia in March this year.

"Set pieces are a huge problem [for us] and I'm asking for more responsibility from individuals who keep opponents from scoring a goal," said Dalic recently. "My players here have to be much more responsible and tell themselves that they will not allow their players to jump and score a goal.

"We used to defend man-to-man at set pieces, and there would always be someone to run away from us. Now we're moving to zonal marking, we're going to pay attention to that. The greatest responsibility is of individuals is covering their opponents. Desire is key."

Handily, that is one of Gvardiol's chief attributes. "I'm very happy to be able to make this step to RB Leipzig," he said when his transfer was confirmed.

Robust, solid in the tackle and a threat going forward, Gvardiol is the full package. - Igor Soban/PIXSELL via images/Pixsell

"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."

The Bundesliga has previous in that regard too - including with a number of Gvardiol's compatriots. Wolfsburg's Josip Brekalo has become a full Croatia international during his time at the Volkswagen Arena, and goes into Euro 2020 looking to add to his 22 caps on the back of his most productive top-flight season ever after registering seven goals and three assists to help the Wolves finish fourth.

Andrej Kramaric has likewise just had the most free-scoring campaign of his career, the 29-year-old scoring 20 times to help steer Hoffenheim clear of relegation danger. The forward had nine caps for Croatia prior to arriving in Sinsheim in January 2016, but is now the club's all-time top scorer and one of the leaders of the national team alongside Real Madrid's Luka Modric.

Josip Brekalo and Andrej Kramaric have both developed into fully fledged Croatia internationals while at Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim respectively. - via images / Grubisic

Going even further back, Ivan Rakitic (Schalke), Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg and Bayern) and Ivan Perisic (Dortmund and Wolfsburg) provide more examples of Croatian players turning into bona-fide stars during their time in Germany.

The weight of history, then, is very much on Gvardiol's side before he has even kicked a ball for Die Roten Bullen. The chances of him following suit and having an opportunity to shine also look promising in light of the departures of fellow centre-backs Dayot Upamecano (to Bayern) and Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool) this summer. On the evidence of his rapid ascent into the professional game so far, he will have no trouble stepping up.