RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol has had an incredible eight months. The Croatia international starred at the 2022 World Cup and, at the tender age of 21, has now become the world's second most expensive defender after signing for Manchester City for €90 million (£77.5m/$99m). But how did he get here?
How did he start his career?
Gvardiol spent his early years on the rough concrete pitches of Zagreb and initially played for local side Tresnjevka before making the move to giants Dinamo Zagreb at the age of eight. There, he rose steadily through the youth ranks, showcasing a level of maturity beyond his years and was moved from midfield into defence.
"Seeing him at 17, it was unbelievable how good he was, both mentally and physically," Zeljko Kopic, the former academy director and first-team manager at Dinamo, told Goal.
After impressing in the UEFA Youth League, Gvardiol was handed his senior team debut in 2019. As a left-footed centre-back, his play was typified by his comfort on the ball and ability to break up play with robust tackles. Such was his maturity that Dinamo coaches eschewed the traditional option of sending him out on loan -- as they had previously done with other academy standouts.
"Except maybe [Mateo] Kovacic, I can't remember the player who had a more unanimous decision than Josko," Zoran Mamic, who managed Dinamo across two stints, told ESPN. "Even [Luka] Modric had to go out on loan before getting his chance. With Josko, no one said he should go on loan. Only Kovacic and him, aged 16, they were ready for the first team."
Progress at Leipzig
Gvardiol quickly outgrew his surroundings. In September 2020, and amid interest from Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United, it was announced that he would transfer to RB Leipzig at the end of that season for a fee of €16m, remaining on loan at Dinamo until then. The Bundesliga outfit had made a name for itself as a haven for burgeoning talent, something the player and his representatives were acutely aware.
Damir Krznar, former Dinamo Zagreb academy director and now head coach at Maribor, recounted a conversation he had with Gvardiol prior to the transfer. "He also had an offer from England and at this time it was a divide," he told Sky Sports. "What is better? To go to England or Leipzig? When I spoke with him, he said 'I chose Leipzig just because I think it's that mid-step I need to make to go to England, to go to the best league in the world'."
The move to Leipzig represented a significant step up. The pace of the Bundesliga, the sophistication of the tactics and the quality of the opposition, were all several notches above what he'd encountered in the Croatian top-flight. It was a test of Gvardiol's readiness to compete at the highest level, despite still being only 19.
But compete he did. After settling in, Gvardiol soon found his feet in the heart of Leipzig's defence and took his game to a whole new level. His performances showcased a player unafraid to impose himself, not just physically but also as a leader on the pitch. He quickly emerged as a fans' favourite, playing 29 times in the Bundesliga that season and ensuring that the loss of young defenders Ibrahima Konate (€41.5m to Liverpool) and Dayot Upamecano (€42.5m to Bayern Munich) the previous summer was not felt so badly.
A World Cup to remember
Yet while regular viewers of the Bundesliga 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 Croatia side that many regarded to be past their peak, and with their talismanic captain Luka Modric aged 37, few tipped the Vatreni to make a deep run in Qatar. And yet, with the help of Gvardiol, Croatia conceded only three goals in their run to the semifinals.
Ultimately the genius of Lionel Messi propelled eventual champions Argentina to a 3-0 win against Croatia in that game -- making Gvardiol look a little foolish at one point -- but the 21-year-old ended the tournament as one of its breakout stars, rounding it off with a goal and Man of the Match award in a 2-1 win over Morocco in the third-place playoff.
"I expected something like this," Krznar told Sky Sports. "He played without any mistakes [at the World Cup]. There was a mistake, maybe, against Messi for the third goal against Argentina ... but this is not a mistake, this is Messi!"
Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said during the tournament: "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."
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Josko Gvardiol's potential transfer to Man City from RB Leipzig.
Premier League dream
With such skills, it's no shock 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 has also spoken about his Liverpool-supporting father, Tihomir, and how he idolised Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos, as well as Messi. So when Chelsea made a reported €97.5m offer in 2022, it seemed a formality that he would join them.
"I was really confused because one month before the window starts I was upstairs with the [Leipzig] sporting director and he says, 'Yeah Josko, we are not going to sell you, we need you, we believe in you,' and I was like ok I am fine with this, I can stay here, I like it here, all I need is to work on myself, to play, to win something else," he told The Times.
"It was like this until the last two days. My agent called me and said that Chelsea is extremely interested and, of course, you definitely think about a serious offer from a huge club like Chelsea. Leipzig said they didn't want to sell me. In the end, I really struggled with that decision but we didn't make an agreement."
Now, though, City have made his dream into a reality.
What does he need to work on?
At just 21, Gvardiol is far from the finished product, of course. Yet he seems to encapsulate the essence of modern defending, combining throwback tenacity and physical strength with technical skill. In the opinion of Mamic, he's a "totally modern centre-back."
And, in a similar vein to Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk before him, it can be hard to pin-point a glaring weakness, as he's also fast, "so even if he makes a mistake, he can make it back", Mamic adds. His physicality even makes up for any lack of height at 6-foot-1, with his vertical leap -- which he showcased with his goal against City in the Champions League in February -- a sight to behold.
Will he fit at City?
Gvardiol seems to be well suited to Pep Guardiola's side, having finished the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign fifth in passes per game (71.3) and with the ninth-best pass success rate (89.3%).
In addition, his ability to pick a pass from distance should help City quickly transition from defence to attack, with the youngster returning a long-ball success rate of 59.7% last season, ranking 12th of the 112 Bundesliga players to have attempted 100 or more.
Alongside his obvious attributes, Gvardiol is also versatile and capable of deputising at left-back in much the same way that Nathan Ake did for City during the 2022-23 campaign. His new-found status as the world's most expensive defender won't come as much of a surprise to those who have tracked his career from the very beginning, but he can only improve under Guardiola and playing for one of the best teams in Europe. The sky really is the limit.