Joško Gvardiol looks set to sign for Manchester City this summer. Here is why Pep Guardiola is so keen to land him.
What do you do after you’ve just had one of the most successful club seasons in history?
Well, if you’re blessed with the financial might of a club like Manchester City, there’s only one thing to do. That foot they’ve got on European football’s throat? Push down harder.
And that’s exactly what Pep Guardiola’s team are doing over the summer.
Mateo Kovacic is already over the line, and now, Joško Gvardiol, the highly rated young Croatian centre-back is in the crosshairs.
The RB Leipzig defender will not come cheap. €90 million at least if the German club get their way. It’s a sum that would make Gvardiol the most expensive central defender in the history of the sport.
But is he worth that? And do City even need another centre-half, given their embarrassment of riches in the position?
Despite only recently turning 21, Gvardiol has already established himself as an indispensable part of RB Leipzig’s setup, practically becoming an ever-present since he arrived from Dinamo Zagreb.
The Croatian defender also shone for his country in the 2022 World Cup as they finished third.
What makes him such an attractive proposition for a side like Manchester City is that Gvardiol is the very definition of a modern-day centre-back. He can perform all the necessary defensive tasks of a traditional defender, while also providing his team with serious ball progression when in possession.
Playing in a possession-dominant Leipzig side – only Bayern (64.4%) averaged more possession than their 58.3% last season – Gvardiol is extremely comfortable on the ball. Last season he averaged more touches (100 per 90), more successful passes (79.2 per 90) and at a higher accuracy (89.3%) than any other RB Leipzig player. The fact he is used to touching the ball upwards of 100 times per game immediately makes a transition to a similarly possession-heavy side like City more seamless.
But his involvement in possession goes beyond merely circulating the ball. Deployed as the left centre-back in either a back three or back four by Marco Rose, Gvardiol is constantly looking to play forward and break opposition lines with his passing.
Gvardiol made 4.4 progressive passes per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga last season, which was the fourth highest rate among fellow centre-halves. To put that figure into context, 4.4 was higher than any central defender managed in the Premier League last season, and far eclipsed the rates of Rúben Dias (3.2), Nathan Aké (2.6), and Manuel Akanji (2.2). The rampant pressing in the Premier League may be dampening those City numbers a little bit, but the point remains that Gvardiol is frequently looking to advance play.
He also ranked extremely high for forward passes and successful passes into advanced areas of the pitch, demonstrating his exceptional passing range and vision when picking out teammates higher up the pitch.
The beauty about progressive passing is that it takes opposition players out of the game and can often be used as a way to beat a press.
Using tracking data from the 2022 World Cup, we can quantify Gvardiol’s ability to split opposition lines. Among centre-backs at the tournament, only Rodri and John Stones completed more line-breaking passes than his 74, and each of those played for possession-dominant sides in Spain and England.
The below examples give a flavour of the type of passes he’s able to execute regularly.
But if a pass isn’t on, then Gvardiol can fall back on another one of his elite traits: his ball-carrying.
Last season in the Bundesliga, Gvardiol made just over 23 carries – running with the ball for five metres or more – per 90 minutes. Bar Dayot Upamecano of Bayern (23.8), that was more carries per 90 than any other player in Germany last season. What’s more, among those to play 1250+ minutes, only four players averaged more per 90 in the Premier League in 2022-23, and all of them play for Man City: Dias (26.9), Jack Grealish (24.6) and Akanji (23.7).
But once again with Gvardiol’s play, it’s all about progression. Of those carries per game, 11.8 were progressive – the ball moved at least five metres directly upfield. Only Upamecano (13.1) and Mats Hummels (11.8) averaged more among centre-backs in the Bundesliga. Opening up that comparison to include Premier League players, only City’s pairing of Dias (15.7) and Akanji (13.8), West Ham’s Issa Diop (12.1) and Brighton’s Lewis Dunk (11.9) can eclipse that rate.
Gvardiol is a strong and powerful runner, capable of surging forward with the ball at his feet to break lines of pressure. His marauding run against Belgium in the World Cup group stage gave us a perfect demonstration of this.
Picking the ball up in a deep left centre-back position, Gvardiol powers forward into the space between Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne…
…he then shows good technique to sidestep Leander Dendoncker…
Before muscling his way beyond Toby Alderweireld and releasing the ball out wide.
Combining both ball progression via passes and ball progression via carries shows us just how well Gvardiol ranks among his peers:
Where Does He Fit in at City?
By the time City had reached the business end of last season, Guardiola had reimagined his backline, often lining up with four centre-backs across the back four. Ake and Akanji, nominally centre-backs by trade, performed excellently as “full-backs”, although the reality was that they were often just wide centre-backs in Guardiola’s 3-2 build-up.
As Guardiola himself mentioned after City’s title-clinching game against Chelsea, having extra centre-backs on the pitch better prepares his team to win individual duels.
And this is where the addition of Gvardiol feels a bit like cheating. Because not only do you get his ability in possession, but you also get a physically dominant defender off the ball. The Croatian is quick and aggressive, which makes him a very good one-vs-one defender. While he didn’t have to make many tackles last term, his success rate of 73.9% was the fourth-highest in the Bundesliga last season among all centre-halves.
His pace enables him to quickly shuttle out to the flanks to snuff out counter-attacks and, crucially for a side like City, it also means his side can continue to play a high line.
As for where he’d line up for Pep’s side, Gvardiol probably has the raw skillset to be converted into one of the midfield pivots, like Guardiola did with John Stones.
He’s also got the ability to play in the middle of defence, as well as act as an auxiliary left-back.
Regardless of where he starts on the teamsheet, Gvardiol would be exceptional if asked to play as the left centre-back in City’s 3-2 build-up shape. City would be able to get extreme ball progression from him in possession, without sacrificing anything on the defensive side of the ball. His athleticism would make him able to cover the ground out wide, too, which is often the only way to attack against that narrow 3-2 shape.
If Gvardiol were to sign for City, one thing he might have to rein in is the riskiness of his passing. Guardiola values control above everything, and while Gvardiol has the skillset to penetrate lines with his range of passing, his 74% forward passing accuracy last season came in well below his City equivalents (Akanji 85%, Stones 84%, Aké 83% and Dias 81%). That difference will be driven by the fact he was attempting far riskier passes than those in Manchester.
At just 21 years old, Gvardiol already has a tremendous profile. With the future of Aymeric Laporte up in the air, he feels like an ideal addition this summer.
It sounds quite ridiculous to say, but given Gvardiol’s level already, if Guardiola continues the trend whereby he drastically improves a player’s game, we might actually be looking at €90m as a bargain in a few years to come.