When Manchester City go to RB Leipzig for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, they will come up against one of the world’s highest-rated young defenders.
Josko Gvardiol – the man in the mask for Croatia at the World Cup – has only just turned 21 years old but is coveted by Europe’s top clubs.
Such is his standing, Leipzig inserted a 110m Euro (£98m) buyout clause in his contract, which becomes active in 2024. There is a good chance he will go for a lot more than that this summer, with City, Chelsea and Liverpool among the clubs linked with a big-money move.
But what makes Gvardiol so special?
“He will touch the stars. He will be elite.”
Damir Krznar has been an important figure in Gvardiol’s meteoric rise – and he is convinced the trajectory will continue.
As academy director at Dinamo Zagreb, he oversaw Gvardiol’s development. As Dinamo’s head coach he led the club to a league and cup double, with the teenage Gvardiol a breakout star in his defence.
Krznar watched on proudly as the left-footed centre-back grabbed global attention with his team-of-the-tournament worthy displays in Qatar.
Those performances came as no surprise to Krznar, though. He has seen Gvardiol hone his standout combination of technical skill, physical presence and an ice-cool mentality and knew his former player would be at home on the biggest stage. It’s where he belongs.
“I expected something like this,” said Krznar, now head coach at Maribor. “He played without any mistakes. There was a mistake, maybe, against Lionel Messi for the third goal against Argentina… but this is not a mistake, this is Messi!” Krznar laughs at Gvardiol’s unwanted role in a memorable moment of Messi magic.
But while Gvardiol was unable to stop the little maestro on that occasion, it was the defender’s consistent approach to the tournament which had the most striking impact on his former coach. Regardless of the opponent or stage of the competition, Gvardiol was always composed in dangerous areas and brave in possession. They are hallmarks from his earliest years in the Dinamo academy.
“On Croatian television, after the first game, he said ‘maybe I need to take more risks’,” smiles Krznar. “Imagine that! Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, who play it simple, possessional football. And this young kid wants to take risks over them!
“This is what makes him great.
“He’s a big guy, a tough guy and in a duel he doesn’t have a problem,” continues Krznar. “He has very good speed, speed of reaction, everything.
“But this is what makes him different: he always searches first to pass forward. A ball to make the progression to the ‘one line’, to the ‘two line’, to the ‘three line’… and this is a characteristic of midfielders.
“This is [the type of] central defenders we will search for in the future. I think Josko is one of those modern central defenders.”
Krznar is again chuckling as he remembers how Gvardiol and his team-mates in the Dinamo Zagreb academy “pulled our nerves apart” as they boldly played out from the back against Chelsea and Bayern Munich in the UEFA youth competitions.
It was a style Krznar and his coaches encouraged. “We were aware that this is football we need to play because the whole world is searching for that,” he said.
It was in that forward-thinking environment Gvardiol flourished.
His development gathered pace with his breakthrough into the Dinamo first team, first as a left-back and then at centre-back. By the time he had the silverware success under Krznar in the 2020/21 season, a move to RB Leipzig had already been agreed for the then-18-year-old, although there had also been interest from Leeds after their promotion to the Premier League.
“He also had an offer from England and at this time it was a divide,” says Krznar. “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’.
“I think this is a very clever decision for him because he thought or he knew – probably knew – that he can take the place in this team [Leipzig] and this is a place where he can grow, where he can develop more, and come to the Premier League like a completely finished, great player.”
He could well be approaching that point now.
“His left foot is outstanding,” says Sky Germany reporter Philipp Hinze, who covers RB Leipzig. “His pass accuracy, his passing speed is outstanding. Risky passes and dribbling through the first pressing line… Line-break passes are one of his best abilities. I’ve never seen this at this age at this level.
“And his ability to win situations defensively is awesome. He’s very athletic and he’s a clear, calm player.
“He can be the world’s best defender in the next three to five years.”
At Leipzig he has been given the right support to develop. He began at left-back under Jesse Marsch but the American’s successor Domenico Tedesco moved him into the middle and put his full faith in Gvardiol.
“They had a very good relationship,” says Hinze. “Under Tedesco he played every game.
“It was with Tedesco that he had a very tough situation with his form around the Europa League semi-final with Rangers. It was bad performance after bad performance… but Tedesco let him play. ‘Come on let’s get over this stage.’
“I think that helped him. Then Marco Rose also knows about his qualities. Rose loves him as well. For me he’s one of the best defenders with a left foot, one of the best centre backs.”
Premier League bound: But will Liverpool, Man City or Chelsea win his signature?
Gvardiol is a popular figure at Leipzig. There was a standing ovation for him from his team-mates on his return from the World Cup but there is also an awareness that his journey is just beginning. “The fans love him very much, too” says Hinze. “But they know that Gvardiol will not end his career at Leipzig.”
Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate are two other highly-rated centre-backs who have graduated from RB Leipzig, with the latter joining Liverpool. Anfield could be a future destination for Gvardiol, too.
“He’s said Liverpool is his [ideal] team,” says Hinze. “Liverpool or City. Firstly, they can buy the release clause and secondly the Premier League is so competitive. You can join Real Marid but who’s your opponent? Valladolid or Villarreal? Join the Premier League and play the best teams in the world, that’s the dream and I think he’s ready to do this in this summer. But the question is how high is the offer?”
There was also a move from Chelsea late in last summer’s transfer window but, as Hinze notes, Leipzig are in a strong position now. They can demand a high price in the next transfer window with the knowledge a 110m Euro release clause will be required in the summer of 2024.
At the Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night, the world will have another opportunity to see why Gvardiol’s name is attached to such high figures.
But for those who have watched his rise closely, the truth of his talent is already known.
“He will be one of the leaders of our national team in the future, of course,” says Krznar. “I’m very proud. Not only me but the whole staff at Dinamo Zagreb. It fills us with joy and happiness.”