Wunderkids: Building football’s most exciting young XI – week seven: Josko Gvardiol, centre-back

March 29th, 2022

It is the stuff of management dreams – a blank cheque to build the most exciting young starting XI in world football.

But that is exactly what new BBC Sounds podcast Wunderkids is offering, in fantasy form at least, over its 11 episodes. The first seven episodes are available to listen to now.

The Wunderkids team, in conjunction with BBC Sport, have come up with 11 players – and presenter Steve Crossman will be joined by experts to discuss the latest inclusion, with one new player revealed each week.

So far, those to have made the cut are new Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez, Bayer Leverkusen winger Florian Wirtz, Ajax midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, Santos defender Kaiky, Barcelona midfielder Gavi and Rennes winger Kamaldeen Sulemana – and now RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol joins them.

Who is he?

Josko Gvardiol playing for Croatia against England at Euro 2020
Gvardiol made his first Croatia start last summer in the opening game of Euro 2020 against England at Wembley and has now played in nine internationals

Gvardiol was spotted at eight years old by Croatia’s most successful club, Dinamo Zagreb, and he joined the same academy that acted as the finishing school for Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic.

After playing at left-back or centre-midfield, an academy coach moved him into central defence. And so Gvardiol developed into one of the most sought-after commodities in the modern game – a left-sided centre-back who’s comfortable on the ball.

He made his league debut at 17 in 2019, scoring the only goal in his second league appearance, and Dinamo went on to win the league title in 2019-20.

Gvardiol had also caught the eye in the Uefa Youth League and Leeds United reportedly made a bid before he signed for Leipzig on a five-year contract for 16m euros (£13.4m), plus add-ons, in September 2020.

He remained on loan with Dinamo for 2020-21, winning another league title, before making his international debut last June, and he did enough to earn his first start as Croatia lost 1-0 to England in the opening game of Euro 2020.

At 19 years, four months and 21 days, Gvardiol surpassed Kovacic’s record of being the country’s youngest player at a major tournament and he started every game before Croatia bowed out in the last 16.

After linking up with Leipzig he soon established himself in Germany, making his Champions League debut in the 6-3 loss at Manchester City last September.

Only two Leipzig players have made more league starts this term than the 20-year-old.

What does the expert say?

Josko Gvardiol scores for RB Leipzig against Wolfsburg
On his 20th birthday in January, Gvardiol produced a delightful dinked finish on the break against Wolfsburg for his second goal of the season

Izak Ante Sucic, assistant editor Germania Sport

Since he was a child, he’s been built like a tank. He can go forward, he can jump, he can tackle – he can do everything you want. He can play with the ball at his feet, he can play against those big attackers, he can play against the guys with pace and technical abilities.

After scoring his first goal at 17, he waited two or three hours to get the tram. Fans were saying ‘you just scored the winning goal’, and he said ‘this is just a normal thing for me, to go home’. He had pictures with fans and looks at everybody the same – he seems a normal guy who happens to play football.

He’s 100% focused on football, drives a Volkswagen rather than a Mercedes or Ferrari. He learned everything he had to know before he went to Leipzig.

In Croatia we like to compare him to Virgil van Dijk, because he’s built that way (6ft 1in). He’s one of his role models in football and he’s also mentioned Thiago Silva and Sergio Ramos – Ramos because he’s also one of those players who likes to score as many goals as he can.

In my opinion, I think he can be as good as Virgil one day. When you see how he behaves on the field and off the field, he’s one of those guys where you’d say ‘he’s going to succeed’.

He had an offer from the Premier League. Leeds called and it was 99% that deal was going to happen. Although Leeds offered him a bigger salary [than Leipzig] and said he would be a starter, he decided to go to the Bundesliga because he wanted to do one more step before going to the Premier League.

And even though he didn’t sign for Leeds, he already started to watch their games to see how he could adapt as quickly as possible.

What does the fan say?

Tobias (co-founder RB Leipzig fan club Red Campus)

I think Gvardiol is one of the best centre-backs in the Bundesliga. He has a high pass accuracy, a lot of duels won, especially in the air, and a lot of interceptions per game.

When he was at Dinamo Zagreb, he was handed a sheet with some tactics from RB Leipzig and he learned them.

When he arrived at our club last summer he already knew what he had to do when he started in the Bundesliga and I think that’s one of the reasons why he is so good right now. We’re very glad we have him.


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