Man City man Josko Gvardiol is the hunter-gatherer with a defender’s beard

John Nicholson
Josko Gvardiol with the Man City badge.
Alan Smith says he would be surprised if Man City sign Josko Gvardiol this summer.

Astonishing he is just 21 but already Josko Gvardiol has a) a beard and b) all of traits of a modern defender. So very good…


Who’s this then?
Josko Gvardiol is a 21-year-old 6’1″ Croatian central defender who has just signed for Manchester City for a rather large bag of cash, making him the second most expensive defender, next to…err…Harry Maguire.

He started at Dinamo Zagreb initially as a midfielder or left-back but soon made a big impression at centre-half, helping the youth team get to the quarter-final of the UEFA Youth League campaign in 2018/19. He was soon called up to the first team and signed a five-year contract, playing 40 games in 2020/21. With Dinamo he won Prva HNL in 2019/20 and 2020/21, the Croatian Cup in 2020/21 and the Croatian Super Cup in 2019.

At which point RB Leipzig, impressed by his form, paid 36 million Euros, handed him his own pair of leather shorts and took him to Germany. He hit the ground running, played his first Champions League games and made his debut for his country. He had a great first season winning the cup, the club’s first trophy, finishing fourth in the Bundesliga. At the start of last season Chelsea tried to buy him, but he signed a contract extension instead. That was a near miss. Climbing into the Blues clown car would have been a disaster.

In February this year he scored against Manchester City in the Champions League (always a marker for a future signing), becoming the youngest Croatian ever to score in the knockout rounds. After that it was inevitable that City would sign him, finally coughing up £77million this summer. Before he left Leipzig, he took another cup winner’s medal with him.

He’s now got 21 caps, two international goals and a third-place World Cup medal. Not bad for a 21-year-old.


Why the love?
It’s not hard to see why he became such an in-demand defender. He’s quick, he’s tall, he’s built like an armoured car and plays the game with just the right amount of physicality to make him quite scary.

The art of defending has changed markedly in recent years. Where once a defender’s task was mostly to boot the clever players up into the air and power through brick walls to head the ball away, today you’ve got to be able to play football too. Gvardiol is exceptional at the sliding block. You know the one where he’s in a race with an attacker who releases a shot only to find the outstretched Joško leg in position to block it. First and foremost he defends. He can take the ball out into midfield or slide balls through, but mainly he’s in the team to defend and defend robustly.

In an era where tackling is becoming more like blocking, you better believe he can do the old school sliding tackle better than most. The scything tackle which takes the ball and man, preferably into touch, has long been one of the football fan’s greatest pleasures and City fans should be looking forward to some fine examples from Gvardiol.

He’s such a substantial locker of beef that he can ease the opposition’s weediest boys off the ball and has the physical presence to trouble the goal at set-pieces. Indeed he’s scored nine goals so far, three of them match-winners.

His style is very much in the hunter-gatherer mode. Hunting players down and gathering the ball from them. Time and again, he just gets his body between the player and the ball to block and harry them, prising it away by sheer physicality.

Occasionally he just sets off from a central defensive position, taking the ball into midfield and passing it into the front third. That’s always an impressive thing to see. He’s also bearded and bearded defenders always look more intimidating for some reason. It’s hard to really believe he’s so young, as he plays with such composure and vision, the sort of aspects which tend to fall in place when you’ve had a lot more experience.


Three great moments

The very definition of a towering header:

That performance v Real Madrid:

Sliding tackles and blocks ahoy


Future days?
He’s signed a five-year contract, which is becoming typical for a club looking to amortise the cost of the transfer fee across the length of the contract, but it’s also a sign the club is confident about his quality. It means at the end of the five years, he will be at an optimum age to demand a large fee if they do want to sell him.

After all, he’s already a proven international defender with a World Cup third place medal in his pocket. He’s got Champions League experience too and more than either of those things, although still just 21, he doesn’t play in a youthful manner. There’s nothing coltish about him. He’s serious and 100% looks the part. He is fully formed and extremely confident. And Pep Guardiola will have done his research on the sort of chap he is and whether he will have the temperament to play in his team. That’s a test he has presumably passed.

It looks likely he will firm up the back line and give them even more physicality as City transform from short footballers playing a short game, to large players playing a longer game. It will be interesting to see how he works with John Stones ahead of him, or whether his boss has plans to ask him to play a less defensive, more progressive role.

He’s certainly one of the best young central defenders in world football and City have got a real talent on their hands. We’ll soon see if he will take time to adjust to the Premier League or if he will fit in so well, it will be a breeze.