Window Shopping: Josko Gvardiol Is Too Young To Be This Good
1:26 PM EDT on July 14, 2023
Welcome back to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
On December 13, 2022, Josko Gvardiol joined an ever-expanding club of elite defenders who were made to look absolutely foolish by Lionel Messi.
Given that this was at the World Cup semifinals, against the greatest player of all time, it's fair to call Gvardiol's first impression on the broader soccer-watching public a globally televised baptism by molten lava. That's a little unfortunate, because the now-21-year-old center back had actually been one of the best players at the World Cup, demonstrating in Qatar why he's long been one of the most coveted young defenders in Europe. Today, the Croatian is at a crossroads, his plentiful hype about to explode into, potentially, a nine-figure transfer fee.
And Gvardiol might just be worth it. The Croatian followed his impressive World Cup with strong second-half of the club season in Germany. Leipzig's season did include an 8-1 aggregate rout at the hands of Manchester City in the Champions League, but seeing Leipzig's defense firsthand didn't really scare Pep Guardiola off from Gvardiol, as now it appears that the reigning treble-holders are in for the Croatian. And, given that City has a lot of money to play with, the rumors of a nine-figure fee are likely accurate. Is Gvardiol worthy of becoming the most expensive defender of all time? Or is he a one-tournament mirage turned very costly for potential suitors? Let's find out.
What Are The Rumors?
It's Manchester City or bust this summer for Gvardiol. Sure, there were rumors that Liverpool might make a move—which was never going to happen in this, a summer of rebuilding the Pool Boys midfield—and Manchester United is always linked with big money moves whether they make sense or not. But if Gvardiol is going to move this summer, it will be into Guardiola's backline.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
If I had written this article a couple of weeks ago, the answer here would've been a resounding no. Things seemed to progress quickly for Gvardiol's Manchester move early on, and it felt like only a matter of time before contracts were signed and GDP-levels of money were sent over to Leipzig.
Since then, though, news of the mooted transfer has slowed. Reportedly, that is because Leipzig is playing a bit of a game with its budget, and City is willing to play along:
It's a smart plan by Leipzig, to not tip its hand to every club that it potentially wants to buy a player from. No one has to overpay more than a club that just got a very public windfall in the form of a lucrative sale, and if City is willing to wait in the wings for Leipzig to conduct some business, then everyone wins here. I don't know how long this will last, though, as clubs return to training and pre-season friendlies. One would imagine that Guardiola will want his new toy sooner than later, so if there's no movement on the Gvardiol saga in the next week or so, then it might just be that this move falls apart. I wouldn't bet on that, though.
What Does He Do?
The reason Manchester City wants Gvardiol is pretty simple: He's a ball-playing monster. His passing and on-ball stats, when compared to center backs in the other top five leagues, are off the charts. Let's run through them (all stats are per 90 minutes): 99th percentile for passes attempted (87.18); 84th percentile for pass percentage; 82nd percentile for progressive passes; and he even averages a shot-creating action per 90 minutes, good enough for the 84th percentile.
That is a lot of data just to say this man can keep the ball at his feet or safely escort it to his teammates. This, combined with his surprising pace, allows him to tack on another elite talent to his resume: versatility. While he's been at his best as a left-sided center back in a back four, his ability to initiate offense and recycle possession would see him shine as an outside center back in a three-defender formation, or even as a left back in a back four.
It also helps that he is a good dribbler under pressure. Obviously, it's not like he transforms into Ronaldinho when an opponent closes him down, but to be an effective press-breaker center backs often just need to protect the ball when harried, carry the ball forward when space presents itself, and then slide a smooth pass to a teammate farther up the field. Gvardiol can break the opponent's lines, as he did to Morocco in the first half of the third-place match at the World Cup:
If given the freedom to go forward, Gvardiol can be a form of hybrid playmaker/defender for City. And if there's one coach who can figure out how to put his center back in the best position to contribute to the offense, it's Guardiola. Example: Stones, John.
What Doesn’t He Do?
Well, you might have noticed that most of the positives in the above section were on offense. There's a reason for that. Gvardiol isn't a poor defender, and in fact, he has made huge strides in that area over the last year, Messi goal not withstanding. But his instincts for stopping the ball aren't quite as elite as his instincts for having the ball. He doesn't really get into tackles on defense, preferring interceptions instead. The problem is that he's not quite elite at that either, only averaging a bit over one interception per game.
His youth and his high-end physical tools only make his defensive shortcomings more glaring, even if it doesn't stop his teams from having good defenses built around his talents. He has good recovery speed when beaten by or losing track of the man he's supposed to mark, but it would be better if he could preempt more moves rather than always reacting to them. And, despite being 6-foot-1, Gvardiol isn't your typical bruiser center back in the air. He can score goals from headers, for sure, and even at ridiculous angles ...
... but he's not consistently winning duels in the air, which could be a problem in the Premier League. There are plenty of big strikers who would love a chance to out-leap Gvardiol on set pieces.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
I already hit on this a bit when talking about Gvardiol's versatility, but I should reiterate that he can fit into any top team's scheme and personnel with ease. Let's take City, for example. If Guardiola sticks with his three-defender formation, such as the one he started in the Champions League final against Inter Milan, then Gvardiol is a great choice for the left center back role. He could combine with Jack Grealish down the left side of the field, and given enough cover, he could grow a lot from that hybrid center back/wing back role with ease.
If, instead, Guardiola chooses to deploy a more standard four-defender set-up, then Gvardiol could either play at the center back position on the left side or in a hyper-defensive formation at left back. Depending on who City purchases to fill the gap that Kyle Walker is reportedly leaving as he takes off for Bayern Munich, this four-defender set up could just as easily turn into a three-at-the-back when City has the ball, with Gvardiol tucking back into defense and the mystery right back being given free reign to move forward. The options are there for Guardiola, and he'll likely utilize all of them, given that he is one of the most tactically experimental coaches in the world.
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager's position, the fans' outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
This might be a transfer where everyone involved wins. Leipzig has already won by not selling Gvardiol last summer, when the buzz around him truly began in earnest. By holding onto him until after the World Cup, the German side probably picked up an extra €40-50 million on any potential sale, and it's allowing the club to be more committed to its €100 million valuation of the Croatian. I guess Leipzig could still hate this move if City makes an ultimatum on timing before the Germans can sign a replacement, but it does appear for now that there will be patience all around.
This means, then, that the losers of this deal are probably the rest of the Premier League title contenders. That's always going to be the case when City buys a good young player, though; after all, not only does it mean that a team already so far ahead has reinforced its pool of talent, but also that it will have a player who can grow into an even better player. While I don't think Liverpool or United or Arsenal are particularly bemoaning that they won't get to spend €100 million to pip City to Gvardiol, they will probably hate having to add a new wrinkle to their defensive gameplans against City in the coming seasons.
On a smaller scale, this might mean bad news for Nathan Aké. The left-footed center back plays in similar positions to Gvardiol, right down to his ability to play left back. If City were to stick with the three-defender formation, there won't be room for both players. They could both play in a four-at-the-back, but Guardiola will likely not deploy that full-time, which means that Aké's great 2022-23 season might not be enough to keep his starting spot over City's potential €100 million man.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
It feels strange to say this about someone who is more than likely going to break the defender transfer record, but Gvardiol feels like as safe a transfer as anyone this summer. Part of that is that he would be going to a club that should be able to both utilize his current talents and, perhaps, help him improve his weaknesses. The other part, though, is that few center backs can match Gvardiol in terms of composure, poise, and technical ability, especially at so young an age. Sure, the price tag might make it fun to chat shit about him whenever he inevitably makes a defensive mistake. Or perhaps he'll get cooked in a big moment by an elite player, a la Messi, and everyone will hoot and holler that City overpaid for such a middling defender. Those people will be missing the point of everything the Croatian can and will likely bring when deployed in City's pass-happy system, and I'd feel safe in wagering that he will contribute more goals than he will be responsible for going the other way. For these reasons, Josko Gvardiol grades at a 81.9 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.