Chelsea have been linked with a move for 20-year-old Croatian center-back Josko Gvardiol, currently at RB Leipzig, as per reports from Sky Germany reporter Florian Plettenberg.
With Antonio Rudiger’s departure on a free transfer in the summer confirmed this week, and Andreas Christensen highly likely to join him in La Liga, one of the Blues priorities this summer is to strengthen in defensive areas under new owners, with Sevilla’s Jules Kounde also frequently mentioned as a center-back transfer target.
Having only turned 20 in January, Gvardiol is considered one of the finest u21 defensive talents in European football, picking up over 60 senior league appearances to date, with experience in both the Europa League and Champions League, as well as internationally for Croatia. Valued at £ 27 million by TransferMarktGvardiol is enjoying a superb season for RB Leipzig – the Bundesliga club has also produced the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano, and is surely set for a move to an elite European club sooner rather than later.
What has been Gvardiol’s career trajectory to date, and how could he fit into a potential Chelsea side next season?
Career To Date
Gvardiol joined local side Dinamo Zagreb’s academy aged eight in 2010 – a set-up that also spawned Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric. Initially experimented at both left-back and in central midfield, academy coach Dalibor Poldrugac converted the youngster into a center-back. His performances at youth level, particularly in the 18/19 UEFA Youth League, where Zagreb reached the quarter-finals, drew interest from the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich, who sought to add the youngster to their own talented academies.
After playing every minute of the 19/20 UEFA Youth League, Gvardiol was integrated into the Zagreb senior side, playing in nine of the final 15 league games, including the full 90 in seven, as Blue won the league by 15 points.
His fine form was rewarded with an improved five-year deal in June 2020, Gvardiol also picking up minutes for the Croatian u21 team – first joining up with the side aged 17. In September the youngster was linked with a move to newly promoted Leeds United who offered € 22million – Gvardiol declining the offer to continue his development in his home country. A deal was struck with Bundesliga side RB Leipzig later in the month – the German side paying € 16 million plus add-ons, whilst allowing the defender to remain in Zagreb for the 20/21 campaign.
Gvardiol had a solid season in Croatia, featuring in 25 of 36 available league games, primarily deputising at left-back, averaging 1.8 successful dribbles and 2.2 interceptions per 90. Zagreb retained the title with the same points tally, winning one more game and scoring 22 more, whilst Gvardiol also picked up invaluable European experience – featuring in 880 of 1,080 available Europa League minutes, as Zagreb lost to eventual winners Villarreal in the quarter-finals.
Before linking up with Leipzig for the 21/22 season, Gvardiol was called up to the Croatian senior team ahead of Euro 2020. The defender only missed 20 minutes in the whole competition for Vatreni as they lost in extra-time to Spain, slotting in at left-back, impressing in the 1-1 group stage draw v Czech Republic, winning 3/4 ground duels, and playing two ‘key passes’.
Gvardiol joined up with Leipzig for pre-season under Jesse Marsch, the American coach rotating between a back three and back four set-up, with the Croatian picking up minutes at both left-back and in his preferred center-back role. An unused sub in the opening league game v Mainz, Gvardiol featured in every game until Marsch’s sacking in December, Leipzig 11th with five wins out of 14, and out of the Champions League after the Group Stage, a competition Gvardiol also played every game in .
Italian coach Domenico Tedesco was brought in to succeed Marsch, switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation with Gvardiol slotting in at left-center-back, alongside Willi Orban and Mohamed Simakan in defense. Leipzig’s fortunes dramatically improved, winning 11 of the next 16 league games, rising in the table to 4th, two points clear of Freiburg as the side look to secure Champions League football for next season.
Gvardiol was instrumental to this uptick in form, playing the full 90 in every game bar two – missing the away trip to VfL Bochum due to suspension. The Croatian has also missed just 27 minutes of knockout football in the Europa League as Leipzig seek a first European final in their history, as well as playing an important role in the club’s route to a third DFB-Pokal Cup final appearance in four seasons, setting up a goal in the quarter-final 0-4 thrashing of Hannover 96.
Gvardiol made the left-sided defender role his own (the same position Rudiger dominates in) and enjoyed a sustained run of high performances, ranking second only to Christopher Nkunku in squad ratings by both FotMob and WhoScored – the defender linked to Premier League sides Tottenham and Newcastle United as his stock continues to rise.
Style of Play
Gvardiol combines a powerful physical presence with coolness and assertiveness on the ball – and his experience in both a back three and back four approach points to his versatility and adaptability, traits that Thomas Tuchel highly values. His style of play can be compared to Rudiger – both players are left-footed and their game centers on roaming forward to break midfield lines, accurate long-range passing, and strong one-on-one defensive acumen. The defender was recently praised by Germania Sport’s journalist Izak Ante Sucic, saying “In Croatia we like to compare him to Virgil van Dijk, because he built that way”.
Gvardiol’s advanced statistics paint a picture of a highly-promising talent already performing at a high quality level across a range of metrics. When compared to center-backs in Europes’ top five ‘leagues, the Croatian’s passing capability is made clear – he ranks in the top 3% for’ progressive passing distance ‘and passes completed per 90, as well as through balls and’ passes under pressure ‘per 90.
Gvardiol also ranks 3rd in the Bundesliga for passes into the final third with 164, and 6th for overall ‘progressive passes’. With Tuchel setting up his Chelsea side to launch attacks with long-range, diagonal passes from his center-backs, Gvardiol certainly aligns with this vision.
Gvardiol is also happy to throw his weight around and get involved in the ‘nitty-gritty’ of defending – ranking in the top 6% for European defenders for tackles and interceptions per 90 (5.37), as well as in the top 14% for successful pressures per 90 (4.57), with the 4th most interceptions in the Bundesliga this season (88). Despite only being 6’1 in height, Gvardiol is able to dominate physically, a trait that should allow him to adapt nicely to the intensity of Premier League football.
Another Rudiger comparison comes in his preference for driving into opposition territory with the ball at his feet, his 1.87 carries into the final 3rd per 90 ranking in the top 2% for European defenders. This is evident when taking a look at his heat map for the Bundesliga this season – a huge amount of activity occurring in advanced attacking positions. With two center-backs remaining in defensive areas in Tuchel’s set up, a center-back that is both willing and able to join in attack will be hugely vital, and a trait that will be massively reduced with Rudiger’s departure:
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Gvardiol is clearly one of the finest young center-backs in world football currently, and a perfect example of this was his performance in the 1-0 home leg Europa League semi-final win over Rangers. In 90 minutes, Gvardiol won 3/4 aerial duels, played 11 successful long balls, and completed a staggering 129 accurate passes, misplacing only 13. His completed passes, touches, accurate long balls and clearances were the most in the Leipzig side, as the Germans look to set up a final versus either compatriots Eintracht Frankfurt or West Ham.
With both Rudiger and Christensen set to depart, the acquisitions of Gvardiol and Jules Kounde in the summer would be superb business in what is likely to be a huge overhaul as Chelsea look to compete in multiple competitions again next season under Thomas Tuchel. Contracted in Germany until 2026, it may take a hefty fee to prize the defender away, although this will likely be worth every penny.
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