Champions League tie with Man City a Premier League audition for RB Leipzig star Gvardiol

By Sports Desk February 22, 2023

The lasting image of Josko Gvardiol's campaign in Qatar isn't one that his performances warranted.

Gvardiol enjoyed a fine World Cup as Croatia reached the semi-finals, but like so many defenders before him, the 21-year-old came unstuck against Lionel Messi.

If one were to fall on British footballing parlance to describe how Messi turned Gvardiol one way, then the other, and then back again en route to teeing up Argentina's third goal in a 3-0 win, then the term "sent to the shops" would probably be fitting.

Gvardiol might be stronger, more athletic and 14 years younger than Messi, but the latter is considered by many to be the best player of all time, and his nimble feet and speed of thought left Croatia's star defender clutching at thin air on that night at Lusail Stadium.

Yet that incident shouldn't mar what was a stellar tournament for Gvardiol, who will be tasked with keeping more superstars on a tight leash when RB Leipzig host Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Gvardiol has been heavily linked with Chelsea in the past. It remains to be seen whether the big-spending Blues will be back in for the centre-back, or will it be City – who might well be in need of a versatile, left-footed defender in the wake of Joao Cancelo's seemingly impending permanent departure and with speculation over Aymeric Laporte's future.

Real Madrid have also been mooted as having an interest, but Gvardiol has his eyes on a move to England.

"I want to play in the Premier League," he told The Times, while reflecting on his decision to join Leipzig over Leeds United in 2020. "Chelsea were really interested, but Leipzig told me they didn't want to sell me. My dream is to get to the Premier League one day."

This meeting with City could just be the audition Gvardiol needs to pass for that dream to come true.

The crown jewel of Croatia's next generation

Luka Modric might have been the driving force in Croatia's semi-final charge, and ultimate third-place finish, but Gvardiol was arguably just as integral.

On the ball, Gvardiol was superb, and that's something that will certainly be of interest to potential suitors. The composure and passing ability he has shown at Leipzig transitioned onto the international stage and by the end of the competition he had made 21 progressive passes – only 14 players managed more.

 

Gvardiol topped the charts for carry distance and ball carries, with his stature and pace making him difficult to stop as he moved out of defence while in possession, giving Croatia a different dimension when attacking.

He made 202 carries for a distance of 1,985.3 metres, an average of 28.8 carries per game and 283.6 metres per match, with Gvardiol playing every minute of Croatia's campaign.

Gvardiol completed 24 long balls in Qatar, behind only four other defenders, while only Argentina's Nicolas Otamendi attempted and completed more passes.

His only goal at the tournament came in Croatia's win over Morocco in the third-place play-off, though it was not just on the ball that Gvardiol impressed.

The youngster made more clearances (37) than any other player and won possession back 48 times, the most of any defender.

 

Leipzig the ideal fit

"Here in Germany I feel good, I'm in a good club and I play almost all matches," Gvardiol said in his interview with The Times.

Since he made the switch from Dinamo Zagreb, Gvardiol has made 48 appearances for Leipzig, starting 42 times. He has scored two goals, both coming this season and at home, and teed up a further two as well. For such a young player, Gvardiol boasts an impressive disciplinary record, picking up just eight bookings.

Leipzig have won 25 of the 48 matches he has played in, losing 12 and drawing the other 11. 

This season, Gvardiol, slotting in alongside Willi Orban, has played a part in keeping five clean sheets, and ranks second out of Leipzig's defenders behind the Hungary international in that regard.

Of his fellow Leipzig defenders, Orban is the only one to have won possession back on more occasions (173) than Gvardiol (132), with 65 of those regains coming in the defensive third.

When assessing Gvardiol's statistics per 90 minutes, he betters his centre-back partner for interceptions (1.44 to 1.39) and possession won (6.6 to 5.9), while he has a defensive-unit high 77.4 successful passes.

Orban is more of a stopper, evidenced by his 4.1 clearances, 2.5 headed clearances, 1.6 tackles, 8.6 duels and 4.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes. Gvardiol is an ideal folly with his progressive, accurate passing, though he averages only one tackle per game, while his tackle success rate of 57.1 is the joint-lowest out of Leipzig's defensive options.

 

Breaking the lines is a key facet of Gvardiol's play, and though Orban betters his total number of carries in the Bundesliga this season, the Croatian has taken the ball further than any of his team-mates in the competition (3,334 metres), averaging 10.23 metres each time.

Leipzig have provided Gvardiol with an ideal environment in which to thrive and develop, though he is about to face a stern test in the form of Europe's deadliest striker.

Much ado about Erling?

Erling Haaland has scored 32 goals in 31 appearances since joining City from Leipzig's Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund last year.

Such has been his rich form, that one or two games without a goal for Haaland results in speculation as to whether City actually know how to get the very best out of their striker, or if he is suited to Pep Guardiola's approach.

This will not be the first time Gvardiol has gone up against the Norwegian, having done so previously in April last year.

On that occasion, Gvardiol formed part of a three-man defence that helped Leipzig to a stunning 4-1 win at Signal Iduna Park, with Haaland kept quiet.

 

Haaland had 27 touches, but only four of those came in Leipzig's area, while his only shot was off target (he was only limited to zero shots in a game on one occasion in the Bundesliga last term) and he finished with an expected goals of 0.15. 

Leipzig will have more than just Haaland to worry about on Wednesday, of course. Gvardiol will likely have Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez bearing down on him at some stage, but an elite performance against this calibre of opposition might just get him that dream move to England.

It could even be with City, and the two legs of this last-16 tie could go a long way to convincing Guardiola.

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