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Joško Gvardiol: The next great Leipzig talent?

Dinamo Zagreb has been the home of many Croatian stars, Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric, Chelsea’s Matteo Kovacic and Dani Olmo to name a few. However few have been as lauded as Joško Gvardiol. So much so that the centre back put pen to paper in a deal with RB Leipzig and will be operating in the Bundesliga for the 2021/22 season.

This report will give a comprehensive breakdown on Gvardiol’s current strengths and create a picture of his profile and common patterns to his game. This report will be different to others you may read, however! When a player is so frequently lauded as is Gvardiol, it can be an easy option to just focus on what he can do, and what he is great at. The truth of the matter is that this is an 18-year-old who still has enormous amount of work to do to fulfil his potential, potential which is undeniable. 

Before appearing as overtly negative, this is far from that. Rather, it paints a more realistic narrative of what can be expected from Gvardiol in the near immediate future, and the areas of his game which are still emblematic of a young man learning his trade.

Gvardiol the progressive passer

Gvardiol has played both centre back and left back. Many analysts and observers of the game describe the Croatian as a “ball playing defender”.

Tactical and analytical website Spielverlagerung describe a ball playing defender by explaining that, “they not only play simple passes to the team-mates in front of them but create goal-scoring opportunities by pushing forward or playing laser passes.” This is an opinion I share, with a particular focus on breaking lines of pressure, having not only verticality, but diagonality to their passing.

What should also be pointed out and highlighted is the frequency at which the centre backs perform these actions. What the technique do they use and whether they have variety and range. Also from which areas of the pitch can they perform these actions? Is it the players natural instinct to play in this way, or is it based on instructions from the coach?

An example I want to analyse is below which gives an indication of what Gvardiol is capable of:

Most centre backs in this scenario would either clear their lines or pass out wide to the full back. This is of course what the pressing team is trying to achieve.

As a result of Gvardiol’s bravery in possession, composure and, positive diagonality, the team are now able to stretch the pitch and attack open spaces. This is an excellent example of diagonality and the advantages of having a left footed centre back in these areas, to penetrate with out to in balls and break free from pressure.

Similarly, in the example below, Gvardiol is able to break the first line of the opposition and feed his teammate in between the lines:

And a final example, which again highlights his ability to progress play from wide areas with out to in passes:

Now, the caveat amongst all of these seemingly impressive passes is the frequency that Gvardiol performs them, which is not often (at least line breaking passes). He has composure to his game, and he plays forward, but these are predominantly to a midfielder who has dropped to receive; thus, the risk is low. In addition, in the advanced passes he plays, I would not characterise them as clean, or precise. Many make it hard for the receiver to control, with occasional under hit, over hit and bobbled passes which do not instil great confidence to me that he has a wand of a left foot different from the Pau Torres, Laporte mould of ball playing centre backs.

The most important thing to see is that Gvardiol is capable of being progressive, and showing signs of breaking lines and having diagonality, which has been highlighted is the case. Nevertheless, it is still an area that he could look to fine tune with more secure technique, and repeatability.

Gvardiol’s dribbling and ball carrying

Being able to use ball carrying and dribbling abilities is a valuable asset to possess as a centre back as a form of press resistance. When operating as a full back it is of course of equal importance in driving up the pitch, winning 1v1’s and progressing play.

To my surprise, Gvardiol is in fact, a very strong dribbler of the ball when carrying into space. Most interestingly, Gvardiol is comfortable and even appears to favour cutting inside and utilising his “weaker” right side, which he does with good agility and real power.

Displaying this without video is challenging, but below is a visualisation which maps a particular marauding solo run which demonstrated real drive but also technical ability.

What is impressive is the Croatian’s ability to still maintain control while he is powering through, he has tidy footwork, balance and generally uses the ball well towards the final 3rd.

His positivity and drive to go forward when there is space available is admirable. On occasions it borders on naïvety however. For example, the particular event mapped above was in the 92nd minute while leading 3-2.

Before heading onto the arguably most crucial part of the report which deals with defensive characteristics, I want to analyse some key areas which I loved seeing from Gvardiol which are also perfect examples of positive off the ball movements for a full back.

Orange arrow = Gvardiol’s pass and two backwards pointing arrows indicate subsequent movement of the players with Gvardiol inverting on the blindside and driving towards the annotated circle

To avoid potential confusion, here is a map of this sequence:

Similarly to the previous map, again, once Gvardiol received the ball after his intelligent and positive combination, he opted to drive inside and dribble on his right hand side again, skipping past a player before releasing the pass with perfect timing and picking up a foul in a dangerous area.

Again, the above image shows excellent combination play as Gvardiol makes an intelligent and positive underlapping run, creating space for runners to attack. He makes a first time pass into said space for a cross which resulted in a goal.

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Why are these movements impressive? Well, for an 18-year-old centre back to have such natural combination play, well timed and tactically intelligent runs, rotations, inverting, awareness to attack on different vertical lines is excellent to see.

He does not necessarily have good end product nor crossing ability, but he knows how to create spaces and drive into those spaces both inside and the outside of the pitch. He is certainly a very capable, progressive, and forward-thinking defender.

Defensive attributes

Ironically, this is the area where I have noted aspects that Gvardiol has to work on most. Firstly though, let’s see what style of defender Gvardiol is.

Gvardiol is undoubtedly an aggressive and active defender. He is the centre back who presses out of the line, looks to win the ball high and cause turnovers.

For example:

Gvardiol presses high with controlled aggression, not charging through the back. However he is able to apply enough pressure to prevent the opponent from spinning. He wins the ball following good reactions.

 Likewise:

 Above he shows good acceleration to read the pass well and intercept.

We have established that Gvardiol is aggressive and presses out of the defensive line. This is a challenging way of defending, but one that is natural to him as a front foot defender. However at times, he is impulsive rather than calculated with his decision making. For example:

Highlighted by the red arrow, Gvardiol makes an impulsive decision to press the ball carrier and engage. This opens up a clear passing lane into the box with the space he has left behind and Gorica are able to score. The decision to press here was an error, mainly the timing and the angle which allowed the pass through. This was an example where impulse took over.

Interestingly, Gvardiol’s positioning is far worse when he is operating at left back compared to centre back. Two examples illustrate this.

Example 1:

Example 2:

Gvardiol is the far sided player. He is so far wide and out of position it beggars belief. In addition,he does not show much intent to actually recover into a solid structure.

Other positioning issues also occur from crosses into the box again, relating to not recovering into stable structures:

Very redundant positioning. Forward gets a free header which misses by an inch.

The above scenario is slightly more excusable as it is more difficult to defend against. Again, there is a lack of urgency to recover, re-orientate the body and best deal with the cross. The cross is cut back and he cannot see the forward. Gvardiol is not in a position to try and block the shot, which is fired over.

It was not only open play crosses where Gvardiol was making errors and allowing shots on goal in dangerous positions. He also did not do a good enough job against Rijeka from a corner.

The goal scorer in the scenario above was Gvardiol’s to mark, instead of the outside back post runner.

Gvardiol excels at anticipating and tracking runs in behind. He maintains concentration throughout games and rarely gets caught ball watching.

Gvardiol (blue arrow), is man marking his opposite number, as he drops deep, so does he. Meanwhile the nearside winger is attempting to get in behind. He uses opposite movements with his striker to create space in behind.

He tracks the run (seen below). Gvardiol is not getting distracted by his man marking nor the ball carrier.

Excellent anticipation, reading the game and movements around him.

Likewise, Gvardiol is gradually dragged further away from his centre back partner and the gap between them is increasing.

Gvardiol correcting himself and maintaining a good distance to Théophile-Catherine where they can nullify together any runs in behind.

Regarding heading ability, Gvardiol averages 3.49 aerial duels at 46% in the league and 3.2 aerials at 58% (Wyscout). This is a little lower than ideal. It is worth bearing in mind that Leipzig have the highest aerial duel win rate in the Bundesliga with 59.2% (StatsBomb/Fbref).

From the eye test alone, he is not noticeably poor in the air. In fact, there were many instances where his jumping is strong and athletic:

Gvardiol is a strong, committed tackler. He has excellent timing, nor afraid to go for the ball inside the penalty area.

He has very strong recovery pace and is also capable with slide tackles as can be seen below:

To back this claim up with data, I have two scatterplots courtesy of Marc Lamberts (@lambertsmarc).

This plot shows us how Gvardiol compares to his peers in the Croatian league. However this is in comparison to full backs however, as this is largely where Gvardiol has played as well while covering for injuries.

In this regard, he is one of the busiest in terms of defensive actions in the league. This aligns with our theory that he is an aggressive and active defender. It can also be expected this to increase with possession adjusted. This is due to Zagreb’s dominance on the ball.

He is also just above the median on slide tackles which I’d say is a good place to be. It is not an indication of skill per say, more on style and preference. Having balance and not relying on one mode of tackling is vital in order to be adaptable to different opponents faced across a season.

This graph gives us a strong indication that Gvardiol is a very efficient defender. Wyscout’s defensive duel definition is, ‘If the defensive player stopped the progression of the attacking player with the ball and didn’t commit a foul’. We are not concerned by the volume of defensive duels. This can be related to the team’s dominance in games with the ball. When Gvardiol must defend 1v1, dispossess attackers, force opponents backwards he does it with considerable success.

Gvardiol at RB Leipzig

Leipzig are a dominant team in the Bundesliga. They dominate the ball, are aggressive, counter press, look to play vertically with the full backs generally adopting advanced positions.

Leipzig play normally a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1.

Gvardiol is best suited to the left centre back role in a back three. In a back four he would best be deployed as the left centre back. Equally he can do a good job at left back. Gvardiol has good movements and combination plays in the final third and is capable of bombing forward aggressively. Having said that, he would not offer much of a creative threat especially compared to Angelino.

He is versatile in this sense, an attribute that is essential for a Nagelsmann team.

An essential part of his game will also have to be verticality and ball progression. He is certainly capable of this. However, doubts remain over some technical aspects and the cleanness of his passing. This would have to be refined.

It is no surprise that Leipzig’s highest progressive ball carriers (per 90) are Upamecano, Halstenberg, Konaté and Orban. All are centre backs bar Halstenberg, who also on occasion plays left back. Likewise, for progressive passes Upamecano and Halstenberg lead the way (FBref/StatsBomb).

Certainly, some of Gvardiol’s powerful ball carrying reminds me of Upamecano.

What was interesting to see was the similarity here in the passing networks of both Halstenberg and Gvardiol ( www.betweentheposts.net ). Both have good triangles and connections to the midfield and winger. This is as well as being on a similar horizontal and vertical line.

This concludes the analysis of Gvardiol, a raw but mightily impressive young centre back.

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