An Insight into Joško Gvardiol
At 18 years old and with only 13 senior appearances to his name, Joško Gvardiol is one of the most coveted teenagers in Europe. Sacha Pisani speaks exclusively to his head coach at GNK Dinamo head coach, Zoran Mamić, to gain an insight into the centre-back.
World-class centre-backs, especially those that are predominantly left-footed, are hot commodities in football. While Joško Gvardiol may lack experience, the 18-year-old is the epitome of a modern centre-back that Europe's elite scour far and wide to find.
A ball-playing defender, Gvardiol possesses impressive touch, speed, strength, and awareness – skills that have attracted substantial interest from Leeds United, lead by Marcelo Bielsa, in the Premier League and Champions League semi-finalists, RB Leipzig. But why is the teenager such a coveted prospect? Zoran Mamić, his head coach at GNK Dinamo, explains.
"A totally modern centre-back," Mamić says in an exclusive Scouted Football interview.
"His defensive skills, like one-on-one and aerial abilities, are amazing. There are centre-backs with those kind of qualities, but the things that make him different from the others and better is the fact that he can play. He wants to play. His playmaking abilities are amazing. He's left-footed, which is always a very nice thing in football.
"His self-confidence is amazing. For example, at Dinamo we like to play from the goalkeeper. He goes inside the five metres from the goalkeeper and he wants the ball. He can play five metres from the goal without being scared. When he has the ball, it's not a risk. There's not a lot of centre-backs in the world right now who want to play like that. If you have a goalkeeper who can play, then for the best teams in the world that's the part of the pitch where you can gain an advantage.
"He is fast, so even if he makes a mistake, he can make it back. He pushes the line forward which is important for us here because we are dominating most of the games and playing possession-based football. He pushes the line to the centre of the pitch without problem; he knows he can catch the player. He is amazingly athletic. He has been like a superstar for a long time for our academy."
Croatian football, particularly Zagreb giants Dinamo, have produced some exceptionally talented players over the years. Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modrić of Real Madrid, Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovačić and Leipzig's Dani Olmo have all come through Dinamo's famed youth system like many before them in Croatia's capital.
Gvardiol is the latest high-level player to fly off the production line. If reports are to be believed, he's a player known to many recruitment teams across Europe, having been linked with the likes of Internazionale, Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Juventus and Ajax.
First lured to Dinamo's academy in 2010, arriving from Tresnjevka a decade ago, Gvardiol enjoyed a breakthrough season with the 1.HNL titleholders in 2019/20. The teenager defender made 11 league appearances for Mamić's side last season as the capital club maintained their stranglehold on Croatian football with a third consecutive title, their 14th triumph in 15 campaigns. He also juggled youth team commitments last season, flipping between the UEFA Youth League group and B team, playing 14 matches in total.
"Highly rated for a very, very long time now. We have experience with those kind of players – Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić, Alen Halilović," says Mamić, who started his senior career playing with Dinamo in 1989 and remained until 1996.
"Many players were destined to become great players. Except maybe Kovačić, I can't remember the player who had a more unanimous decision than Joško. Even Modrić had to go out on loan before getting his chance. With Joško, no one said he should go on loan. Only Kovačić and him, aged 16, they were ready for the first team.
"His athletic abilities are amazing. His physical strength is top. I hope he continues like this, and there's absolutely no reason to think otherwise because his mental strength and the way he thinks – it's like he is 28 not 18. He is now very good. I don't think there's a better centre-back at his age in the world."
Mamić, who initially coached Dinamo for three years up until 2016 before leaving for Al-Nassr, Al Ain and Al-Hilal before returning this year, added: "We at Dinamo we have a lot of talent, like 12, 13, 14, 15. Then as they grow, many doubts occur. In the end, when it comes to the senior team or go out on loan, they get lost because that's the biggest step in youth development. With him, there's absolutely no question. This is where your parents and how you're raised comes up. When you start to read about yourself in the newspapers, on social media, when you get some money. Like everyone around, they make the difference.
"This isn't an issue for him because he is playing the same, like he was 14 and it looked easy for him. Everything looks easy for him. When he was 14, he played for the 17s. I think last year, there were a couple of games where he played for a couple of different categories. In like 10 days he played for the 16s, 17s, 18s and B team. Everything is the same for him. Not like it's beneath him. He doesn't do this. This is why he is where he is now and why clubs are offering big money."
Despite his tender age, Gvardiol has not looked out of place in a team dominating on the domestic scene and sticking to a club-wide principle of playing out from the back.
Gvardiol's attributes have stood out in every age group. He's rarely beaten in aerial duels, a skillset built on the platform provided by his positioning and physical strength. Time stands still for Gvardiol. He's composed on the ball and rarely rushed, even in difficult situations, while he can pick out an inch-perfect pass with his left foot. Not to mention his dribbling ability when surging forward from the back.
It's not often that he's outpaced, and his previous experience as a full-back have also proved beneficial in an attacking sense, particularly with his athleticism and crossing. So, which European league would suit Gvardiol?
"With his abilities, in every league, something different is the most important," Mamić said.
"He has all of it. If he goes to Germany, he can play high; he can play dynamic football when you go up and down all the time. For example, they play with three centre-backs because they play 3-5-2 in Germany. He can play that.
"In Spain, possession football is importan, to be good on the ball, and he has that also. If he goes to England, he is a kid of course. His body is stronger but still is a kid. But he can adapt to anything. He is a hard worker, no problem with injuries. Everything comes easy to him.
"He makes things which aren't easy look easy. It's natural. He is never tired. We are realistic here because we know we can't keep him. He is the type of player you just can't keep. We will never be able to see him play for Dinamo at his best. It is impossible. He is the type of talent that is impossible to keep a secret.
"For me, he has the ability to take out the best of the world's best defenders."