Wunderkids: Building football’s most exciting young XI – week seven: Josko Gvardiol, centre-back

It’s the stuff of managerial dreams – a blank check to build the most exciting young starting XI in world football.

But that’s exactly what BBC Sounds’ new Wunderkids podcast offers, at least in fantasy form, over its 11 episodes. The first seven episodes are available to listen to now.

The Wunderkids team, in conjunction with BBC Sport, have proposed 11 players – and presenter Steve Crossman will be joined by experts to discuss the latest inclusion, with a new player revealed every week.

Those who have made the cut so far are new Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez, Bayer Leverkusen winger Florian Wirtz, Ajax midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, Santos defender Kaiky, midfielder Barcelona midfielder Gavi and Rennes winger Kamaldeen Sulemana – and now RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol joins them.

Who is he?

Josko Gvardiol playing for Croatia against England at Euro 2020
Gvardiol made his first Croatia start last summer in the Euro 2020 opener against England at Wembley and has now played in nine internationals.

Gvardiol was scouted at eight by Croatia’s most successful club Dinamo Zagreb and he joined the same academy that served as a finishing school for Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic.

After playing left-back or central midfield, an academy coach moved him to central defence. And that’s how Gvardiol became one of the most sought-after products in the modern game – a left-wing centre-back who’s comfortable on the ball.

He made his league debut aged 17 in 2019, scoring the only goal in his second league appearance, and Dinamo won the league title in 2019-20.

Gvardiol had also attracted attention in the UEFA Youth League and Leeds United are said to have made a bid before signing Leipzig on a five-year contract for 16m euros (£13.4m), plus add-ons, in September 2020.

He remained on loan with Dinamo for 2020-21, winning another league title, before making his international debut last June, and he did enough to earn his first start as Croatia lost 1-0 against England in the opening game of Euro 2020.

At 19 years, four months and 21 days, Gvardiol surpassed Kovacic’s record as the country’s youngest player at a major tournament and he started every game before Croatia pulled out in the round of 16.

After joining Leipzig, he quickly established himself in Germany, making his Champions League debut in the 6-3 loss at Manchester City last September.

Only two Leipzig players have made more league starts this season than the 20-year-old.

What does the expert say?

Josko Gvardiol scores for RB Leipzig against Wolfsburg
On his 20th birthday in January, Gvardiol produced a delightful break-time finish against Wolfsburg for his second goal of the season.

Izak Ante Sucic, deputy editor of Germania Sport

Ever since he was a kid, he’s been built like a tank. He can step forward, he can jump, he can tackle – he can do whatever you want. He can play with the ball at his feet, he can play against these big forwards, he can play against guys with pace and technical ability.

After scoring his first goal aged 17, he waited two or three hours to take the tram. The fans were saying ‘you just scored the winning goal’, and he said ‘it’s just a normal thing for me to go home’. He had pictures with fans and everyone looks the same – he seems like a normal guy who plays football.

He is 100% focused on football, drives a Volkswagen rather than a Mercedes or a Ferrari. He learned everything he needed to know before going to Leipzig.

In Croatia, we like to compare him to Virgil van Dijk because he’s built that way (6ft 1in). He’s one of his role models in football and he also mentioned Thiago Silva and Sergio Ramos – Ramos because he’s also one of those players who likes to score as many goals as possible.

In my opinion, I think he can be as good as Virgil one day. When you see how he behaves on and off the pitch, he’s one of those guys where you think ‘he’s going to do it’.

He had an offer from the Premier League. Leeds called and it was 99 per cent the deal was going to happen. Although Leeds offered him a higher salary [than Leipzig] and said he would start, he decided to go to the Bundesliga because he wanted to take one more step before going to the Premier League.

And even though he hasn’t signed for Leeds, he has already started watching their games to see how he can adapt as quickly as possible.

What does the fan say?

Tobias (co-founder of RB Leipzig Red Campus fan club)

I think Gvardiol is one of the best centre-backs in the Bundesliga. He has great passing accuracy, a lot of duels won, especially in the air, and a lot of interceptions per game.

When he was at Dinamo Zagreb, he was given a sheet with some RB Leipzig tactics and he learned them.

When he arrived at our club last summer he already knew what he had to do when he started in the Bundesliga and I think that’s one of the reasons why he is so good in this moment. We are very happy to have him.

Wunderkids line-up chart after Josko Gvardiol addition

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