GNK Dinamo Zagreb created a dynasty in the Croatian First League that is quite rare across Europe. In the last 14 years, the team could celebrate 13 times as Croatian champions, the only exception being the 2016/17 season when HNK Rijeka could snatch the title from them.
The reason for the decade-long dominance lies within their youth development. Throughout the years, Dinamo has built one of the most successful and productive academies of Central and Eastern Europe. New talents emerge, young players move to stronger leagues every year and there is always someone to step in. In this tactical analysis, we will introduce the 18-year-old ‘wonderkid’ Josko Gvardiol and make a case why he can be the next big thing.
Knocking on the door
Gvardiol turned 18 this January and Nenad Bjelica already counted on him five occasions in the left centre-back position. He started all eight games in the UEFA Youth League and played three times in the Croatian Second League as well. His physical attributes put him in contention against any 1. HNL strikers, including his pace which ‘jumps off’ the screen when you watch him.
Despite his age, he shows strong leadership and commitment towards his defensive duties. He is the prototype of modern centre-backs: reading the game well and actively taking part in the build-up. He plays the ball comfortably with both feet always looking for the opportunity to pass forward. In defence, he covers large areas above the defensive line as he pushes aggressively up the pitch. Let’s take a closer look at his strengths, possible areas of improvement and his role in Bjelica’s tactics.
Dynamic Dinamo build-up
He is just a natural fit in Dinamo’s system. The team leads organized attacks, always developing from the back. Usually, the build-up starts with passes between the back three. This backline consists of a central midfielder dropping between the centre-backs or two centre-backs and the left-back. Smaller teams against Dinamo prefer to defend in a 4-4-2 formation. Having three players always mean numerical advantage in the back against two strikers.
Against Istra, Nikola Moro played in front of the back three but didn’t drop deep as we will see in the other formation. Petar Stojanovic as a right-back and Mislav Orsic as a left-winger expanded the opposition, who applied zonal coverage. The attempt failed mostly because they had a hard time to restrict player between the lines and to intercept Gvardiol’s passes.
Here is a tactic against Inter Zapresic designed for quick centre-backs. We can see a completely empty midfield from Dinamo. As a less mobile and agile midfielder, Arijan Ademi likes to organize from the back. This pushes out the two centre-backs and gives a choice to the strikers. Either they can remain narrow or spread wide to cover the backs. If they stay close to each other, Kevin Theophile-Catherine and Gvardiol, as two adventurous and quick players, will push forward with the ball. If the other scenario happens and the strikers follow them, easy passes can be completed to Luka Ivanusec or Damian Kadzior who both drop deep into the empty space.
Playmaker disguised as a centre-back
From both positions, Gvardiol can find his teammates with ease and get the ball into the final third. His vision and range of passing are superior to the average centre-backs, making him a constant attacking outlet on the left side. When the opposition defends with low lines, he conducts the development as his usual position is well above the halfway line. Just as a veteran playmaker, he launches penetrating vertical passes into congested areas or picks out the runner between the opponent players. In all competitions this season, he passed with over 94% accuracy and completed a whopping 93.5% of his forward passes.
Not only he is an intelligent passer, but he can also spot exploitable spaces and make the best out of them. If the two strikers are shifted away from the centre, Gvardiol as an agile centre-back can burst into the narrow corridor opened by his teammates. He is strong on the ball and quick enough to leave his marker behind. He shows extra composure and creativity that you would not expect from a centre-back and he continues to reveal those playmaking abilities.
From time to time he tends to pick out his passing options early and stick with them. This could bring his teammates in a difficult situation as the defensive line can be exposed from counter-attacks when he turns the ball over. Sometimes it is noteworthy that he always looks for the pass and refuses to clear the ball the easy way.
The art of defence
At the beginning of the scout report, we mentioned that Gvardiol is a modern centre-back. His defensive contribution starts with an active role in the transition phase. When Dinamo loses the ball, the two centre-backs are ready to press high and challenge for it. They man-mark the strikers and make their lives miserable instantly. Gvardiol’s strength is best demonstrated in these situations. He is a fairly reliable defender in one-versus-one situations and a brave tackler still with elegant execution. Despite the average locations of these attempted tackles, he rarely commits mistakes and never overruns his marked man. The data analysis reveals that even with the short amount he played, he averaged 11.9 ball recoveries per game and 1.25 in the opposition half which is impressive.
Now within the defensive line, his duty also deserves recognition. If Dinamo can defend in numbers, the rest of the defence remains narrow to pick up the two strikers. Just like that, Gvardiol is allowed to push forward the line and act as a ball-winning midfielder and he tries to pick up any loose balls. However, he can be more conventional, tracking back his man and covering for his teammates. He engaged in 257 duels in the matches where he played at least 60 minutes and won 67% of them. While this is not a high figure, his defensive style is based on quickly recovering the ball high up the pitch therefore he can be exposed sometimes.
Aerial duels seem to be one area in which he needs to step up his game slightly. By the numbers, he is able to win 60% of all headers attempted which is adequate but the figure could be improved in the future. He has the athleticism to compete against taller strikers so he needs to better his timing instead.
Josko Gvardiol represents the new generation of centre-backs. This analysis proved that his playing style fits into the modern football trend. Sending defenders forward and gaining a numerical advantage in the midfield might be used by more and more teams. At just 18, Gvardiol has the potential to fulfil this role from a physical and technical perspective. He could give more tactical flexibility to Bjelica in the defensive phase as well. With him, the team could cover larger areas in front of the defensive line and he could be assigned to man-mark agile attacking midfielders.
It is just a matter of time that he can become a regular starter for Dinamo and we will see him in the Champions League. Right now Emil Dilaver, Théophile-Catherine and Dino Peric are all in front of him in the pecking order but he is ready to challenge for the third spot. And what does the future hold for him? There are several coaches who would prefer a centre-back with the same style and character as Gvardiol. Probably while reading the scout report, his name has already made you think about a certain coach.