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Who is Josko Gvardiol? RB Leipzig's elite young defender wanted by Chelsea

Posted on May 28, 2022

RB Leipzig gambled on Josko Gvardiol back in 2020. They coughed up a rumoured €16m to land the young defender, a fee that, at the time, was the highest ever paid for a Croatian teenager. Gvardiol remained with Dinamo Zagreb for the season in order to garner regular game time before returning to the German side following Dayot Upamecano's move to Bayern Munich.

Even with RB Leipzig's dire start to the campaign under Jesse Marsch, Gvardiol's stock has soared over the course of 2021/22, so much so that a big money summer move is a possibility. Tottenham have been linked with a number of left footed centre-backs, though it has been reported that they are focussing their efforts on Inter's Alessandro Bastoni this summer. Their London rivals Chelsea, meanwhile, have been keeping tabs on the Croat as they look to invest at the back in the off season.

With a number of centre-back exits on the cards at Stamford Bridge, the Blues have been linked with a host of defenders, with Chelsea supposedly drawing up an eight-man shortlist, which includes Jules Kounde, Pau Torres, Jose Gimenez and Gvardiol. The idea for the latter would be to replace the outgoing Antonio Rudiger in that left centre-back role in Thomas Tuchel's favoured three-man defence.

While the departure of Rudiger will hurt Chelsea, Gvardiol would certainly suit the role for the west London side. Domenico Tedesco used a three-man backline for his 20 league games at the RB Leipzig helm following his December appointment and, across that time, only Bayern (43) earned more points then the DFB-Pokal winners (40). Crucially, though, is that on the back of Tedesco's appointment, RB Leipzig conceded fewer goals (19) than any other Bundesliga team.

In that period, only Christopher Nkunku (7.75) earned a better WhoScored rating than Gvardiol (7.15) of all RB Leipzig players to cap what has been a hugely impressive season for the young Croatia international. What is perhaps crucial behind Chelsea's rumoured interest is that Gvardiol is a left footed centre-back, a rare commodity in the game, who can also operate at left-back.

With Marcos Alonso expected to follow Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta out of the Stamford Bridge exit, Tuchel will be aware that he may be caught short of options at both centre-back and left-back next season. However the addition of a player of Gvardiol's versatility would boost Tuchel's defensive flexibility, particularly with injuries forcing the German to use a four-man backline on more than one occasion this season.

In either role, Gvardiol would be an effective option for Tuchel. A dribble success rate of 75.5% was the best of the 87 players to have attempted 40 or more dribbles in the Bundesliga this season, so he is more than capable of beating a man when required. This would allow Gvardiol the chance to provide the width from the left should he be used down the flank.

What has perhaps been a key reason behind the interest in his services, though, is Gvardiol's distribution from defence. He made more forward passes (897) than any other outfield player in the Bundesliga this season and this would certainly benefit this Chelsea side that relies heavily on wing-backs Reece James and, more importantly for Gvardiol, Ben Chilwell down the right and left, respectively.

Unfortunately for Chilwell, injury restricted him to just seven league appearances this season, but in his time on the pitch, he directly contributed to four goals. He finished fifth for key passes per game (1.4) of all Chelsea players and once it was confirmed that he'd sit out the remainder of the campaign due to injury, the Blues lost an influential attacking outlet down the left.

When fit, he proved to be one of the most effective wing-backs in the division, justifying the huge fee Chelsea spent to sign him from Leicester in 2020. Therefore, getting Chilwell in possession is key to Chelsea's offence and with Gvardiol useful at getting the ball forward from defence, the pair would have the opportunity to forge a fine working partnership down the Blues left.

Moreover, Gvardiol has that eye for a defence splitting pass even when operating from deep. Of the 81 players to attempt 10 or more through balls, Gvardiol returned a better through ball accuracy (80%) than any other player in Europe's top five leagues this season. There was once a period where David Luiz would thread a ball from the defence to the attack during his time at Chelsea, and it was a viable alternative to slowly building attacks, with the directness of the play able to catch opponents off guard. Gvardiol could do similar were Chelsea to secure his services this summer.

Off the ball, he proved an aggressive ball winner when required, and while Gvardiol's progressive distribution was perhaps his standout trait, he did all he could to protect the RB Leipzig goal. 98 tackles and interceptions combined ranked 26th in the Bundesliga this season, so he is prepared to step out from defence to make the tackle or close the passing lanes to ensure opponents are unable to hurt his side

The sticking point, however, will be RB Leipzig's asking price. Along with Nkunku, the Bundesliga giants are in possession of two in-demand players in both defence and attack and the Frenchman and Gvardiol are both wanted by Europe's elite teams this summer. The latter still has four years left to run on his current deal and with RB Leipzig under no pressure to sell, they can command a huge fee for Gvardiol, which would put potential suitors off, at least for this summer.

If Chelsea are prepared to spend big to revamp their backline this summer, then they can rest assured that a centre-back of Gvardiol's calibre and potential would prove a shrewd addition to the squad. He is, after all, considered one of the best young defenders in Europe.