"Josko Gvardiol will be an RB Leipzig player next season," the coach of the current DFB Cup winners, Marco Rose, had recently revealed: "He has said he wants to play in the Premier League, but he hasn't said when."
The fact is that the 21-year-old has an exit clause of 110 million euros in his contract at RB Leipzig from 2024. By then at the latest, the centre-back will probably end up in England. The question is whether he will make the move to one of the Champions League contenders as early as this summer.
And the question that many fans of football ask themselves, but perhaps don't concern themselves in detail with, is: What must a defender have to be so coveted?
The complete centre-back
Well, let's get one thing straight: If you want to describe the perfect centre-back in 2023, Gvardiol comes pretty close. The Maldinis and Nestas of the past were characterised by their strength in tackling, positional play, speed, headers and unwillingness to compromise - qualities that Gvardiol seems to have mastered to perfection at a young age.
The modern centre-back, however, must also have other attributes such as a tactical overview, build-up play and technique. And this is where the Croatian stands out. While he was initially considered overrated by his compatriots at the 2021 European Championships, where he was thrown in at the deep end by successful coach Zlatko Dalic, Gvardiol made his breakthrough at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
World Cup 2022: A star finally rises
Not Luka Modric, but Josko Gvardiol was usually the first name mentioned after the Croatians' games. Modern football critics tend to point to the decisive moments and matches.
In the last group match of the World Cup against Belgium, when it was a matter of survival in the competition, Gvardiol stood out with nine clearing actions and 59 of 62 passes completed. Whether thwarting Kevin De Bruyne's deadly passes or the crucial interceptions against Romelo Lukaku's big chances, Gvardiol was everywhere against the Red Devils.
From the Croatian defence, which in recent years with the 'oldies' Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren has been rather shaky, Dalic turned the defence into a strength with the introduction of Gvardiol. Also, thanks to the strong build-up play and fine technique of the former Dinamo Zagreb player, Croatia's midfield around Modric and Mateo Kovacic were relieved and could take care of offensive tasks even more.
Dangerous at both ends
And it doesn't stop there. Because Gvardiol is constantly expanding his game, which is also due to his exemplary work ethic.
"I have completely dedicated myself to my work. I have absorbed everything and worked on myself. I believe I can continue to improve," Gvardiol, who was already on Guardiola confidant Marcelo Bielsa's wish list at Leeds United as an 18-year-old, had revealed.
You can see the result in his game. In the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 in March, he not only completely eliminated Erling Haaland, but also got himself on the scoresheet with the hugely important 1-1 equaliser. He had already scored in the group stage against Real Madrid. So, clearly, Gvardiol can also score goals.
At the World Cup, we were also able to marvel at penetrations from deep, as we might have seen from a certain Lucio in the Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich jerseys.
In the third-place match against Morocco, for example, he marched the length of the pitch, entered the opposition's penalty area and could only be stopped by a clear foul, which, inexplicably, was not punished by either the referee or the VAR.
Learning from his mistakes
Another example that fits Gvardiol's profile and mentality occurred in the World Cup semi-final. Lionel Messi twice rounded him midway through the second half to set up the decisive 3-0 win for the Argentines. It was a sign that even the Leipzig player is not yet perfect and still makes mistakes.
However, he quickly shook off the harsh criticism he had to take for this and picked up exactly where he left off with great performances after the World Cup break.
"Next time we'll win against Messi," Gvardiol said after the World Cup. I definitely wouldn't bet against it. So I am also sure that he will learn from bad experiences like Leipzig's 7-0 defeat in the second leg against Manchester City and continue to improve his game.
Why will Gvardiol have a huge career?
In short, he is already extremely mature and experienced for his age. What's more, he understands the dynamics of the game perfectly, can read the opponent's game and has the courage and charisma to dominate an opponent's offence with tackles and interventions. In addition, his strong left foot serves as an extra asset in the build-up to the game and his robust and aggressive style of play earns him the necessary respect from opponents.
He is also technically very strong, can handle one-on-ones and has an irresistible drive in transition situations. Now he has also found his goal-scoring side.
Gvardiol's talent knows no bounds and I am sure that one day he will eclipse the career of Nemanja Vidic, who is considered by many to be the best defender in the history of the Balkans.