There’s a sea of change sweeping over the Etihad Stadium this summer. Ilkay Gundogan has departed for Barcelona, while Aymeric Laporte is another set to leave for pastures new. Manchester City have a knack for selling players at the right time, so fans shouldn’t be too concerned at the departure of a clutch midfielder and a centre-back who was previously considered the best at Pep Guardiola’s disposal.
Nevertheless, to remain competitive even the best need to evolve and City are no exception. Mateo Kovacic has joined from Chelsea to cover Gundogan’s exit, while the Champions League holders are eyeing up another Croat to bolster at the back. City are closing in on the signing of RB Leipzig’s Josko Gvardiol in a deal that will make the 21-year-old the most expensive defender in history.
The vultures have been circling the Red Bull Arena for the versatile defender for the best part of 12 months now, with Tottenham and Chelsea both credited with an interest in the youngster last summer. However, as Gvardiol’s profile rose, so too did RB Leipzig’s asking price with City blowing the pair out of the water in the race to land the Croatia international.
It’s the versatility to Gvardiol’s game that would undoubtedly have appealed to Guardiola. In 14 Premier League matches last season, Guardiola used a three-man backline, with the idea being to supplement Erling Haaland with as many attacking players in support as possible, this largely stemming from the 2-1 loss at Manchester United back in January. The Spaniard, therefore, needed flexible performers at the back to operate in a four-man or a three-man defence where required in-game.
John Stones is perhaps the best example of this interchangeability, the ‘Barnsley Beckenbauer’ routinely shining at right-back, centre-back or central midfield, more often than not all in the same game. This meant the left-sided centre-back needed to either drift wide or tuck in where required, duties Nathan Ake and Manuel Akanji both carried out well. That being said, Gvardiol is arguably a level above the pair, thus explaining City’s interest in the RB Leipzig man.
In any Guardiola system, distribution is key. City build attacks from the back with goalkeeper Ederson and the defenders vital at setting the champions on the front foot. Gvardiol fits the bill perfectly having finished the 2022/23 Bundesliga campaign fifth for passes per game (71.3) and with the ninth-best pass success rate (89.3%) to his name. In addition, the ability to pick a pass from distance will help City quickly transition from defence to attack, with the youngster returning a long ball pass success rate of 59.7% last season, that ranking 12th of the 112 Bundesliga players to have attempted 100 or more long balls.
For a City side that ranked second for counter-attacking goals (7) behind rivals Manchester United (9) in the Premier League last season, Gvardiol’s ability to go direct where required will aid the former when they seek to break forward at speed, with Haaland, in particular, likely to benefit. This is particularly pertinent in that City ranked second for accurate long balls per 90 (28.4) in England’s top tier last term, so a defender to help place high for this metric will aid the Cityzens should they seek to go direct, as was evidenced during the 4-1 win over Arsenal back in April.
In addition to distributing the ball well, Gvardiol is also a composed figure in defence, ensuring that any opponent who does seek to pressure the defender is unlikely to be successful in their quest. Indeed, of the 217 players to attempt 15 or more dribbles, none had a better dribble success rate than Gvardiol (88.9%) in the Bundesliga last season, so he’s calm under pressure and able to bring the ball forward where needed to help work the angles and fully maximise his vision.
So, all in all, the perfect defender, right? Well… not quite. For all of Gvardiol’s qualities, opponents have proven to be able to get the better of the incoming centre-back in the air on more than one occasion. In fact, Gvardiol won just 55.8% of the aerial duels he contested in the Bundesliga last season, and teams will feel as though they can exploit this shortcoming as a means to get the better of City next season.
That being said, City won the fewest aerial duels per 90 (11.6) in the 2022/23 Premier League campaign, and that hardly impacted their successful title defence, so it’s a weakness to Gvardiol’s game that is unlikely to be routinely capitalised upon, such is City’s dominance.
The pros, then, far outweighs the cons and given his tender years, there is plenty more to come from Gvardiol, who should go on to become a mainstay in the City backline. After all, it’s difficult to find a defender better suited to Guardiola’s game plan.