There are Manchester City players who can remember the Champions League games at the Etihad Stadium in the crucial spring of 2023, three games in which they scored 14 goals, did not concede a goal and were on the verge of a treble. There is only one person who sighs and says: “I would like to forget that night in Manchester.”
But Josko Gvardiol was not there for the demolitions of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. He gained his experience in the 7-0 win against RB Leipzig in the guest defense ranks. If many City players have first-hand evidence of Erling Haaland’s brilliance, none compare to that of Gvardiol, the man tasked with stopping the prolific Norwegian.
“As a central defender, I was really looking forward to facing Haaland,” he remembers. “But in the end it didn’t end well. He scores five goals in just 60 minutes. When I saw he was being replaced, I thought: ‘Yes, finally’.”
Even the weather could have been a metaphor. “I remember waking up and it was a sunny day and after 30 minutes it was raining and it was just chaos,” Gvardiol said. “No one wants to talk to anyone after the game.”
Nine months later, before Tuesday’s reunion with his former club, Gvardiol reached back into his past and recalled events that he would banish from his thoughts. Since then, Croatians have perhaps followed an old maxim: If you can’t beat them, join them. At the time he was unaware of City’s interest. Pep Guardiola was not deterred by the spectacular result. He made the 21-year-old the second most expensive defender of all time, his £77m fee falling just short of the £80m that Harry Maguire cost Manchester United.
“He is so important,” said Guardiola. Still, Gvardiol can count on his fifth center back and his second left back, the most expensive understudy Nathan Ake will ever have. “Nathan can’t play every three days, we know that,” said Guardiola.
Gvardiol was missing from Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, arguably City’s biggest game of the season so far. He had problems in the 4-4 draw against Chelsea when he deflected Raheem Sterling’s goal.
But he is still getting used to it. Some new signings needed time to get used to Guardiola’s demands and secure a place in the City team. “I’m still adjusting,” Gvardiol said; It hardly helped that he missed City’s pre-season as Leipzig were hoping for €100m. He made his full debut in the European Super Cup and performed well. The surprise was that he played most of his appearances, including seven of his nine Premier League appearances, as a left-back.
“Of course he can play as a central defender, but we form a threesome,” said Guardiola, explaining a hybrid role when John Stones, Manuel Akanji or Rico Lewis push into midfield in possession of the ball. “He can play in Ruben (Dias)’s position but have Nathan or Josko on the left as a setup like a central defender. It’s more of a full-back because in the past I spotted him as a full-back against Leipzig two or three years ago and he was really good.”
There’s a good chance Guardiola sees his long-term future as a centre-back, but it’s almost as if Gvardiol has to earn the right to play there. The Croatian would prefer to play in the middle. “I was used to playing left-back,” he said. “I prefer to play more central defender than left-back. The positions are not the same, so it takes time to change the mindset. (There’s) a lot of running (at left guard), so I like it.”
And yet it may seem like typical left-field thinking from Guardiola to turn the World Cup’s preeminent centre-back, as Gvardiol was widely considered, into a full-back. He spoke about the first anniversary of a 4-1 victory over Canada; Afterwards, Croatia’s resilience and penalty-killing skills saw them reach the semi-finals, where Gvardiol scored in the third-place play-off.
“It was a great moment last season, my first World Cup and reaching third place,” said Gvardiol. “At the end of the tournament people said I was the best centre-back but to be honest I didn’t care. I didn’t even hope for that, I just focused on the national team because I know what they did in Russia 2018 and my goal during the tournament was to reach that final and in the end we met in the semi-finals Argentina, the rest is history.”
In that semi-final, Lionel Messi offered exquisite commentary on Gvardiol, although it is as cruel to remember his World Cup for that alone as it is to focus on Haaland’s five goals when assessing his time at Leipzig.
But both are evidence that a player who considered giving up football as a teenager has come a long way in a short space of time. His thoughts have already turned to life after his career and ways to shape it in Zagreb. “Maybe to set up a little museum at home,” he mused. If other years are as eventful and successful as the last, a small museum may not be big enough.