Soccer

In-demand Josko Gvardiol sets solid platform for Croatia to find attacking improvements

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Not a fixture for those fond of excitement and goalmouth incidents, but Croatia’s goalless draw with Morocco owed as much to those steady at centre-back as it did to a lack of incisive passing in the final third.

Front and centre amongst them even ahead of kick-off was Josko Gvardiol; the youngest on show, which is always cause for extra attention, but also one of the players most-linked with a big money transfer.

Ahead of the World Cup it was Chelsea in particular he was said to be interesting, but Europe’s other top sides will all be keeping a close eye on the Leipzig defender’s availability.

Against Morocco he showed why that is, albeit not exactly in the face of relentless pressure in his own defensive third.

On the other hand, that’s part of the attraction: the best teams dominate and need the back line to display concentration and reliability at the irregular moments they are called upon.

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Eminently visible due to his beard-and-mask combo, Gvardiol’s defensive acumen was certainly visible at times, against both set-piece situations and Morocco’s counter-attacking threat.

Twice he made excellent covering runs behind his full-back on the left channel, showing both his buccaneering pace as well as the learned inclination he now has after serving at full-back himself with regularity.

Moreover, his aggressive nature as a centre-back was on show to make one big block on a shooting chance and step out high to intercept multiple attempts by the Moroccan attack to link play in central areas.

Perhaps of equal importance in terms of Croatia’s build-up play – and those clubs who might look to land him in 2023 – was Gvardiol’s reliability in possession and ability to produce big switches. Over 100 passes made with a 90 per cent accuracy highlighted him as the starting point from deep, six out of seven longer passes also found their mark.

One run did evade his attention in the first half; Youssef En-Nesyri’s dart across to the near post was cleared by Gvardiol’s partner Dejan Lovren and earned the younger defender a glance and a word from the veteran.

That aside, nobody came close to breaching the Croatia backline – while Gvardiol himself almost got on the end of one delivery at the other end of the pitch.

On a wider view of the team, the Europeans disappointed.

Attacking consistency and having a reliable goalscorer has been a sticking point for Zlatko Dalic’s side, but what they have managed to do over the past couple of years in qualifying and Nations League games is share the goals around the team.

Wingers, midfielders and a rotating cast in the front line have all managed to chip in and earn victories on a regular basis – but here that adventure and intent was lacking.

Not losing the opening game is, cliche or otherwise, seen as important – so neither nation will be devastated at an opportunity missed for three points.

But a lack of runners into the final third, poor set-piece delivery and a reluctance from several players – Luka Modric, Nikola Vlasic, Andrej Kramaric – to shoot with their weaker foot when an opening did arise all contributed to the stilted overall nature of the game.

For progression, that has to change.

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But for defenders, that’s job No1: ensure the spaces are shut down, the ball is won and the danger cleared.

Gvardiol came up with every box checked in that regard, setting the platform for future improvements in his teammates higher up the field.

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