Josko Gvardiol’s reinvention as a goalscoring left-back driving Man City’s title charge under Pep Guardiola

Josko Gvardiol’s reinvention as a goalscoring left-back driving Man City’s title charge under Pep Guardiola


Josko Gvardiol has scored five goals in his last seven games in all competitions, including a double in Man City’s 4-0 win over Fulham on Saturday; watch Tottenham vs Man City live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 7pm on Tuesday; kick-off 8pm

It should come as no surprise that the £77m Josko Gvardiol is playing an important role in Manchester City’s title charge. But the manner of his contribution is certainly unexpected.

The 22-year-old, a natural centre-back, had made 32 appearances without scoring before his stunning strike against Real Madrid last month. He now has five goals in seven games.

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A player best known for his outstanding defensive attributes is demonstrating offensive qualities to match as a reinvented left-back who City’s opponents are struggling to contain.

The breadth of his threat can be seen in the variety of his goals.

Gvardiol can strike from distance, as he did against Luton as well as Real Madrid. He can score from set-pieces, as he did against Nottingham Forest and for his second against Fulham on Saturday.

He can even dance past defenders and finish like a seasoned striker, as he did for his sensational opening goal at Craven Cottage.

Pep Guardiola has helped bring those qualities to the fore, giving City a deadly new weapon at the crucial point of the season. Since their goalless draw at home to Arsenal at the end of March, they have won seven consecutive games by an aggregate score of 28-5.

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For context, that is more goals scored in seven Premier League games than in their previous 15. They have hunted down Arsenal and eaten into their superior goal difference. Gvardiol, their defender-turned-attacker, embodies the apparent change in mindset.

Josko Gvardiol celebrates with teammates after giving Man City a first-half lead at Fulham
Josko Gvardiol celebrates after scoring against Fulham

The Croatia international arrived at the Etihad Stadium as a centre-back but the left-back position is not entirely new to him. In fact, he was used there in Dinamo Zagreb’s youth academy. Former RB Leipzig boss Jesse Marsch deployed him there occasionally too.

But, after a final season in Germany during which he played exclusively at centre-back, it was understandable that he initially looked uncomfortable when thrown into the role.

Indeed, if it is not demanding enough adapting to a different position in a new country, there is the added strain of doing it in a Guardiola team, with its many tactical complexities.

“He arrived and in some periods he was confused,” admitted Guardiola recently. “He lost a lot of balls. Every time he had the ball, he wanted to do exceptional things.”

Gvardiol was instructed to simplify his passing game and gradually he added another vital ingredient. “Life is about confidence,” added Guardiola after the Fulham game.

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Josko Gvardiol passed up the chance to take a penalty against Fulham in the interests of the team despite being on a hat-trick

“Coming to the Premier League for the first season when you are 21 years old, I would say it is not easy to handle it and at the beginning he struggled a little bit.

“He comes to the team who won the treble and at the beginning he was a little bit shy, a little bit: ‘I don’t want to ruin all the structure they have.’ It is a question of time. He has come here for many years. He is proving to himself that he can do it and play with us.”

But Gvardiol’s outstanding recent performances are not just down to increased confidence levels. Guardiola’s tactical adjustments have played a significant role too.

In the first half of the season, Gvardiol most commonly played behind either Jack Grealish or Jeremy Doku, whose width on the left flank was used to help stretch City’s opponents.

Their presence limited Gvardiol’s capacity to get into dangerous attacking positions but that has changed dramatically since he returned from a spell out of the side at the end of March.

Josko Gvardiol is playing higher and with more space on the left
Josko Gvardiol is playing higher and with more space on the left

Since then, Phil Foden has been the one deployed as City’s left-sided attacker in every Premier League game bar the win over Aston Villa. But his remit is very different. Rather than hold the width on that side, the 23-year-old is instructed to drift into the centre.

It is a significant tactical change which has impacted the team on two fronts. Firstly, it has allowed City to overload their opponents centrally, putting Foden in far closer proximity to Kevin De Bruyne. Secondly, it has given Gvardiol the freedom of the left flank.

With opposing defenders getting sucked infield by the movement of Foden, City are ensuring their left-back has space as well as freedom and the statistics underline the threat he is providing.

Gvardiol, now higher up the pitch, is having nearly twice as many touches in the opposition box. He is making more passes into the box, creating more chances and, crucially, getting more shots.

Josko Gvardiol's attacking threat is transformed
Josko Gvardiol’s attacking threat is transformed

His outstanding opening goal against Fulham, when he darted infield and exchanged passes with De Bruyne before beating Bernd Leno with a composed finish, showed he is even being encouraged to take players on, operating almost as a winger at times.

Of course, Gvardiol’s quality is a major factor in all this.

He is able to thrive in the role because he is so good technically as well as physically. The fact Guardiola has used him at left-back since the very start of the season suggests that unlocking this attacking potential was always part of the plan.

But it also just the latest example of the manager’s unrivalled ability to adjust his team mid-season, giving opponents something new to worry about and providing City with fresh impetus as they chase down yet more silverware with their usual relentlessness.

Few would have predicted Gvardiol to be leading the charge. But a player with as many goals in the last five weeks as in the previous three years is relishing the responsibility. Tottenham, meanwhile, will be scratching their heads at the prospect of stopping him.

Watch Tottenham vs Man City live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 7pm on Tuesday; kick-off 8pm.

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