Position(s): CB, RB
Preferred Foot: Right
Strengths: passing accuracy, line-breaking passes, ball-carrying, tackling, positioning, anticipation, blocks, interceptions, aerial duels
Areas for Development: physicality
It has been nothing short of a golden era for Croatia, reaching a World Cup Final in 2018, earning a bronze medal in 2022, and coming within inches of the UEFA Nations League Finals this past summer. They have had a player in every Champions League Final since 2012 and a Champions League winner from 2013 to 2022, a Ballon d’Or winner, and a host of legendary players from Luka Modrić to Ivan Rakitić to Ivan Perišić to Mario Mandžukić.
Whilst they may struggle to live up to the previous generation’s success, Vatreni fans have plenty of reason for excitement as the nation of four million continues to churn out prodigious talents. This summer has seen a number of Croatian players earn high-profile moves, with Borna Sosa swapping Stuttgart for Ajax, Lovro Majer leaving Rennes for Wolfsburg, and Joško Gvardiol departing RB Leipzig for Manchester City for £77 million, the latest Croatian to join the European champions after Mateo Kovačić.
Dinamo Zagreb, the most successful club in the country with a record 68 trophies, lost several key players this summer, with Luka Ivanušec making the move to Dutch champions Feyenoord, whilst World Cup hero Dominik Livaković joined Turkish giants Fenerbahçe. 23-year-old center back Josip Šutalo joined Ajax for €20.5 million, the fifth-most expensive sale in Dinamo Zagreb’s history after Joško Gvardiol, Marko Pjaca, Dani Olmo, and Modrić.
Born in Čapljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Šutalo spent nine years at Dinamo Zagreb — apart from a brief loan spell at Croatian side Istra 1961 in 2021 — and racked up 88 appearances before making the move to the Amsterdam club. He was given the captain’s armband by manager Maurice Steijn in his Ajax debut, slotting into central defense alongside 17-year-old Jorrel Hato as Ajax drew 0-0 at Fortuna Sittard on September 3.
With Dejan Lovren retiring after the World Cup and Domagoj Vida now 34 years old, all signs point to him starting alongside Gvardiol (21) for Croatia — Šutalo partnered Martin Erlić in the Nations League Final against Spain before starting with Gvardiol in their recent Euro qualifiers against Latvia and Armenia, keeping clean sheets in all three matches.
Composed in possession, Šutalo is capable of picking out pinpoint passes, initiating ‘La Pausa’ to draw in attackers to press him before exploiting the space in behind with a line-breaking pass to disrupt the defensive structure of the opponent. He is also an adept at ball-carrying, skilled at dropping the shoulder and powering into open space.
Off the ball, he reads the game with a veteran’s proficiency, constantly scanning the pitch to anticipate the opposition’s next moves and position himself perfectly to deal with the danger. His anticipation and high footballing IQ enable him to make key interceptions, whilst he is also adept at making goal-preventing blocks and timing his tackles to perfection.
Šutalo reads the game well, scanning frequently to anticipate the opposition’s next move & position himself perfectly to deal with danger
This anticipation enables him to make interceptions regularly – Šutalo truly has a great football IQ pic.twitter.com/M3Qq0ANkxo
— Ben Mattinson (@Ben_Mattinson_) June 21, 2023
Whilst he has excelled at the domestic level for a Dinamo Zagreb side that regularly dominates possession, he has also impressed in the Champions League, where they averaged just 46.5% possession and were forced to play a low block against the likes of Chelsea and Milan. At 6’3″, he is an imposing presence in the air, winning plenty of aerial duels and chipping in plenty of headed goals from set-pieces, racking up 7 goals and 4 assists during his time in the Croatian capital.
One area where he could show improvement is his physical strength. If he added more muscle and bulked up in the gym, he could emerge as one of the best center backs in the world, but at 23, there is still room for progress here. Comfortable playing as a left-sided center back, his mobility and strong ball-playing ability could see him operate as a fullback, similarly to how Manuel Akanji and Nathan Aké shaped up for Manchester City last season.
Whilst various clubs like RB Leipzig, Inter, Arsenal and Lyon were linked, it was Ajax who won the race for the Croatian — the fourth-most expensive signing in club history after Steven Bergwijn, Calvin Bassey and Sébastien Haller. After a summer that saw them lose various key players like Mohammed Kudus, Jurrien Timber, and Dušan Tadić, Šutalo has what it takes to play a vital role in central defense under Steijn and fill Bassey’s void in the backline.
After a sloppy start that has seen them lose to Go Ahead Eagles, draw to Excelsior and Fortuna Sittard, and beat Heracles Almelo, Ajax currently sit 11th in the Eredivisie. Apart from the stalemate in Sittard, they have failed to keep a clean sheet in five matches across all competitions this season. They’ll be counting on Šutalo for defensive stability as they look to navigate a challenging fortnight that will see them travel to Twente before hosting Marseille in the Europa League and facing Feyenoord in De Klassieker.
By: Ben Mattinson / @Ben_Mattinson_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images