A footballing unicorn, Zlatan’s heir, the next Thierry Henry, and what not? — The Hard Tackle takes a deep dive into the profile of Alexander Isak.

Newcastle United have made a strong start to the 2022/23 season, with Eddie Howe in his first full season in charge of the Magpies after joining the club last year. Newcastle have only lost one of their six matches in the Premier League this season and are 11th in the table with seven points on the board as things stand.

This comes after the new director of football Dan Ashworth spent the summer transfer window strengthening Howe’s team by bringing in smart additions in Nick Pope, Alexander Isak, Matt Targett, and Sven Botman for a combined €150 million in transfer fees.

The Magpies, in fact, broke their transfer record by signing Isak from Real Sociedad in August as their big-money statement signing. Newcastle spent an upfront payment of £60 million on the former AIK wonderkid, which should eventually jump to approximately £64 million with add-ons.

It was a tempting offer for Real Sociedad, despite the fact that La Real originally set their buyout price at a considerably higher €90 million. Indeed, the fee is high for a 22-year-old with an up-and-down career so far. But Isak adds much-needed firepower to a frontline that had previously relied on injury-prone Callum Wilson and somewhat goal-shy winter recruit Chris Wood to deliver the goods in the final third.

It appears that the Swedish international has already hit the ground running for his new club, impressing in his two Premier League appearances so far. He marked his arrival with a debut goal against Liverpool, putting his side ahead midway through the first half with a devastating finish past a hapless Alisson Becker, lashing the ball high into the roof of the net from a delightful through pass from Sean Longstaff.

Then he nearly scored again, beating not one but two Liverpool defenders and the keeper, but the goal was ruled out for a very tight offside. Isak then put in another strong performance against Crystal Palace. And while Newcastle did not win either game, Isak managed to capture the imagination of the Geordie fans with glimpses of his talent and obvious bags of potential.

Here, at The Hard Tackle, we will put the player’s career under the scanner, detailing his strengths and weaknesses and how he will be more of a long-term investment than a waste of money for Howe’s men in the seasons ahead.

Career background

Alexander Isak had been projected for the top for some time, ever since he broke into the first team at his boyhood club AIK Fotboll as a 16-year-old wonderkid, finding the back of the net ten times from 19 starts in his debut campaign.

The hype around him in his homeland quickly built up and alerted a host of top European clubs. He reportedly turned down Real Madrid before putting pen to paper on a deal with Borussia Dortmund, who were convinced to pay the Swedish club AIK a reported £8 million for a then 17-year-old in January 2017.

In theory, the move was the right one, with the German outfit renowned for their talent development. However, Isak made only limited appearances for Dortmund’s second and senior teams during his adjustment period.

After failing to break into the first team, the Swede was then loaned out to Willem II in the Netherlands at the end of the 2018/19 season. His loan stint was a huge success, as he scored 13 goals in 16 games and helped Willem reach the cup final. He also became the first-ever player in Eredivisie history to score a penalty hat-trick.

However, when he returned to Dortmund following his loan term, he was deemed surplus to requirements, and rumours of a much-hyped young forward joining the club, a certain teenage goal-machine named Erling Haaland, began to circulate.

This meant that Isak had no place at Borussia Park and was sold to Real Sociedad in the summer of 2019. He made a relatively slow start to life in La Liga, as he was mainly used as a substitute behind Willian Jose, getting nine goals from just under 1500 minutes of league action.

However, the young Swede exploded onto the scene in the Copa Del Rey, garnering seven goals and two assists in just eight appearances to fire La Real to their first trophy in over three decades, which comes as music to the ears of Newcastle fans, who have been waiting for god knows how long to see their club lift a trophy.

He also began to form a combination with Martin Odegaard, which propelled Real Sociedad to a famous 4-3 triumph over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the quarter-final stage of the competition.

However, he truly announced himself in the following season, netting no less than 17 goals in 30 starts in La Liga as a 21-year-old, establishing himself as one of the game’s brightest prospects. Only five players scored more than him in La Liga, and that summer he thrived for Sweden at the Euros.

At this point, Isak was heavily linked with some of the Premier League’s top guns, including Manchester United and Arsenal, with the latter even coming very close to signing him back in January this year after a failed pursuit of Dusan Vlahovic. Last season proved more difficult for the player, whose production came crashing with a mere tally of six league goals all season.

In further disappointment for Isak, he was part of the Swedish national side that failed to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, losing to Poland in the play-offs. The ongoing season will be a different test for Isak with the challenge of adapting to a new country and a new league, though he has made a promising start to his career in the famous Black and White.

Style of play

Agile despite his towering frame, quick feet, a Swedish striker and blessed with wonderful technique. It is no wonder how Isak came to be tagged as the ‘next Zlatan’, although they are still stylistically very dissimilar in reality. In fact, his style of play is more reminiscent of Thierry Henry than the former.

Standing tall at 6ft 3in, Isak boasts a lanky frame up top. But do not let that deceive you that he is a typical out-and-out centre-forward or a target-man, or a penalty box merchant. The Swede is far from it. While he can sometimes dominate the centre-backs in physical battles, he is more dangerous with the ball at his feet, where he can utilise his dribbling ability to hurt opponents.

A highly technical, greyhound-esque striker profile, he excels in tight spaces due to his excellent close control and slight maneuvers that disorganise the opposition backline upon arriving inside the box, making him an imminent threat.

One of his big trademarks is that he slightly backs towards the defender while collecting the ball, only to drop his shoulder at the last moment and burst away from the defender with acceleration, utilising his afterburners. In that regard, he is very similar to Jamie Vardy or Callum Wilson.

Isak can be a tricky opponent to pin down due to his lanky frame, decent ball shielding, and deceptively quick turn of pace. Many a time, defenders try to get close to him and put physical pressure on him, but his technical elegance makes him as evasive as water.

His pace makes him a serious threat when he plays in between the two central defenders, as he remains proficient at timing his runs well in behind the opposition backline. When Isak does not make a run in behind, he drops a little to pick up a pass, dragging defenders out of position and creating space for those in support to exploit.

His intelligent movement is another aspect of his multi-faceted game. One can see him making curved runs to generate and exploit space in behind all on his own. He similarly bends his pressing runs, which have a high chance of intercepting the ball. When starved of service, Isak generally tends to shift towards the left-flank in a bid to create overloads, link plays, or make a darting dribble, cut inside, and shoot across the goal powerfully.

Alex isak heatmap
Alexander Isak 2021/22 Heatmap

His heat map perfectly encapsulates all of the above-mentioned points. Most of his work done is inside or on the periphery of the penalty are but a significant amount outside as well, with the graphic showing that Isak prefers to drift into the box late or stay on the edge of the box waiting for cutbacks.

It also suggests that Isak can come deep and then progress with the ball, or hold the ball and link-up with the attacking midfielder, or try some powerful shots from distance.

In short, Isak is the perfect embodiment of a modern forward who does not merely spring to life in the penalty box but is happy to press from the front and work the channels with a high work rate; a technical finisher who can score goals from unlikely scenarios, angles, and positions; and a quick player who is unafraid of a pure foot race or of the prospect of fronting full-backs up with a dribble.

All in all, Isak is a strong, athletic striker who will bring a very different dynamic to Newcastle’s attack as he is a space-shifter who can come deep to link play. He possesses poacher instincts, routinely scoring tap-ins, getting on the end of things, and the ability to latch onto passes, slalom his way past opponents, and then fire past the keeper.

Strengths

The Premier League is the toughest and most intense league in the world. It generally takes time for a young striker to settle in, but Alexander Isak has the tools to do well.

One of his best assets is his willingness and ability to drive with the ball at his feet. In this way, the 22-year-old is able to push the attack forward and stretch the opposition’s defence at the same time, which comes in very handy for teams who play vertical, fast-flowing football, like Real Sociedad and now Newcastle United.

Isak is regarded as one of the most mobile strikers around, in terms of his agility, acceleration, and ability to dribble past defenders effortlessly with technical brilliance usually associated with low centre-of-gravity players. The devastating combination of technical skills and quick feet, with a tall, slender frame, means that Isak glides between challenges for fun.

His shot generation is absolutely impeccable, partly down to the fact that he can create chances for himself and gets off a high volume of shots, which bodes very well in a league where attackers are not afforded much time or space on the ball. But that plays to all of his strong attributes.

isak fbrefss
Alexander Isak dribbling and Shot-creating action metrics (fbref)

Stats from fbref support the above strengths too, with Isak ranking in the top 15% of strikers in the top five leagues for carries into the final third and penalty box, while in the top 10% for dribbles attempted, completed, and successful take-on leading to shots.

Furthermore, Isak’s ability to use both feet makes him an incredibly dangerous player in and around the area. Not only is he unpredictable on the ball, but his ability to generate fantastic power on both pegs makes him very adept at powering home snap shots and loose balls from close range.

He can create, pass, dribble, strike, finish, go on exciting runs, and make things happen. As stated in a must-read Athletic piece, Isak is a “footballing unicorn” and these types of all-round striker do not come around very often. Thus, a signing of this calibre is a huge coup for Newcastle and another step towards their long-term ambitions.

Weaknesses

It is worth noting that Isak has historically been a bit of a streaky player in front of the goal. When he is running hot, everything seems to go in, but when he is not, he cannot hit a barn door with a banjo. While he will never go missing in a match due to his desire to get on the ball and run at defenders, he is exclusively a form player when it comes to goal-scoring.

A major chunk of his goals have come in stacks; for example, he scored ten times in just seven games in his breakout year in the Netherlands, or when he went on a purple patch from early January to February last year, scoring nine times in six games in his most productive season at Real Sociedad before enduring a goal drought.

His inexperience could be an excuse for Isak’s disappointing 2021/22 season, in which he fell way short of his expected goals (11.2) and had his shot conversion rate drop to 8.2%, netting every 359 minutes. He churned chances for himself but missed some absolute sitters with awry finishing, which led to eyebrows being raised at the exorbitant price Newcastle paid to sign him.

But not all of it was his fault. Real Sociedad were far less creative, with Martin Odegaard sold to Arsenal and Mikel Oyarzabal injured. Real Sociedad were also much more defensive that season, scoring just 40 goals as compared to 59 the season prior. That is woeful. Levante, who finished 19th and got relegated, scored 11 goals more than the Basque outfit in 2021/22.

The arrival of Alexander Sorloth did not help Isak’s cause either, as both forwards liked to occupy similar striking positions and half-spaces, with the latter forced to drop deep and take shots further away from goal. The comparison below reveals that Isak took more shots from outside the six-yard box than the previous season.

Alexander Isak 2020-21 vs 2021-22 shotmap
Alexander Isak 2020/21 vs 2021/22 shot-map

However, that does not take away from the fact that Newcastle are banking on him returning to his peak levels from the 2020/21 season (17 goals, 16.8 xG, 21.0 shot conversion, 139 mins per goal).

The other major criticism of Isak is that he does not make good enough use of his distinctive, lanky figure. His physical resistance can be seen when he puts his body across the ball, but it could be better when receiving with his back to the goal.

He is also not a particularly strong aerial target. Only three of his 33 league goals for Real Sociedad have been headers. Meanwhile, Isak ranks in the bottom 34% of forwards for aerial duels won. His runs for crosses are feeble, lacking any venom and direction, as well as desire to an extent.

With plenty of years ahead of him, Isak still has a great deal to learn and a lot of untapped potential for Howe to work with on the training pitch. Learning from a classic No.9 like Callum Wilson might also help him reach that next level.

Where does he fit into Eddie Howe’s system at Newcastle?

One of the most important attributes that was a big factor behind the Magpies’ going all-out to secure Isak’s signature is his tremendous versatility to operate anywhere in the front-line in a 4-3-3, as a second striker in a 4-4-2, or as an inside forward in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Let us take a look at what he will offer if deployed in each scenario, one-by-one.

Isak as a lone striker

In his most productive season at Real Sociedad, Isak was more of a penetrative lone centre-forward, where he could stretch in behind opposition defensive lines and threaten for longer periods during the game. His towering frame, explosiveness, and sudden bursts of pace are crucial to surprising the defenders and making him a tricky customer to deal with.

While his hold-up play can be shoddy, he is excellent at holding onto the ball while his teammates make the ideal movements to receive the ball. Isak is nowhere near a finished article yet, but it is not hard to see him rapidly improve and add to his game in the near future, helped by the fact that he is a very intelligent and smart player.

Isak already has a little bit of everything in his game; an instinctive finisher in chaotic situations and a composed striker when under pressure, albeit his first touch can let him down on occasions. He is a high-volume shooter, which is another good indicator to identify true striker qualities.

Along with his confidence on the ball, Isak is no stranger to spectacular goals, and he has a range of finishes in his inventory; from a back-heeled volley to a right-footed rocket to bicycle kicks to half-volleys to, most importantly, six-yard tap-ins, the Swede can win games all by himself when he is playing at the top of his game.

In many ways, Isak has very similar traits to that of Wilson and can be considered an ideal successor in the long run since he has a more complete profile than his teammate. But Wilson is a more robust presence up top and is a handful to cope with for even the most accomplished of Premier League defenders. That leads us swiftly to the next section, which discusses how Isak will likely perform in a double act with the Newcastle No. 9.

Isak in a front two with Callum Wilson, or as an inside forward

As alluded to earlier, Isak excelled in different roles at Real Socieded with varying degrees of success. While he was not as prolific, his stats last season demonstrate his ability to skip past players, drive his team up the pitch and create chances, as shown in the graphic below, which compares his attacking output in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons.

In Isak, Eddie Howe has a striker comfortable dropping to link play. He attempts a lot of flicks and layoffs as his teammates play quick interplays and direct passes to him. Isak can also execute a perfectly weighted through ball after driving with the ball or coming in from the flank and create on his own.

Isak vs Wilson
Spider-Web 2021/22 season: Alexander Isak (green) vs Callum Wilson (blue)

So, playing him off a service-reliant forward like Wilson as a second striker should complement both strikers well, in theory at least. The 30-year-old marksman, who loves getting involved in a physical battle with opposition centre-backs, plays off the shoulder of the last defender and is arguably one of the most prolific penalty box poachers in the Premier League when fit.

However, there is a school of thought that pairing him alongside someone who can connect the plays and put chances on his plate would serve his natural finisher talents better, given his passing and final pass are not quite up to the scratch of being involved in intricate build-ups.

Isak has also proven himself to be a formidable threat in counter-attacking situations. He is at ease offering and operating down both the left and right sides of the pitch as an inside forward, showcasing his mobility and technical ability; his link-up play and speed with and without the ball make him a complete package and a decisive player in the attacking third.

Why Alexander Isak? A £60 million gamble or a potential game changer? – THT verdict

It is easy to see why. Newcastle were fishing in a relatively tiny pool of players after their failed pursuit of French prodigy Hugo Ekitike, since the majority of the continent’s sought-after strikers had already been picked up by European top guns, including the likes of Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus), Darwin Nunez (Liverpool), and Erling Haaland (Manchester City), among others.

So, finding the right deal that ticked all the boxes was proving difficult. Eddie Howe, of course, sought a forward who would improve his side, but the former Bournemouth coach was wary not to disrupt the spirit in the dressing room and build on last season’s positive momentum.

Isak seemed to be the next best available option in the bracket of under-23 forwards who play in one of the big five European leagues and have produced a tangible level of output in recent seasons, with his unique profile and versatility only strengthening his case.

And it looks like the Magpies’ scouting team certainly did their homework on Isak’s background. Sweden have had two star strikers emerge in recent generations, namely Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Looking ahead to the coming years, it is safe to say Alexander Isak is primed to be the next flagbearer for Swedish football.

The Swedish forward’s worldwide reputation has risen since his stellar performances at the Euros, and receiving praise from his country’s greatest ever player does not do much to alleviate the hype that has surrounded him from an early age. Speaking when Isak was a 17-year-old prospect, Ibrahimovic said, “I have seen him in action and he is fantastic.”

Long dubbed “the next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” due to his nationality, towering frame, and position rather than his playing style, he is actually a completely contrasting character profile to that of his compatriot; whilst Ibrahimovic in his prime was flamboyant, outspoken, and keen for the public attention, Isak is composed, humble, and down to earth.

He comes across as a soft-spoken guy who tries to avoid the media and has previously shown maturity beyond his youth. He is far more interested in letting his football do the talking, while he already has decent experience of adjusting to new leagues and environments, and speaks fluent English, which was seen as a real bonus considering the deal was concluded in the final week of the transfer window.

In short, spending £60 million on a not-so-prolific soon-to-be 23-year-old is a risky bet, but Isak possesses the right personality, work ethic, and mentality, as well as technical skills, to make it a success story in the Premier League. (And if even then it doesn’t work out, Howe can always transform him into a top-notch midfielder, as he did with Newcastle’s last club-record acquisition, Joelinton.)

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