Not Zlatan The Next, But Isak The First
Written by Hasan Karim
Breaking out at just the age of 16, Alexander Isak has spent much of his young career living up to lofty expectations. He only has himself to blame, after a quite astonishing 2016.
Coming on as a substitute for his first-team debut at AIK as a 16-year-old, he scored away to fourth-tier Tenhults in February in the Swedish Cup group stage. And then, on his 17th birthday in a feisty Stockholm derby away to Djürgardens in September, Isak made an emphatic statement.
During the first half, the Swede made a darting run into the box, putting the ball in the net for his side, AIK. He then stood there, arms out, in front of the away end – almost as if to say, “remember the name, Alexander Isak”. He ended the night with a brace and the eyes of the nation on him, being dubbed ‘the new Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ – and so, a star was born.
Isak was just months into his first pro contract, and he repaid that faith that season with prolific form – 13 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions. He played in Europa League qualifiers, he established himself as a first-team regular. Come the end of the campaign, everyone was watching Sweden’s new star. But then he left the country.
The vultures had been circling, even as early as January 2017. Isak rejected moves all over Europe, notably including Real Madrid. But in the end, he opted for Germany in a transfer which saw him become the most expensive purchase in the history of Sweden’s top division.
His arrival at Borussia Dortmund was met with excitement - Bundesliga expert Critty Smith explains why the fans were so enthusiastic about his signing: “10 million euros for the ‘next Ibrahimovic’ - people thought he could be that good. He had a natural striking ability in Sweden and they thought he would be another property flip like Lewandowski, Sancho (soon to be), Götze, Hummels, Weigl, Kagawa, Dembélé, Aubameyang, among others.”
Surely the club’s reputation for nurturing young players’ potential would make this the ideal next step? “Dortmund is Germany’s largest and most powerful ‘selling club’,” says Smith, “but also one of the best developmental systems in the world. They have a high success rate of developing young talent into great players in a short amount of time.” However, the Swede struggled. Isak flitted between the second team, playing in the fourth tier, and the first team, but had to drop back down to Borussia Dortmund II to rediscover form.
When compared with fellow young star, Erling Braut Håland, fans wonder why Isak didn’t turn out the same - something Smith explains: “He is not like Håland. That’s where it went wrong. From the very first minute, he lacked that confidence of “man, I am better than you” - look at Håland, look at the swagger, and the confidence. That is what people thought Isak would be. It didn’t take long to see that he wasn’t.”
Perhaps the pressure of the media, and the expectation to be the next Ibra weighed heavy on the youngster’s shoulders. But as his young career progressed, it became more apparent the young Swede was nothing like his compatriot. Zlatan is known for his brash, outlandish and extroverted ways, whilst having a desire to be the biggest individual in the squad...but Isak? The total opposite, something that his former teammate Nils-Eric Johansson explained: “Zlatan wants to make a show; Isak doesn't. He is exactly the same on and off the pitch. Maybe some arrogance could actually have helped him." With his route to the Dortmund first team becoming less and less clear, current coach Lucien Favre ended up letting Isak join Dutch side Willem II on loan in January 2019 for the rest of the season. It was a necessary change of scene for the now 19-year-old to try to reignite his career.
And this move did work. His lone stint in the Eredivisie reminded the footballing world of his undoubted talent. In his 18 appearances in all competitions, the Swede contributed an impressive 14 goals – winning his side 1.3 points per game on average in the league.
Further statistical analysis also shows how well-rounded his skillset was during that campaign. In the Eredivisie, he was averaging two dribbles per game, just over one key pass per match and three shots per 90. His 60% conversion rate was well above that of the league average of 39%, further highlighting how clinical he is in front of goal.
Perhaps what stood out most to those watching the Swede was his ability on the ball. On face value, Isak is a tall and lanky forward – without seeing him play, automatically many would assume he is perfect for the long-ball game. That may be so, but he’s proven that he is so much more than just a target man.
One only has to watch his brilliant solo effort against Feyenoord to see proof of his incredible athleticism. Taking the ball from the flank, he drove through the heart of the defence before slotting home. It was these kinds of moments which won over the supporters.
With 12 goals in his opening 12 games, Isak set the division alight. He also played a key role in seeing Willem II to their first Dutch Cup final since 2005, scoring in the semi-final and converting what was ultimately the winning penalty in the shootout against AZ Alkmaar before losing the final to Ajax. It was a huge impact in such a short period of time.
Dutch football expert James Rowe highlighted just how much Dutch fans took to him, telling La Liga Lowdown: “He was very much well-received in Holland. However, it wasn’t just the fans of Willem who took to him but also the Dutch media.”
Whilst Willem II would have loved to see him remain at the club, they felt a sense of pride in seeing him move on and establish his name. The youngster reached a crossroads at the end of that 2018-19 season – return to Dortmund or seek a move away? With interest once again arriving from all over Europe, Isak joined LaLiga side Real Sociedad.
La Real battled interest from Manchester United and Chelsea in their pursuit of Isak, signing him for just €10m. When asked about the move, club president Jokin Aperribay spoke of his desire for a future-proof side: “We are convinced that the five years of Isak will be very beautiful years for La Real, with a young team eager to learn and face the future.”
Initially, the Swede got off to a slow start at Anoeta – battling Willian José for a starting place. Often being introduced late in games, he has been brought on as a substitute a total of 17 times out of 26 games in the league this season. Even with those chances, he only scored twice between opening day and December - the struggle to find form was real.
However, Isak suddenly got going heading into Christmas – a goal at home to Barcelona set him on his way, and then he scored what proved to be the winner in a seven-goal thriller at Osasuna on 22nd December. Exactly a month after that began the next streak, netting eight goals over six consecutive games – including a brace at the Estadio Bernabéu to dump Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey and an 83rd-minute winner at home to Athletic Club to clinch the derby at Anoeta.
“I am a player who likes to have the ball, with good technique and who works hard for the team,” Isak explains. And indeed the young Swede has proven to be a handful for plenty of reasons. Whilst being a perfectly capable finisher - converting 47% of his shots on target, a better rate than Karim Benzema - Isak is very much capable with the ball at his feet. He has completed 57% of his dribbles, once again better than the league average of 53%.
Combining with his other brilliant young colleagues, Mikel Oyarzabal and Martin Ødegaard, Real Sociedad have a side with the fearlessness of youth, blended perfectly with experience in players like Nacho Monreal and Asier Illarramendi - currently injured but a senior voice in the dressing room. Imanol Alguacil’s men have been a breath of fresh air, punching comfortably in the European spots whilst also sealing a spot in the Copa del Rey final.
With the season still ongoing, the Sweden international is now the Basque side’s go-to striker, and given the form he has produced within a Real Sociedad team which fans are falling in love with, the hype surrounding Isak is at an all-time high.
Despite being dubbed ‘the next Zlatan,’ Isak couldn’t be more different from his compatriot. La Real’s new talisman is instead ‘the first Isak’ and an exciting part of the new generation within Spain’s top flight.
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