When Newcastle United splashed out £60 million on Real Sociedad striker Alexander Isak in the summer transfer window of 2022, eyebrows were raised across European football. The club took a calculated risk on the Swede and flexed their muscles in the European market by prying away one of the most coveted forwards in world football. Most inside the Newcastle hierarchy accepted that the move was risky, but their diligence has since paid off, and Isak is passing the outside critics’ test with flying colours.
Manager Eddie Howe has described Isak as having “everything a centre-forward needs”, but not much has really changed since Isak initially broke onto the scene for AIK in Stockholm. Despite a lack of prolific goalscoring, the 23-year-old had previously been dubbed the “new Zlatan Ibrahimovic”. Such comparisons are simply due to Isak’s imposing stature and aerial threat, not to mention the powerful gallop he seems to possess over long distances.
Since the forward’s move to Sociedad from Borussia Dortmund in 2019, he has often cut a frustrated figure in front of goal. In fact, Isak’s struggles to find the back of the net on a consistent basis were exhibited as recently as last season, with just six goals in 32 La Liga appearances for the club. He has since notched eight Premier League goals for Newcastle in 14 appearances, despite a four-month injury layoff, a return that has caused the Newcastle board to feel justified after such an expensive outlay on a relatively unproven young striker.
But, after a pair of exceptional performances and thus being awarded two man-of-the-match awards, the Swede is starting to show the football world what he is all about. Isak showcased his incredible composure in front of goal on April 5 when he lifted the ball calmly over a despairing Lukasz Fabianski in the impressive 5-1 win at West Ham, not to mention his sweeping finish against Brentford as recently as last Saturday. Such performances have led to comparisons with a young Thierry Henry and among the Newcastle coaching staff, with Eddie Howe’s backroom collective feeling incredibly optimistic about what the club could achieve with their new attacking dynamo.
Some have often suggested that Isak is too injury-prone to cope with the physical demands of the English game. That may well prove to be the case, but rival fans have been left shaking and pulling their hair out after interest in the young Swede became clear from European giants such as Arsenal and Real Madrid in the summer of 2021. Both clubs deviated from the approach, with Arsenal managing to strike a deal with Manchester City for Gabriel Jesus and Real Madrid rewarding Karim Benzema with a new contract.
Isak may be working with a small sample size at this stage, but the frequency of his goalscoring feats can only be bettered by Manchester City’s Erling Haaland among those who have contributed more than 800 Premier League minutes so far this season. Isak sits second behind the Norwegian and features in the upper percentile of non-penalty goals with 0.52 per 90. The blistering pace and incredible athleticism are only a couple of examples of why the Newcastle board sanctioned what remains to be the club’s record signing.
In the summer of 2022, Newcastle were bereft of forward options that the club hierarchy felt were up to the standard of what a Champions League-chasing team would need to achieve the unthinkable. English striker Callum Wilson remains to show inconsistencies with form and injuries, and the club felt as if a major investment in the forward line would catapult them into the top four and secure them Champions League qualification for the first time since 2002.
Isak’s debut for Newcastle came at a time when the club was starting to show the true powers of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). It was a clear summer night in August when he stepped onto the Anfield pitch against Liverpool and smashed home a brilliant opener into the roof of the net after just 37 minutes.
The famous crowd was stunned, wondering how far their opposition could go over the next few years with such financial dominance backing them. The score ended 2-1 to Liverpool that night, as Fabio Carvalho’s last-gasp winner sent the Anfield faithful into raptures. Eddie Howe and his players, however, knew this was just a sign of what Isak could offer them going forward.
Along with being the formidable presence that he is, Isak provides width on occasion too. His first-half performance against Brentford last weekend was muted, to say the least, and he looked frustrated with the lack of service. Eddie Howe’s tactical masterstroke to bring Callum Wilson on and set up in a 4-4-2 formation allowed the Swede to drift into wide areas and win the physical battles with the Brentford full-backs. This isn’t anything new; however, as many will tell you, it was from the left-hand side where Isak picked up the ball against Kosovo in a World Cup qualifier back in 2021 and curled the ball into the top corner after an audacious nutmeg.
After a ferocious start to life in the Premier League, Isak returned from international duty in September with a thigh injury. The issue curtailed his run in the team up to the Qatar World Cup and didn’t result in a single appearance until Newcastle’s last-gasp 1-0 win over Fulham on the 15th of January, a match in which he scored the winner after coming on as a substitute. Then there was the understandable chatter about what Isak could bring to the team should he stay fit.
The more compelling discussion surrounded the financial prowess of Newcastle’s ownership model and how this signing was the start of a Manchester City-like journey with the backing of a nation-state. Being effectively owned by a country in modern football is concerning at any point in time, but after the wealth of the Saudi PIF was revealed to be almost ten times that of Sheikh Mansour at City, the football world held its breath in anticipation of what the next decade might hold for the beautiful game.
Isak may be the blueprint for a mega-wealthy football club to make its first star signing, although there are areas of his game to improve. The Magpies have since allowed him to flourish in a freer role, roaming across the front three and providing an output of eight goals from 6.4 xG (expected goals).
On March 12, the Swede exhibited a significant improvement in his aerial threat by nodding home an exquisite opener against Wolves. Eddie Howe described the goal as reminiscent of “the finish of a traditional nine.” The Newcastle boss wasn’t wrong, as Isak scored twice, including a crucial late winner at Nottingham Forest the following Friday to propel the Tyneside club back into the Champions League places.
The Forest performance was Isak’s breakthrough display. His equaliser came from a brilliant piece of improvisation as Allan Saint-Maximin’s cross dropped just behind him before he expertly finished with a snapshot into the bottom corner. The athleticism on display silenced the Forest fans, and a late penalty from Isak secured the points for the Magpies, which has since proved to be an incredibly important platform for Newcastle to build on, as they have now recorded four wins in a row.
Although some may question Newcastle’s ability to sustain such good form and compete in next season’s Champions League, Howe will be relishing the challenge of performing under the lights in front of a packed St James Park with his star striker showcasing his ability on the biggest stage in European football. The only thing that can stop the Swede from powering his way to the top is what usually keeps top players from reaching their peak: injuries.
Isak’s fitness record isn’t ideal. Apparent chronic thigh and hamstring issues have kept him out of nearly half of Newcastle’s Premier League fixtures since joining the club, a problem which Eddie Howe and his backroom staff were already made to suffer from with Callum Wilson’s inconsistent availability prior to the signing of Isak. There is optimism, however, that with training programmes put in place with the intention of strengthening the weaker muscles in his body, the Swede will be available on a more consistent basis next season as they aim to compete on four different fronts for the first time in twenty years.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Pantling / Getty Images