Alexander Isak, the prodigy who thrived in La Liga, can thrill Newcastle Newcastle United

orAlexander Isak has joined Newcastle for a club-record fee, but anyone who believes the pressure that comes with a move of that magnitude may faze the 22-year-old should think again. Because if there is one thing Isak has been doing throughout his career it is breaking records.

In January 2017, on his second appearance for Sweden, he became his country’s youngest goalscorer at the age of 17. He took one touch with the outside of his right foot in the penalty area before a slightly scuffed shot with his left found its way past the Slovakia goalkeeper (a certain Martin Dubravka), beating a record that had stood for 105 years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as a comparison, scored his first international goal at the age of 20.

The year before, Isak had become AIK’s youngest goalscorer in a competitive game aged 16 years, five months and seven days. Soon after he was his club’s youngest goalscorer in the Swedish top flight and he celebrated his 17th birthday by scoring twice against arch-rivals Djurgården.

But despite having so much success so early Isak has remained incredibly humble and hard-working. His career has not been straightforward despite a move to Borussia Dortmund a few weeks after that first goal for Sweden. At Dortmund he became a victim of a power struggle between the then manager, Thomas Tuchel, and the board. The current Chelsea coach was not involved in the decision to sign Isak and gave him few chances. In fact, Isak played only four minutes for the German, in a cup game when Dortmund were 3-0 up.

Tuchel left that summer but Isak still struggled and it wasn’t until after a move to Real Sociedad in the summer of 2019 that he got his breakthrough. He is not one to have regrets though and, asked in 2020 whether he was still happy with the decision to join Dortmund instead of Real Madrid, he said: “One hundred per cent. I have gone this way and now I am in a place where I feel good. It is impossible to know what would have happened if I had chosen another route; then maybe I would have been back in Sweden by now.”

His mental strength comes from early career setbacks. Having had it very easy as a young boy he suddenly struggled in his early teenage years at AIK. “Of course I have had tough periods before,” he told Aftonbladet in 2017. “I was dropped to the bench. They thought I didn’t work hard enough and they were right. I didn’t do what was needed to be in the team.

“But in the end I realized that I had to work really hard, just like the others. It was then that I realized that this was serious, you have to try really hard [to succeed]. So that’s when I sorted myself out.”

Alexander Isak at Molineux before Sunday's 1-1 draw between Wolves and Newcastle.
Alexander Isak at Molineux before Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Wolves and Newcastle. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images

Isak grew up in Bagartorp just outside Stockholm, both his parents having moved from Eritrea (then under Ethiopian annexation) at the end of the 1980s. Isak started playing football at a place called simply “the pitch”, which was gravel to start with and later artificial turf. He played there in all of his free time, but did not neglect school, where he was described as “a model student” and excelled in sports.

“I have never had a student who has jumped 1.75m in high jump without ever training,” his PE teacher, Christer Corpi, told Expressen in 2021. “He absolutely destroyed everyone in table tennis as well.”

Another teacher, Ann-Cathrin Lif, says she does not remember anyone else who had so much time off to play football or train but her overall memory is of an extremely well-behaved and polite young person. “All the guys at ‘the pitch’ looked up to him, especially the younger ones. I noticed how respectful he was towards the younger players. A nice person, simply put. He was a negotiator if there was a conflict. He could get angry and irritated like everyone else but he had a calm aura.”

Isak had joined AIK, the nearest top-flight team, at the age of six and apart from a few blips it was clear he was a special player. He was part of the club’s very successful team of players born in 1999 and although many have played top-flight football in Sweden or abroad no one has reached Isak’s heights.

His coach at AIK, Elie Mineirji, told Aftonbladet why, at the age of 14, Isak stood out. “First of all he had talent of course,” he says, “but he was also a good passer, could read the game and had a game awareness that not many had at that age. If we had exercises with one or two touches he was the one who was the best. The only thing that was missing then was the desire to be the best, but we talked a lot about that when he was 14, with him and his parents.”

Two years later he was scoring for the first team and his journey had begun in earnest. At Real Sociedad he has returned figures of nine, 17 and six league goals, with that 2020-21 season standing out. Only five players scored more than him in La Liga and that summer he excelled for Sweden at the Euros.

Last season proved more difficult for a player who has a direct, flowing style and is extremely quick. He created chances for himself but missed several of them, including some sitters. But not all of it was his fault. Sociedad were far less creative, particularly when Mikel Oyarzabal was injured, and Isak knows what to do when things are not going to plan. “You always have to think about how good you are when you are at your best,” he once said. “Most players have a feeling for how good you are plow be even when things are not happening for them on the pitch. You have to visualize yourself at the top of your game.”

This season will be a different test for Isak with a new country and a new league, in which he is expected to make his debut at Anfield on Wednesday, having missed Sunday’s draw at Wolves due to a delay in obtaining a work permit. The fact that he has ended up costing more than Erling Haaland and Richarlison, to take two players who have moved this summer, is a sign that Newcastle have overpaid towards the end of the window. But that doesn’t mean Isak is a bad signing. He has all the attributes to be a success.

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