Alexander Isak repaying Eddie Howe’s faith as Newcastle target strong finish

Alexander Isak was back on the pitch at St James’ Park last week, posing languidly alongside a Formula-E car as cameras whirred and a commercial film shoot began. Isak does languid very well, but that was not why Saudia, the national airline of Saudi Arabia and a key sponsor of both Newcastle United and Formula-E, decided the club’s Sweden striker was the right choice to drape his rangy limbs over a cutting edge, all electric, racing car.

After becoming the first Newcastle forward since Alan Shearer in 2003-04 to score more than 20 goals in all competitions in a top-flight campaign, the 24-year-old is hot property. Earlier this month, Tottenham’s Micky van de Ven arrived on Tyneside trailing a reputation as the Premier League’s quickest defender but the talented Dutchman was twice left on his backside as Isak demonstrated startling powers of acceleration from standing starts.

If Eddie Howe’s team overcome an injury-jinxed season and qualify for the Europa League, their No 14 will merit considerable credit. Since returning to fitness following a nagging groin problem, Isak has scored 12 times in 15 appearances, registering seven in his past seven league appearances. It helps that a two-footed striker – albeit his right remains stronger – revels in scoring all types of goals while tempting defenders to dive in as he glides across the pitch, petrifying outpaced markers.

During his time in charge of Bournemouth, Howe monitored the forward’s progress through Swedish youth football, so when Newcastle’s recruitment team presented him with a video of Isak in La Liga action for Real Sociedad they were preaching to the converted. So much so that, after 30 minutes’ viewing, Howe had seen enough and demanded his board did everything possible to sign a player capable of operating across the frontline as well as at No 10. In August 2022 the club agreed a £59m deal for the player.

Newcastle’s manager was particularly impressed by Isak’s enthusiasm for pressing from the front. The Swede is a thoroughly modern striker who, quite apart from scoring twice in the 4-0 win over Tottenham at St James’ pressed assiduously, leaving Yves Bissouma in particular with precious little room for manoeuvre. “Alex is unselfish,” says Howe, who remains determined to resist interest in Isak from, among others, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain and retain a player with four years remaining on his contract. “He’s got the X-factor about him. But it’s not about him, it’s about the team. That’s rare.”

Isak in Newcastle training. The striker has been described as a cross between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images

Pressing was an art Isak learned at Sociedad where his coach, Imanol Alguacil is, like Howe, something of a high priest of a high-intensity discipline, something Crystal Palace will need to combat when Newcastle visit Selhurst Park on Wednesday night.

Perhaps almost as importantly, the experience of playing, and living, in the Basque Country helped Isak cope with partisan, high-octane passions prior to experiencing the same in Newcastle.

Playing centre-forward for Newcastle has led a series of strikers – Isak’s current Sweden coach Jon Dahl Tomasson included – to discover that the famous black-and-white stripes can weigh heavy on the shoulders. A star for Denmark and, among other clubs, Milan, Tomasson struggled on Tyneside, but Isak has remained unfazed by stories of Jackie Milburn, Shearer et al. Perhaps it helps that, by his own admission, the Swede is “proper bad” at football history, while his rival for the centre-forward role, England’s Callum Wilson, wears the emotionally freighted No 9 shirt.

It is rare for Wilson and Isak to be fit at the same time but, on such occasions, the latter has invariably relocated to a wide-left role. Now that power balance is shifting and, once he returns from a pectoral problem, Wilson will, almost certainly, understudy the younger man ahead of an expected close-season transfer, with Howe suggesting as much when speaking prior to the Palace game. Isak, on the other hand, seems set to stay put in the upmarket Northumberland village where he lives and where his teammate Bruno Guimarães has also bought a £4m home.

skip past newsletter promotion

If Sweden’s failure to qualify for Euro 2024 disappointed a striker widely cast as a cross between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry (even if Isak’s graceful dribbling style makes him stylistically much closer to the latter) the chance for a prize asset to rest this summer privately delights Howe. There has certainly been precious little downtime in Isak’s world. His Eritrean parents built a new life in Stockholm after fleeing Africa during that country’s war of independence in the 1980s and raised their son to value hard work, resilience and self sufficiency.

In a sporting context, Isak honed his glorious technical skills while playing boyhood cage football against invariably older boys and men. Although he was always tall – he is now 6ft 4in – his skinniness ensured that survival depended on sheer skill. “It was life and death in the cage,” he recalls. “It taught me a lot.”

The experience led to a contract at Sweden’s 12-times champions, AIK, before Borussia Dortmund came calling. Although Isak appeared a perfect fit for the Bundesliga, he became collateral damage in a civil war between Dortmund’s then manager Thomas Tuchel and chief scout Sven Mislintat and was eventually loaned to Willem II in the Netherlands

If Dortmund seemed the wrong club at the wrong time, Real Sociedad proved thoroughly restorative, but Isak always felt English football would suit him even better; 21 goals in 36 games for Newcastle this season suggests he was right.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.