Next Generation – Isak breaking free of Zlatan comparisons as he proves Dortmund wrong

By Sports Desk May 08, 2020

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

April 7, 2016 could potentially be looked back upon as an iconic date for Swedish football in future – Ostersunds were beginning their first-ever Allsvenskan campaign at home to AIK, who started a strike partnership with a combined age of just 35.

As the haunting and ominous intro of AC/DC's 1980 classic 'Hells Bells' rang out around the Jamtkraft Arena, AIK's Alexander Isak – 16 at the time – took his first steps into fiery world of top-flight football, an often ruthless and brutal realm.

But, as Isak later recounted, the nerves were not really there and he took to his new reality with startling ease, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win with a delicate first-time finish from a right-wing cross to make him AIK's youngest league goalscorer in history.

By the following January, having seemingly had every major club in Europe clamouring for the 'next Zlatan Ibrahimovic', Isak was a full Sweden international and joined Borussia Dortmund in a deal supposedly worth up to €10million.

But a little more than three years on, here he is, in the comparatively unfashionable surroundings of Real Sociedad. One might ask where it went wrong for him, but the evidence suggests it will be Dortmund left to rue their parting.

'A very determined young man'

Isak played just five Bundesliga matches – including a solitary start – for Dortmund in two years with the club. Although upheaval and the club's frequent changes of coach around that time will not have helped, it looked a mighty fall for a talent who had previously been a desire of Real Madrid, particularly when he joined middling Eredivisie side Willem II on loan in January 2019.

But for Janne Andersson, Sweden coach and the man who gave Isak his international debut, it is the striker's mentality that stands out – he was not going to let those struggles at Dortmund define him.

Speaking to Stats Perform, Andersson said: "He has a unique talent but also works very hard and is a very determined young man.

"We have to remember that Alexander is still a young player and I hope that he can improve in a lot of ways, and knowing Alexander, I'm certain that he will continue to improve."

It turned out to be a move that reinvigorated the teenager's career, as he scored 13 goals in 16 league matches, including a run of 12 in his first 12 outings. Romario, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez – none managed such a feat during their formative years in the Eredivisie.

Although Dortmund failed to see that form as reason to keep hold of him, their loss has been La Real's gain – the Spanish side reportedly acquired him in a deal that will cost them a maximum of €7.5m.

Back in black (and yellow)? Don't count on it

To say that purchase has already been a success would be an understatement. In 34 games across all competitions, Isak has 14 goals split evenly between LaLiga – in which La Real are fourth – and the Copa del Rey, a competition the Basques have reached the final of.

His seven-goal haul in LaLiga may not lead to gasps of disbelief, but it is a solid record for someone with just nine starts to his name. Similarly, the fact no player in the division has been used as a substitute on more occasions highlights coach Imanol Alguacil's belief in him to make an impact.

Coincidentally, it was against the club that tried so hard to sign him – Madrid – that he produced his most devastating performance for La Real in February. Although the display contained some wastefulness one might expect of a young player, he wreaked havoc on Los Blancos' defence at the Santiago Bernabeu.

An acrobatic strike was soon followed by an emphatic near-post effort in a quickfire brace early in the second half, while it was his shot that rebounded back to Martin Odegaard for the opener and he later produced a wonderful assist for La Real's fourth in the 4-3 win.

Dortmund managed to retain a buy-back clause when selling Isak – but they should not expect him to agree to any return. "All I can say is, Dortmund is in my past and not in my future," he told Sportbladet earlier this year.

Shaking off the Zlatan comparisons

Agile despite his height, a Swedish striker and blessed with wonderful technique, it is easy to see how he came to be tagged as the 'next Zlatan', but they are significantly different in reality.

Isak is much more likely to drift out wide or look to race on to passes behind a defence than Ibrahimovic has ever done, while their personalities could not be more different – the former's persistent "no comment" responses to questions about the comparison in a 2016 interview with Cafe evidence of his rather more reserved nature.

Of course, on the pitch Isak has a long way to go to reach Ibrahimovic's level, but his early strides in LaLiga have been positive. With seven goals and one assist from 1,055 minutes of action, he is averaging a goal involvement every 132 minutes, better than one every two games.

His conversion rate of 21 per cent is promising as well, putting him within touching distance of the top five in that metric (of players with at least seven goals).

Isak has also recorded a solid number of shots on target (16), given he is often used out wide and from the bench. Lionel Messi (55) leads the way in that regard, but Chimy Avila – who has the fifth-most – has 28 from double the amount of starts as the Swedish forward.

Andersson has taken note of Isak's early progress and applauded his professionalism when playing – his maturity already a common source of praise during his fledgling career.

"For such a young player, he has a mature way of playing the game," Andersson added. "He is a very intelligent footballer that acts like a seasoned pro on the pitch. He has improved a lot this past season and I hope he still has more in him."

After breaking free of the wearisome Ibrahimovic comparisons, Isak is establishing himself as a star in his own right.

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