Why do Borussia Dortmund spend a reported €10 million for a 17-year-old striker from the Swedish league? Are they out of their minds or have they just signed one of hottest prospects in European football? BVB fans should hope for option number two and there are a lot of reasons to think so.
The name Alexander Isak might not sound familiar to many, yet the young up-and-coming centre forward has already left his mark in the Allsvenskan throughout the 2016 season, scoring 10 goals in 24 games, four of them when he was still 16 years old.
“As a result, the Swedish forward, whose parents immigrated to Sweden from Eritrea, was quickly compared to Sweden’s legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimović,” Manuel Veth points out in his recent Fussballstadt article.
Looking at his playing style, this comparison makes sense. Personality-wise, it could not be further from the truth. Isak appears to be a humble, rather introverted person who expresses himself through footballing actions on the pitch than through overbearing gestures or arrogant statements.
“Isak is on a level that we have never seen in Sweden before. His biggest attribute is his head. He is very smart.” (Christoffer Svanemar, Swedish journalist and specialist on AIK Solna)
Isak was born and grew up in Solna, a suburb of Stockholm. He joined the local club AIK when he was six years old and rose through the youth ranks. He made his debut for the first team on February 28, 2016, in a cup match against fourth division side Tenhults IF, scoring his first goal in their 6-0 win.
About a month later, Isak made his first appearance in the Allsvenskan. He was featured in the starting XI against Östersunds FK and scored a goal in the 50th minute. From then on, Isak was mostly the first-choice striker for head coach Andreas Alm and his successor Rikard Norling. Isak usually played alongside Carlos Strandberg, who was rumoured to sign for Dortmund a while ago, and later next to former Schalke and Hoffenheim striker Chinedu Obasi.
Even at the age of 16, Isak already developed a do-it-all mentality. He quickly noticed that he was one of the best players at AIK and should not just wait for his team-mates to carry the ball to him. Add to that the fact that AIK played a formation featuring two strikers upfront, and it becomes clear why Isak often roamed on the wings instead of waiting near the opposing centre-backs.
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He does not accelerate so well, yet can pick up speed and look almost unstoppable after a few yards. Isak’s long legs mark his unique dribbling style, where he uses his height and physical proportions to bypass opponents. His sidesteps are smooth and wide enough at the same time to evade the feet of the defenders in front of him. Isak does usually not lean too far to the side which strengthens his base. Given that he has a rather skinny physique, he should not be off-balance too much. Otherwise he could be bullied by outmuscling opponents.
Normally, Isak chooses to go to the right when taking on a defender, as his right foot is the stronger one. But make no mistake, the 17-year-old can also play a beautiful sliding ground pass—his specialty—with his left foot. Isak’s passing and shooting precision is one of his biggest assets, and that will remain that way at Dortmund. It should be expected that Thomas Tuchel will not employ him on the wings too often, given the amount of talented wingers the club already have and the expected departure of second-string striker Adrián Ramos to China. Moreover, Isak’s little mistakes he sometimes makes in dribbles did not cost him in the Allsvenskan, but they could hurt his performances and lead to occasional turnovers in the Bundesliga.
A weakness that could hinder Isak from early success at Dortmund is his underwhelming spatial awareness he has shown at times. He usually does not look around and screen the pitch before receiving the ball. Particularly in a crowded zone in front of the box and with his back towards the goal, he can only play backwards or to a team-mate who stands right next to him. His options are limited and he could be vulnerable to blind-side attacks.
Isak definitely has the talent to grow into a role similar to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s in the long run, which means he would be fielded as a lone striker with the tendency to drift into the half-space and speed through the gaps within the opposing back line. His precision in the box could help him tremendously to be at the end of successful plays. And he displayed great timing for runs behind the offside line at AIK, which is also a trademark move for Aubameyang.
But to be an overall productive part of Dortmund’s attacking department, Isak has to learn more about how to identify situations correctly before they appear in front of his eyes. He could experience some disappointing moments during training or even in matches if Tuchel decides to throw him in there quickly, yet these moments will only help him in the future.
After Ousmane Dembélé and Emre Mor, who joined the club in summer, Alexander Isak is the next exciting prospect that signs a contract with the BVB badge on it. He could be a breakout star early on, yet it is more likely that he will make a few steps before that happens. Signing him is a long-term investment and at the same time underlines Borussia Dortmund’s status as the home of soon-to-be world class players.