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Newcastle United Is Betting Big On Alexander Isak

Real Sociedad's Swedish forward Alexander Isak celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Spanish league football match between Real Sociedad and Villarreal CF at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian on December 18, 2021.
Ander Gillenea/AFP via Getty Images

Alexander Isak now officially a Newcastle United player. The €70 million the club has reportedly agreed to pay Real Sociedad for the Swedish striker will make him the Premier League's second-most expensive transfer of the summer, placing him above Erling Haaland and Marc Cucurella, and right below Darwin Núñez. Even while expecting big splurges from the Saudi-backed club, it's still jarring to see a figure that large with the name Newcastle next to it. If we are witnessing the building of a new Newcastle, then Isak is its first major attempt to ensure that what comes next will be greater than what came before.

Isak's talent is truly spectacular. When assessing a young player, it's generally wise to focus on what they show they are capable of, even if only in brief flashes, rather than on their overall performance in any given practice or match. The thinking there is that things like consistency and effort can be learned and improved, while the more rare and coveted abilities are either there or they are not, and the work of player development is to turn flashes of brilliance into steady beams. Few players flash more brightly than Isak, who is still only just 22 years old.

Isak is tall, super fast, super agile, and blessed with overwhelming amounts of technical quality. He is a well-rounded player who can help his team in every phase of play and hurt his opponent from anywhere on the pitch—far from goal or inside the box, through the middle or out on the wings, threatening space behind or dropping into midfield. He is a dribbling wizard, and he can kick the absolute shit out of the ball with his hard and accurate ball-striking. Part of what makes him so alluring is that he has that rare quality of self-sufficiency. He needs very little help to create a dangerous attack, unlike the relatively limited poacher types who rely on teammates to make the plays that the poachers can then finish. Simply get the ball into Isak's feet, and he can and often does do the rest all by himself. It's an attribute that has earned him such an eye-popping career highlight reel, and it makes him someone who could help literally any team in the world.

Now, if there's a problem with Isak, a reason why he's going to Newcastle instead of a team like Real Madrid, it goes back to that bit about assessing a young player's talent. Isak has been flashing brilliance for many years, but he still hasn't been able to produce goals and assists at a consistent clip. The closest he came to the consistency expected of elite players was in 2021. In his second season at Real Sociedad, he scored 17 goals in 34 league appearances. That campaign, coupled with an electric turn at the Euros that summer, where he was just a few cumulative inches away from two or three goals that would've made him the talk of the tournament, had him poised for a legitimate eruption coming into the 2021–22 season.

But rather that kick on and launch himself into the conversation as one of the best young attackers in the game, Isak had a very disappointing year. Across 32 league matches, Isak scored just six goals, two of which were penalties. Even in la Real's extremely talented and creative attacking corps, Isak could not put away the chances his teammates were setting him up with. Each missed seemed to further eat away at his confidence in front of goal. Isak has never—or not yet, anyway—been a dead-eyed finisher, and instead gets his goals based on the sheer volume of chances his other skills get him in position for. This is no mortal sin, since plenty of excellent strikers have piled in goals the same way, and Isak's 2020–21 season proved him capable of hitting for big figures. But the disappointment of last year raises doubts about the height of Isak's ceiling, and whether he's fated to be one of those players who always looks better than he actually is.

Newcastle is making a €70 million wager that Isak's 2021 exploits are closer to what his future will look like than what he's shown more recently. It's a smart bet. Newcastle is in a unique position as a club with more money than it is capable of spending. Even with Saudi Arabia's riches, the Magpies are limited in their spending in a few different ways. There's what the Premier League's Profitability and Sustainability rules, which cap how much money a club's owners can invest past the club's own revenues in any given year. Then there's the club's own stature in the sport. It's all well and good that Newcastle could in theory shell out some €100 million on a single transfer without batting an eye, but almost no player worthy of that kind of transfer fee would want to play for what is still a mid-table Premier League team that is not particularly close to challenging for titles or even the Champions League places.

Isak's signing shows how Newcastle plans to get around the hurdles that lie between it and the elite. The Swede exists right in Newcastle's sweet spot: he is proven at a high level of competition, has legitimate world-class potential, plays for a club too small to offer more glory or money than Newcastle, and has not yet made himself a target for soccer's blue bloods. In that way he's similar to the club's signing of Bruno Guimarães, though the Brazilian was cheaper and also more fully realized. Isak's cost is high, and it's clear that Newcastle hesitated before paying it. (The club was linked to Isak months ago, but the trail went cold until very recently, probably because Newcastle preferred to keep its powder dry in favor of either a safer bet in the future or a cheaper bet in the present. I imagine some combination of the failure to sign João Pedro from Watford, Callum Wilson's latest injury, and the excitement of last weekend's game against Manchester City all came together to convince the club to bite the bullet and cough up the money for Isak.) But also, the money doesn't really matter to Newcastle, not when the club has been pretty frugal otherwise this summer, and especially not in light of what Isak will be worth if he reaches his potential.

Isak is a bet—one with solid odds of paying off, and one that won't be crippling should it not pan out. We can expect more gambles like this coming from the club in the coming years, though if Isak ever gets as good as he could be, this bet's payoff might be so big that Newcastle itself becomes a sure thing.

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