Alexander Isak: Dortmund’s prodigy firing Willem II to success
Those of you who were lucky enough to watch Zlatan Ibrahimović at Ajax will remember just how much of a force he was in the Netherlands. His power and height contrasted with his grace and technique, but it worked. One of the best young strikers to come out of Sweden since Ibrahimović is 19-year-old Alexander Isak.
Their similarities aren’t limited to nationality and position, though. Isak is similarly lanky and powerful, while also possessing the gift of a beautiful first touch and impressive technique. Now, the Dortmund prodigy is following in his fellow countryman’s footsteps by tearing up defences in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Alexander Isak is on loan at Willem II (pronounced ʋɪləm ˈtʋe, or ‘Villem Tvay’ to the English ear), a mid-tiered Eredivisie side, from German giants Borussia Dortmund. The Swedish frontman is known around the continent by fans who are well-versed in their European wonderkids database. However, as Isak continues to grow, he is quickly on track to transform from a potential talent to one already succeeding on the big stage.
Willem II sold star Spanish striker Fran Sol in January after he tallied 13 goals in the first half of the season. Isak was brought in largely as a stopgap, as the Tilburg club expected their goals to dry up after Sol’s departure. But the arrival of Dortmund’s teenager has, if anything, improved the team’s fortunes rather than simply maintaining a mid-level of success.
Isak has scored an astronomically high amount of goals for his short time at the club. Ten goals in nine starts culminates in a goal every 84 minutes, something extremely hard to attain especially at a club that doesn’t dominate matches. Once more, Isak’s excellent scoring rate has improved Willem II from a 12th-place side scoring 1.5 goals per match into an eighth-place side scoring nearly 2.2 per match.
For a striker in a side that doesn’t often maintain dominance over the ball, Alexander Isak has been extremely involved in Willem II’s play this season. When compared to Fran Sol, the striker who brought so much joy to the Tricolores supporters, Isak has been more involved in terms of dribbling, shots, and key passes.
While this doesn’t confirm the Swede’s superiority over the now-Dynamo Kyiv player, it says a lot about their respective play styles. Sol provided an efficient goalscoring presence. Isak provides that and much more.
One look at Willem II’s number nine and you have probably made up your mind: he’s a tall, lanky forward, surely he simply looks to latch onto long balls and score headers? Well, you’re right, but only partially. Of course, the teen is superbly athletic and his presence is certainly felt when battling opposing defenders. Isak’s involvement in midfield play is a huge part of his game as well, though.
We see here how Isak comes very deep when Willem II are playing Feyenoord. Context is key here; Willem are up 3-2 and are looking to prevent Feyenoord from having much of the ball. Isak realises this and, understanding his teammates aren’t looking for quick balls over the top, comes deep to provide an extra body in midfield.
Not only does this increase their ball-retention capability, but it also draws out a defender and creates space. Look at where Isak was when he was first positioned in the left-half space. There are yards of empty space for him to exploit if he can beat his man on the dribble.
We now understand, through statistics and visual evidence, that Alex Isak has increased the involvement of Willem II’s number nine role this season. But how is he able to do so while still maintaining such a high rate of scoring?
A lot of this is down to the team itself, as Adrie Koster’s side emphasise working the ball around instead of forcing many shots on goal. However, an even larger portion of Isak’s dual threat is himself and his elite skill on the ball.
Of the true strikers in the Eredivisie, it seems that Alexander Isak completes the most dribbles besides Utrecht’s Gyrano Kerk. He attempts quite a few per match for a striker, but he is certainly not inefficient, represented by his 44% dribble success rate. The goal he scored against Feyenoord, highlighted above, is a clear representation of how his involvement outside of a normal striker position, supplemented by his brilliant skill, helps Willem II create (and finish) chances.
A ball out on the flank is taken down well by Isak, his boot acting as a soft cushion for a ball that many players would struggle to control. Then, he turns and catches Feyenoord’s Ridgeciano Haps off balance. As he drives in, Isak pulls the ball back onto his right, dribbling past Haps once more, driving into the box and scoring with a powerful right-footed shot. It was Willem II’s version of Messi’s goal against Bilbao, complete with perfect touches, intelligent vision, and a strong finish.
While this play touches back upon our previous factor – Isak’s involvement – it is even more so an example of his impressive dribbling and balance. To take the ball down on the flank, under pressure, is difficult enough. Turning that play into a great scoring chance without using teammates for help is utterly brilliant.
Patience and perception
A 19-year-old striker adapting to life in a new country could be expected to make ill judgements once in a while: a rushed shot, an over-eager dribble, or even a bad pass that ruins an otherwise exceptional play. Alexander Isak hasn’t been perfect during his short loan spell, but these mistakes have been kept to a minimum. He has displayed a wisdom beyond his age, especially with balls around the box.
Willem II don’t take many shots; under 11 per match. This is partially due to their inability to create many, but it also shows that taking many shots isn’t a requirement for them. Whether it has been a seamless transition or a conscious adaptation, Isak has truly embraced this style of play. The picture below helps illustrates how smart and, ultimately, patient, the Bundesliga prospect has become.
Isak receives the ball just outside the box from his teammate’s powerful pass. The Swede seemingly takes into consideration the difficulty of controlling the pass and, ultimately, the presence of his teammate behind him when deciding to flick on the pass. Isak’s teammate is now in loads of space, leaving the recovering Fortuna Sittard defense flabbergasted.
All it took was simple touch, but the presence of mind to simply touch that ball on when so close to goal is a task that requires intelligence and trust. Isak clearly trusts that his teammate is where he needs to be, so he passes up an otherwise golden opportunity to take a first-time shot on goal.
Willem II’s gem of a striker isn’t only intelligent on the ball. Off the ball, Isak knows how to effectively find space for himself. We see here how the Swedish international drops deep, as he often does, before turning and running behind the defensive line.
Not only is this a difficult move to defend, as he draws a defender out before sprinting in the other direction, but he times it perfectly with the release of his teammate’s pass. Isak is caught offside 0.7 times per 90 minutes, which can certainly improve, but is not a huge amount considering how often he runs behind the lines.
In the coming years, you will hear about Alexander Isak in some capacity. If he is scoring 20 goals for Dortmund and lighting up European competitions, his finishing prowess will be highlighted. Conversely, if Isak fails to succeed immediately, he will be labeled as a player who relies on himself too much and can’t finish. Debates about finishing can go on forever, but the truth is that this particular striker does so much more than that.
We are looking at notoriously poor Eredivisie defences, but we can still see how skillful Isak is on the ball. His touches, quick shifts of the ball from side to side and ultimate ability to finish chances seem good enough to work at the highest level. Additionally, his patience, intelligence, and movement are superb for an Eredivisie-level forward, nevermind someone so young. Overall, Alexander Isak is already proving himself as an effective striker who should be given a chance in Borussia Dortmund’s squad next year.
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