Alexander Isak: ‘I never had doubts, the only question was how long’

Alexander Isak: ‘I never had doubts, the only question was how long’
Exclusive interview: One of the most coveted young strikers in Europe, Isak discusses his teenage breakthrough, flourishing in La Liga, and his desire to one day play in the Premier League

“The reality of winning? It was very bad compared to the dream,” Alexander Isak says before breaking into laughter. Just a few days after scoring on his 100th appearance for Real Sociedad, the 22-year-old is talking about the relentless noise of football and the slower silence of San Sebastian; the hardship of making new homes and then having to leave them behind. He usually refuses to entertain regrets but, as he settles on his favourite memory in Spain, when La Real defeated Basque rivals Athletic Club in the delayed, behind-closed-doors Copa del Rey final earlier this year, he stops to afford just one. “As a kid, you always imagine the fans in the stadium, the celebrations on the street, the bus through the city,” he says. “It was incredible to win. It was so special for the club and it was my first trophy, but it was a bit sad, too. After having to wait for more than a year to play the match, winning felt more like relief than happiness.”

If there’s a lesson, it’s that even for one of the best young forwards in the world, the vision rarely turns out as first expected. Last season, Isak announced himself to every major club in Europe, scoring 17 goals in La Liga before starring for Sweden at Euro 2020. He was coveted by Barcelona and Arsenal, who were quoted a release clause of €75m – a new contract this summer saw it increased to €95m. They are the sort of stats and sums that have been forecast ever since Isak was 16-years-old, breaking into the first team at AIK with a blaze of goals that lured dozens of scouts to Stockholm to watch his young flame burn. “I never felt any pressure then,” Isak says. “Nobody knew what to expect but I had a talent, I saw an opportunity and I took it.”

The only surprise, then, is that it would be five years and four different countries before Isak’s star truly exploded – or that it would be at La Real, at all. Shortly after his 17th birthday, he had agreed terms with Real Madrid but was persuaded to Borussia Dortmund by the club’s record of developing young players. An €11m fee was the largest ever paid to a Swedish club but almost as soon Isak landed in Germany, he became a pawn in the civil war between Thomas Tuchel and the club’s chief scout, Sven Mislintat.

Days after signing, Tuchel told a press conference he’d never heard of Isak, leading to Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s chief executive, to make a private apology to the teenager. In the end, Tuchel resisted calls to give Isak a Bundesliga debut at all, suggesting it would hamper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s chances in the Golden Boot race. What had seemed the most sensible option instead stunted Isak’s momentum. Three new coaches arrived in the space of 12 months, all focused on short-term results, and they rarely offered any individual support. Even now, for a club so attuned to polishing rough diamonds, it remains a rare blemish.

“I didn’t hesitate to leave Sweden, it was just deciding where,” Isak says. “In football, you never know when the next chance is going to come, and so you take it. Obviously, as a young player, you need time on the pitch. If you’re not getting that, all you can do is train harder. That’s what I did, I stayed later, I trained on my own as well. I knew my chance would come, even if it wasn’t there, I knew it would come at another club and I wanted to be ready.”

Isak insists there are no regrets, either. “It was still a good experience for me, I learned a lot, I developed a lot, and I was around great young players who became good friends. You make each other better. I never doubted myself or my quality. The only question was how long it would take to get back my form.”

The answer came quickly and emphatically. Isak spent five months on loan at Willem II in Holland in 2019 and scored 12 goals in his first 12 Eredivisie games, forging the path to leave Dortmund on a permanent deal. He was sold to La Real for €11m – the exact same fee he’d initially signed for – and a buy-back clause in the deal was removed this summer. “That season at Willem II was the most important season of my career,” he says. “Because that step, knowing I had to deliver, it’s what made everything else possible.”

Isak celebrates scoring against Spain in September’s World Cup qualifiers

Isak acknowledges the way he’s developed at La Real, too. His rangy stature often used to disguise his subtlety and technique, but he has started to fill out physically and flourished under the stringent demands of Imanol Alguacil, scoring 33 goals across the last two seasons. “The coach wants me to be a modern striker, to press a lot and work hard without the ball, and then once we have it there are no boundaries. I’ve become more dangerous in the spaces. People will always count the goals, I want to score, but I want to be a modern striker. I love playing football and that means being involved as much as possible. I think that’s why Spain has suited me very well.”

It’s somewhat of a rare feeling: of being settled. The 100-match milestone meant Isak has spent far more time as a professional in the first team at La Real than anywhere else, even AIK, where he graduated through the academy. Until recently, it felt as though he’d always been on the move, whether it was skipping age groups or swapping cities. There’s a part of him that still misses the small pitch in Solna where he first fell in love with football and the old friends in that tight-knit community. “It was life and death in that cage,” he laughs. “I was young and thin, playing with older guys. I learnt my technique there just to survive.”

But movement has been the running theme in his life, even before he was born, when his parents fled Eritrea and moved to Stockholm in the 1980s. “When you move at such a young age into this football world, it can be very hard,” he says. “It’s not easy to start a new life. What my parents went through, that’s their story, but that gives me perspective and discipline. I went to Eritrea to see where they grew up, it was humbling, to see how people can be happy with so little. I try and separate myself from the football world and appreciate the silence.”

Isak stresses that he can do that in San Sebastian; a place that feels like home. The club are currently top of La Liga and on track to reach the Europa League knockout stages; there is no shortage of ambition or urgency to uproot again. But he’s also seen a lot of sides to football in a short space of time and knows nothing is forever. “I’m in a good place at the moment, I’m very happy, but one day it would be nice to play in England as well,” he says. “They have six or seven of the biggest clubs in the world, it’s a very high level, and of course one day it would be an alternative. Every player wants to be the best version of themselves and reach the highest possible level. I have expectations for myself that I’m trying to fulfil, so we’ll see where the journey takes me in future.”