Alexander Isak’s Newcastle debut: Direct running, an ABBA chant and that ice-cool finish

Alex Mathie, Les Ferdinand, Stephane Guivarc’h, Duncan Ferguson, Xisco, Papiss Cisse, Callum Wilson and, now, Alexander Isak.

By scoring the opener during the galling 2-1 defeat to Liverpool, Isak joined a curious crowd: Newcastle United strikers who have found the back of the net on their Premier League debut.

At Anfield, The Athletic watched the club’s £60million (£70m) record signing closely throughout his impressive first game to look at what he brings to Eddie Howe’s side…


Before kick-off…

Newcastle were prepared to wait until 75 minutes before the match, when they had to hand in their official team sheet, to name Isak in the squad.

As Newcastle waited five days for visa approval due to Bank Holiday delays, even taking Isak to Molineux on Sunday in the hope he could feature against Wolverhampton Wanderers, pessimism festered about his potential availability. “With the silence, we were fearing the worst,” Howe admitted, though Isak had trained as a centre-forward during team-shape sessions regardless.

“Obviously it’s a bit frustrating to travel with the team, not knowing if you can play,” Isak tells The Athletic. “I prepared as if I could play, but you can understand it’s not the same.”

Thankfully, however, confirmation arrived at lunchtime on Wednesday, around seven hours before kick-off, that the 22-year-old’s work permit had been granted. Howe referred it is as a “nice disruption” to his preparations, particularly given Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson’s respective injuries.

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Named in the starting XI when the team sheet lands at 7pm, Isak emerges at Anfield at 7.26pm for his warm-up, sporting bright-green boots and a turquoise tracksuit.

(Photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

After some jogging exercises, he joins his team-mates to perform stretches in a circle. Graeme Jones, the assistant head coach, whispers messages into his ear and slaps him on the back, clearly offering words of encouragement to the striker.

At 7.41pm, the Sweden striker and his fellow attackers practise shooting. Simon Weatherstone, the first-team coach, lays the ball off to the forwards, who take a touch and shoot at either Karl Darlow or Mark Gillespie. Out of 10 attempts, Isak scores five — using a mixture of drilled, slotted and dinked efforts.

Before returning to the changing room at 7.46pm, Isak runs to the away end and is warmly received, with several Sweden flags visible. He claps his hands above his head in appreciation.

At 7.56pm, Isak heads back out, ninth in line, behind Sean Longstaff and in front of Joe Willock. He bends down to touch the turf, before performing a cross in the air and exchanging words with Willock.


1st minute: Newcastle line up in their usual 4-3-3 system in possession. Isak is the centre-forward in his No 14 shirt — the same jersey he wore at Borussia Dortmund — with Ryan Fraser on the left and Miguel Almiron on the right. Given Wilson’s continued absence and with Saint-Maximin, Bruno Guimaraes and Jonjo Shelvey missing, it is a boost to have Isak leading the line.

Unlike Guimaraes and Sven Botman, who Howe eased into the XI, the head coach opts to field Isak at the first opportunity. His decision is enforced, to a degree, due to injuries, but Howe also views strikers differently to midfielders or defenders when it comes to the difficulty of transitioning into that position in the Premier League.

Isak’s first touch comes after 54 seconds, receiving a ball from Jamaal Lascelles inside his own half, before passing it out wide.


11th minute: Isak unleashes his first shot as a Newcastle player.

Dan Burn tackles Mohamed Salah just outside Newcastle’s area and Joelinton plays the ball to Willock, who bursts forward. Isak overlaps Willock down the left and the midfielder passes as he approaches Liverpool’s area.

Isak, a tall, rangy forward, cuts inside on to his right foot, beating a couple of Liverpool challenges, before unleashing a wild effort from the D, which flies high and wide.


32nd minute: Whenever they win the ball — Liverpool enjoy 72 per cent possession — Newcastle aim to counter at speed, with Isak crucial to that as he repeatedly runs the channels. His pace, athleticism and technical ability first caught Howe’s eye when Isak was playing as a youth international for Sweden and he remains rapid.

Often, when Nick Pope collects the ball, Isak sprints forward and demands long balls towards him. Pope, however, only finds the striker once successfully. Below is a graphic showing all the passes Isak received and the number of the team-mate who played the ball.

Out of possession, Newcastle are essentially playing a 4-5-1 formation with Fraser and Almiron dropping deep, leaving Isak as a lone presence up top.

He repeatedly harries Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, a constant nuisance. Isak leads the press and encourages his team-mates to follow, even showing dissatisfaction towards Fraser and Joelinton when they fail to do so. This led Howe to praise his “tactical discipline”.

Below shows the average positions of Newcastle’s starting XI during Isak’s 64 minutes on the pitch. The Sweden international is No 14. Leading the line.


38th minute: Howe describes Isak as having an “x-factor”, which is evident as he scores a sublime opener.

Kieran Trippier attempts to play a pass to Isak just outside the Liverpool box but Jordan Henderson gets a toe to it, diverting the ball to Longstaff. After taking a touch, Longstaff plays an exquisite outside-of-the-foot pass into the right side of the box, where Isak has slipped away from Henderson.

“I found a good position in the box and then the pass from Longstaff was incredible to receive,” Isak says.

Renowned for his first-time finishes, the striker does not disappoint, calmly lashing the ball into the roof of the net. “I was just thinking of putting it in the back of the net,” says Isak. “And I got quite a good finish, I suppose!”

Shay Given, the former Newcastle goalkeeper, describes Isak as “ice cool” when facing “one of the best goalkeepers in world football in a one-v-one situation”. The xG for the goal is 0.50, while the post-shot xG — which is calculated after the shot has been taken and measures the likelihood of an on-target shot resulting in a goal — is 0.85.

 

Immediately, Isak runs towards the away end, finger wagging then fist clenched, to be greeted by the delighted away fans, those Swedish flags being waved enthusiastically.

Isak is swamped by his team-mates, starting with Willock, and he savours the moment, turning back to the Newcastle fans and punching the air with his right hand, before lifting both arms in the air in celebration.

(Photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

The debut goal makes him the sixth Swedish player to score on their Premier League bow and the first since Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of his inspirations and the player he is repeatedly likened to, for Manchester United in August 2016.


Half-time…

Isak goes down the tunnel at the break with the fans singing, “Geordie Boys, taking the piss.”

Pockets of the away end are also trying out a new chant in honour of their new record signing, which is a bastardised version of an ABBA classic, given their shared Swedish heritage. “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! a striker from Sweden, He’s our centre-forward and he plays in attack, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! a striker from Sweden, His first name’s Alexander and his surname’s Isak.”

During his first 45 minutes of Premier League football, Isak had 13 touches. Only one of them was in the opposition box, but it was crucial. He had two shots, one on target, while seven of his four passes were successful.

When he returns after the break, Isak is chatting intensely with Willock — with whom he combined well — pointing across the pitch and seemingly discussing tactics.


55th minute: Isak’s direct running unsettles Liverpool’s defence and their high line — and it nearly brings him a second goal.

Fraser, wide on the left, spots that Isak has got inside Gomez and threads a ball into the Liverpool half. Advancing into the left-hand side of the area, Isak cuts back with his left foot on his right, leading Andrew Robertson to slide past, before performing a stepover to send the backtracking Gomez the wrong way, too. He then whips a shot beyond Alisson’s right arm and into the middle of the net, which Harvey Elliott cannot block on the line.

As Isak begins to run off towards the left corner in front of The Kop in celebration, he turns to look at the assistant referee and lifts his head in frustration upon seeing the flag.

Afterwards, he describes it as a “close call”, with the photo below showing it was seemingly Isak’s shoulder that played him offside.

 

“He looked a threat and his pace was a key outlet for us,” Howe said. “I didn’t realise how close it was until I just saw the VAR picture now. That’s a hugely frustrating one because it’s potentially game-defining.”


64th minute: By the time Isak’s debut is over, Liverpool have already pulled level, Roberto Firmino equalising six minutes after the Swede’s disallowed second.

With 26 minutes left, Isak, who looks to be tiring, is replaced by Chris Wood. As Isak leaves the field, he claps the away end, who loudly return the applause, before Jason Tindall, the assistant head coach, Howe and Jones each give the striker a high-five.

During his time on the pitch, Isak had 18 touches (shown below), with just one inside the opposition box — given those leading to his disallowed second did not count. He completed seven out of 10 passes and had two shots, one on target, from which he scored. He was also fouled once, committed one foul himself and, crucially, was offside once.

“It would have been an eye-opener for him today — the pace of the Premier League is relentless,” Howe said.

Once Isak departs, Newcastle cease to offer much of an attacking threat.

Having taken his place on the bench, Isak has an ice pack clingfilmed on his thigh. He does not appear to be in pain, but Howe reveals he suffered a “dead leg”, which perhaps makes Isak a minor doubt for Crystal Palace on Saturday.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Isak says. “I got a dead leg in the first half which is a bit annoying, but it is nothing serious.”


Post-game…

Isak joins his team-mates and Newcastle staff in walking on to the pitch to applaud the away fans. He cuts a despondent figure, not appearing particularly enthusiastic, with Liverpool’s controversial 98th-minute winner still raw, and is then among the contingent who are booed by home supporters as they leave the field.

 

Still, it has been quite the introduction to Premier League life for Isak.

Newcastle fans adore their strikers and, on the basis of his debut, they could soon cherish Isak too.

As Howe himself says, “He looks a special player.”

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