A 6’4″ tall number nine with a great first touch who likes to run at defenders, Alexander Isak went into the scouts’ “One to Watch” databases after netting in a shot from a half-space inside the box, making him the youngest player to score for Sweden at 17. His time at Borussia Dortmund, thereafter, was one to forget. However, after an impressive impact in the Eredivisie by scoring 14 goals for Willem II – a team that finished 42 points behind Ajax– his development steadily progressed at Real Sociedad in 2019/2020.
This progress can be tangibly observed. He’s gone from being rotated as Willian José’s second, to starting games in the latter half of the season. His form merits the question, “Is it time to give the young talent more responsibility in the first team?”
This scout report reviews his attributes in the 2019/20 season and previews what to expect from him in the upcoming season. We provide his tactical analysis in the first section. In the second section, we will analyse key statistics by comparing him to his counterpart Willian José, regarding Sociedad’s playing style.
Context in numbers
In 2019/2020, Real Sociedad under Imanol Alguacil finished sixth – 14 points behind the top four. They have employed counter-pressing tactics in what has been a distinct brand of football. This has been especially noteworthy for analysts, considering they finished ninth the season before, and 12th the season before that.
Isak’s numbers underline the overall optimism in the club moving forward. He finished this season with 16 goals in all competitions; quite the output, considering his age, and those came in his 37 appearances, with just 14 of those being starts. In La Liga, he placed sixth for goals/90 with 0.54, seventh for Shots on target/90 with 1.31, and seventh for non-penalty Goals + Assists/ 90 with 0.6. Moreover, he merited the reputation of a ‘big-game player’ amongst fans by scoring seven in seven in the Copa Del Rey.
Creating free space from half-spaces
The Swede is quite adept at operating in half-spaces. His starting position on the pitch is normally between the two centre-backs. With a strong first touch and a penchant to dribble, Isak thrives at creating free space from a half-space. This is highlighted in the following image.
Despite having found an ounce of space, Isak’s run is tracked by the defender. However, a light touch and close control enable Isak to turn and arrive at a position which is a shooting opportunity from a half-space.
In terms of tracking the run, the left centre-back is best equipped to deal with the situation. However, Portu is unmarked on his shoulder. Thus, the defender hesitates by half a yard to commit to the challenge. The resulting shot angle in the above image is still quite narrow, and is on Isak’s weak foot.
The outcome pronounces Isak’s quality. A combination of his first touch, dribbling, and shooting permits the Swede to hold the ball up in a crowded area, looking to open up free space for the shot.
Dropping into free spaces
Isak’s understanding of space can be observed off the ball as well. For a striker who is quite disciplined at staying at the tip of Sociedad’s formation, he is especially effective when he either drops deep or drifts wide. After receiving the ball in a zone with more room, he plays the role of a carrier that facilitates play, with the wingers higher up the pitch.
In the following image, he notices that Real Madrid’s midfielders are pressing high up the pitch, and drops deep into some free space.
Real Sociedad like to invite the press in central areas to facilitate a wide runner. Furthermore, whenever Isak drops deep, it normally signals to his wingers to drop in as inside forwards. Much like Mikel Merino, who is a pivot at the heart of the midfield, Alexander Isak serves as a central pivot after the primary defensive line is bypassed. His explosive dribbling ability from the halfway line was central to La Real’s counterattack in this instance.
Isak’s performance against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey is a watershed of his potential. He was unpredictable in his movement off the ball and a penetrating threat on the ball. More noteworthy was his directness around the box. Isak is especially dangerous at attempting – and converting – shots from around 15 yards.
Additionally, despite not having a high amount of touches in the game, Alexander Isak is highly involved in important possession chains when his team moves forward. In the upcoming season, positioning in these possession chains may be a major factor in squad selection.
Statistical comparison of Real Sociedad’s number nines
Despite Isak coming into his element this season, he faces stern competition from Willian José- who has previously been linked with José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur. José has scored over 10 goals in the La Liga for three seasons running, showing his threat and why other teams have been linked with signing him. Though the general sentiment acknowledges Isak’s size, it is indeed José who imposes his size much more on the pitch. He presses aggressively, has a strong shot, and an aerial presence.
It’s no surprise that this has been a problem for Alguacil, albeit a good one. José was favoured more in the first half of the season, but is prone to spells where he’s quiet. Isak played himself into form in the latter half of the season, with his points per match for La Real being 1.51,compared to José’s 1.43.
It is curious when we take a closer look at their key statistics, because both players have a similar output. Consider the following radar chart.
While both players are almost identical in Shots/90, expected goals (xG), and xG/90, Isak outperforms his counterpart in xA/90 and xGBuildup/90 (i.e. total xG of every possession chain the player is involved in without key passes or shots). The xG buildup/90 in particular highlights Isak’s effectiveness when the team goes forward. His positioning combined with his half-space control heavily contributes to this too.
In terms of average positions, Willian José’s heatmap is far more spread out. Thus, he tends to drop deep more as a habit, rather than a situational need. In the following sequence against Athletic Bilbao, he drifts into the midfield to create space for the winger.
The play ultimately died down here, as there were not enough bodies upfront. In the very same match, José played about 60 minutes, did the right things tactically, but La Real couldn’t quite make a final pass.
However, Isak’s impact after coming on for José was immediate, and led to a goal. In the following sequence, Sociedad’s goal kick is played long. Isak drops deep into free space, connecting his header to lay off the wide man.
The Swede’s intuitive understanding of when to drop deep is key. With one important flick, he eliminates two markers. Consequently, Athletic Bilbao are unable to cope with the transition, as Sociedad create an overload on the left.
The above comparison of two admittedly different situations demonstrates xGbuildup/90. It illustrates the importance of the quality of a player’s presence in each possession chain – a factor that Real Sociedad’s analysts have surely monitored.
Real Sociedad’s tactics in 2020/21
Analysis of Alguacil’s system in terms of one formation would result in a partial understanding of their style. Going forward, their shape can look like a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1, or even 4-2-4 at times. It’s more about player roles though, as we shall see.
Isak plays as a central link man higher up the pitch. He connects a midfield three consisting of a traditional six, eight, and 10, with two creative wingers that tend to tuck in as inside strikers.
La Real’s tactics are centred around expanding and contracting. In the above position, we see that their front three are very narrow, which gives the full-backs more space. Furthermore, if one full-back bombs on, then the other tucks in for protection. They therefore like to create overloads on the pitch which allow for free spaces between the lines.
Additionally, with a PPDA of 8.27 (fourth in the league), they are a strong pressing side. They furthermore focus a lot on second ball positioning, as they aim to win back the ball higher up the pitch with a counter-press. Thus, they look to exploit structural gaps in the opposition during transitions.
The number nine in the system, then, must be proficient, not only when the team has possession, but also at pressing. He should ideally be industrious in leading the press, as well as being able to win second balls higher up the pitch.
Isak is more effective in possession. His touch and ability in close spaces help positionally eliminate defenders from play, as he frees up space for his wingers tucking into the box. Conversely, Willian José is more effective in the press. He boasts a higher work rate, and makes his presence known.
In the new season, Alguacil may likely give the Swede more game time over his counterpart, because of his good form. Alternatively, he could find a way to accommodate both of them on the pitch. While Real Sociedad’s first game of the new season against Valladolid was caveated with injuries, it might be a precursor of what to expect.
As mentioned before, as Real Sociedad’s tactics are more player role-based, they may likely modify formations whilst playing a similar style. It will be interesting to observe how Alguacil utilises former Manchester City captain David Silva in the team, given the veteran’s versatility.
In terms of player development and steady game-time, 2019/2020 is exactly the season Alexander Isak needed. If he builds on this, then he will eventually go up a gear within the next two seasons.
At times, though, he can be a bit too neat and tidy, which may translate into a lack of urgency. Isak must grab the game by the scruff of the neck, with his profile meaning he can impose his physicality, instead of simply keeping up with the physical side of the game. A strong ‘system player’ may have a tendency to ‘autopilot’ situations, and Isak does suffer from this at times.
“The next Ibrahimović!” has been the headline associated with Alexander Isak, and, while this comparison may be misleading, he could benefit from an adopted ‘arrogance’, by iterating and reiterating his primary attributes more onto the opposition, as we have discussed in this scout report.
The path to a young player’s development is never linear and always hard to predict, but it is certain that 2019/20 was foundational to Isak’s progress. A few quiet seasons from here may hurt his confidence more than anything. Conversely, one marquee season may merit all the headlines, and even concrete interest from top clubs, so he could be a player to watch this season.