Meet Alexander Isak, the prodigious striker out to stop Manchester United

Alex Isak celebrates scoring against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu

In a frozen outpost of Alexander Isak’s mind, Hells Bells are still ringing. Making the first start of his senior career at just 16 years old, AC/DC blared ominously around Ostersunds’ remote stadium, and one of the world’s most prodigious strikers was preparing to make his own heavy metal introduction. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “That’s what kicked it off. I’ll never forget it.”

When Isak scored the winner, becoming one of the youngest to do so in Swedish history, it came as little surprise, not least to his manager. “I never felt like I took a chance with him,” says Andreas Alm, AIK’s coach at the time. “He was too good to be on the bench. I wouldn’t say I gave him a chance because he took it himself. There was no flight with Alexander, only fight, in an elegant way.”

Almost five years later, still only 21, Isak has begun to realise those lofty prophecies first laid out after his breakthrough. He is, on current form, one of Europe’s best strikers, scoring six goals in his last five La Liga games for Real Sociedad, with a slender 6’3” frame that belies a brilliant poise on the ball.

For Sweden, too, he is slowly filling the enormous void left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player whom he’s often been compared to but in truth bears few similarities. Because while the former’s airs have always been stratospheric, Isak, a shy character at the surface, is all about the graces. “Everyone is different and I respect everyone,” he says. “But me, at the end of the day, I do my talking on the pitch. That’s more important for me.”

More often than not, his performances have spoken for themselves. On his 17th birthday, Isak scored twice in the Stockholm derby and AIK were besieged by scouts from across Europe. Only a few months ago, in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, he scored twice, assisted once and had another goal disallowed in a breathtaking performance at the Bernabeu. “I think it was probably the highlight of my career so far,” he says. “The bigger the games are, the more motivated it makes me. In a way, it makes me calm and happy. Those are the games I love, that’s how I’ve always been.”

Alexander Isak has scored six goals in his last five La Liga games

That was a trait Alm spotted almost immediately, even when first watching Isak in a reserve game that AIK lost 7-0 to local rivals Djurgarden. “He had to work a lot on his endurance but whatever he did with the U17s he could do in the first team,” he says. “It was crazy. Any challenge he’s got, it’s a bit like the Matrix. He has the ability to hover above the ball almost. For him, time stands still. With the speed in his head, he can adapt to whatever pace is offered to him. Most kids on that level, it goes too fast for them.”

But for all his immediate success, Isak admits the setbacks are what has pushed him furthest; the periods in which he’s learnt the most about his own will and determination, which he credits to the influence of his parents, who left Eritrea for Sweden during the civil war. “It wasn’t always ups,” he says. “Some years, I was close to not even being in the academy team. But somewhere around 14, I realised I had a talent and I had to take it seriously and use it. That’s when everything turned.”

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After rejecting Real Madrid to join Borussia Dortmund in 2017, though, a whirlwind talent was somewhat mysteriously consigned to the doldrums, making just five senior appearances in the space of 18 months. As whispers of doubt became louder scepticism, Isak was forced to return to that well of unwavering self-belief he prefers to shield from view. “It was still a good experience [in Dortmund],” he insists. “To be at a big club like that, having to go through rougher times, you learn a lot. The players were great. I had some friends there like Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho when he came. But eventually you need to play. I just wanted to enjoy playing football again and get my minutes. I decided to move on, to take a step back and go to Holland, so I could then take two steps forward. For all the steps I’ve taken, there are good things I’ve taken with me.”

On loan at Willem II, Isak instantly rediscovered his verve, scoring 14 goals in just 18 appearances. And although Dortmund included a buy-back clause in his sale to Real Sociedad in 2019, he currently has no intention of retracing old steps. “I just love playing football and now I’m in a place where I’m very happy,” he says. “I just want to keep getting better and enjoy what I do. At the end, we’ll see where it takes me but I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve as well. I’m only 21 years old. I don’t work with ceilings. I don’t want to see any limitations. I just want to keep getting better.”

And if he can still hear Hells Bells ringing, perhaps, it’s an omen for Manchester United, who are faced by a thriving Real Sociedad side, spearheaded by a player who breathes for big occasions. “When we were watching the draw, I was actually hoping for them,” Isak says with a smile. “I’m very happy. It’s one of the biggest games in the world. Those are the games I want to play.”

Too guarded for any public predictions, Isak only alludes to having “high expectations” of himself tonight. But as Alm says, in Isak’s case, those standards usually have “no limits”.

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