Alexander Isak: The heir to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Swedish throne
AIK striker Alexander Isak celebrated his 17th birthday in style in September. It happened to be the day of the big Stockholm derby -- one of the hottest and most important fixtures in Sweden, and he stole the show with a truly remarkable performance at Djurgarden's Tele2 Arena. He opened the scoring with an exquisite effort after just 16 minutes, and completed a brace with a quality header after the break, as AIK thrashed their city rivals 3-0.
Chinedu Obasi, the veteran Nigerian who scored the third goal, was over the moon with excitement. "Alexander is a great talent," he said. "I don't want to say too much, but he is extraordinary. He can become the new Zlatan Ibrahimovic."
Naturally, such statements tend to stick, and Isak is now universally referred to as "the new Zlatan" as top clubs are queuing to put their hands on the young prodigy. Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have all been mentioned as potential suitors. Now the Swedes are anxious to know whether the historic transfer record set by Ibrahimovic himself will be broken.
Zlatan was sold by Malmo to Ajax Amsterdam for 82 million Swedish kronor (€8.3m at the current rate) back in 2001, when he was 19. Isak's value is estimated at well above 100 million SEK (€10.2million) by AIK, and they could easily get their wish, even though he is two years younger.
It is indeed easy to see certain similarities between the two. Like Ibrahimovic, Isak is tall (6-foot-2), but blessed with superb technical skills nevertheless. Lanky but elegant, he is a joy to watch, and his first touch is absolutely outstanding -- that is one of the most important signs of a top player. As far as the character is concerned, though, they couldn't be more different.
Zlatan has always been cocky and arrogant, even in his Malmo days, eager to show the world that he is better than the rest. That was a problem in the beginning of his career, but Isak is the complete opposite. The AIK striker is a humble and modest guy, even a little shy when dealing with the press. He keeps his feet firmly on the ground despite the meteoric rise he had experienced in 2016.
Isak's background is very different to that of Zlatan. Born in Solna to parents who emigrated from Eritrea in the 1980s, he enjoyed a happy and stable childhood, and joined the AIK academy at the age of six. Isak admires Ibrahimovic, but his true idol has been Henok Goitom, a Solna-born striker of Eritrean ancestry who didn't really fulfil his potential when playing for the likes of Udinese, Murcia and Almeria amongst others.
Goitom returned home to join AIK in 2012 and spent four hugely successful seasons at the club, becoming one of the most loved players. Isak's development at the academy was fast during those years, and he had a role model to look up to. One of his coaches at the academy, Nahom Ghidey, is of Eritrean origins as well.
The most important development occurred when Isak was 13. "It was possible to see the talent, but Alexander was not the top player of the team," youth coach Elie Mineirji said in an interview to Aftonbladet.
"He was the best during trainings, thanks to his touches, movement and understanding of the game, and we told all the kids to learn from him. But as soon as we took to the big field, he wasn't the star anymore because he didn't run enough. I wouldn't say he was lazy, but he didn't work as hard as we wished."
Then, in the summer of 2013, Isak was lucky to replace an injured teammate in the starting lineup during an under-14 tournament, and the attitude had changed. "He promised to try harder and it showed. He was fighting, running and tackling," Mineirji remembers. The striker has never looked back, the progress became phenomenal, and his potential was not in doubt anymore.
AIK like to promote youngsters who grew up at the academy, and Isak has been training with the first team at times since the age of 15. He even sat on the bench in an Allsvenskan fixture in October 2015, but the club didn't expect him to become a superstar so quickly. That is why Carlos Strandberg was signed on loan from CSKA Moscow in the beginning of 2016, but Isak outshone him.
AIK coach Andreas Alm was impressed with the youngster in the preseason, and gambled on him in the starting lineup at Ostersund in April. Isak duly netted on his debut, stealing ahead of the defender to meet a cross with a brilliant volley into the far corner. He thus became the youngest ever scorer in the Swedish top division at the age of 16 years and six months, and his place in the AIK first team was assured. Two weeks later, he scored against Elfsborg after a beautiful solo run.
Even the change of coach in May -- a potentially traumatic affair for such a young player -- didn't stop him. Isak is grateful to Alm who gave him the first opportunity, but he enjoys playing under Rikard Norling as well.
His coolness and concentration in front of goal are almost unbelievable for such a young player, and his self-confidence is evidently sky high. The trick he made before scoring at Orebro in September was somewhat reminiscent of the famous Paul Gascoigne goal versus Scotland at Euro 96. After celebrating his birthday at Djurgarden, Isak added another brilliant brace in the 6-0 demolition of 2015 champions Norrkoping. Fittingly, he found the net on the final matchday too, taking his Allsvenskan tally to 10 goals and helping AIK finish second in the table.
Isak is not just a good penalty area predator, though. He is a very intelligent team player who makes those around him better. "Alexander is an exciting prospect, because he is very clever. He knows how to receive the ball and bring it forward with just one touch. He just should get stronger physically. Give him a few months in a gym, and he'll be ready to play for the national team," Aftonbladet journalist Kristoffer Bergstrom told ESPN FC. In fact, Sweden coach Janne Andersson had already considered calling him up before the last World Cup qualifiers.
"Alexander has only played for us throughout his life, and that makes us very proud. He was considered a top prospect, but it was impossible to predict this kind of success," AIK's sports director Bjorn Wesstrom told ESPN FC. The club are glad to have extended Isak's contract until the end of 2018, but with all the lucrative offers coming in, they might be tempted to sell their new star in January.
And here comes the most important question. Would it be right to make a big money move to Real, Chelsea or Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 17? Even Ibrahimovic chose Ajax when taking his first step abroad. Isak must be very careful not to halt his progress. Playing on weekly basis is absolutely crucial at this stage. He should remember what happened to the Norwegian wonder kid Martin Odegaard who signed for Real at the age of 16 and disappeared into the third division without a trace. All the big clubs should take that into account as well.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin