There were weeks of irritation, several failed pursuits and even a public snubbing by Hugo Ekitike for Newcastle United to contend with during what was becoming an increasingly fraught search for reinforcements up front. Finally, though, Eddie Howe has been delivered the attacking signing he craved; and not just any, but his top striker target, Alexander Isak — and for a club-record fee.
Once Anthony Gordon and James Maddison proved beyond their reach, and Watford rebuffed their attempts to acquire Joao Pedro, the decision was made to go bold by making a serious play for the 22-year-old Isak.
It was a player Newcastle had initially thought was beyond them given Real Sociedad’s exorbitant demands. But, following the pulsating 3-3 draw with Manchester City, Newcastle’s decision-makers were present on Tyneside.
Alongside the head coach at St James’ Park were the sporting director Dan Ashworth, the head of recruitment Steve Nickson, the new CEO Darren Eales, Eddie’s nephew and head of technical scouting Andy Howe and, most significantly, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Newcastle’s chairman and governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). Having witnessed Callum Wilson finish the game early because of yet another injury, Isak was identified as the solution to the club’s attacking shortcomings and sources indicate that greater funds were made available.
The six-year deal for Isak was concluded at a rapid pace, despite months of declared interest previously leading to minimal progress.
Last month, Newcastle suggested they were willing to pay up to £50million ($59.1m) in structured payments, but Sociedad demanded Isak’s £75.9million release clause be met. It was a bartering position but one that deterred Newcastle. When Newcastle were on a pre-season training camp in Austria, senior sources reiterated that Isak was too expensive.
Ashworth is believed to have re-engaged with Sociedad late on Monday evening, with an offer thought to be lower than one tentatively proposed last month. Jokin Aperribay, Sociedad’s president, admitted on Movistar TV that, “On Sunday, we did not expect Isak to leave,” but the player’s representatives informed the club 24 hours later of the forward’s desire to join Newcastle.
Though Newcastle’s first bid was rejected immediately, it reopened lines of communication and, to show they were serious about reaching an agreement this time, by Tuesday Ashworth was in the Basque country, accompanied by Nickson.
Only a handful of people around the club knew a delegation had flown out to hold in-person discussions for Isak, with most still assuming Watford’s Pedro was the top target.
For Sociedad, the fee of around £60million ($70.9m), which was proposed on Wednesday, simply proved irresistible. Aperribay said, “Obviously they did not begin at that level, but we were able to get a big fee that La Real could not turn down.”
Sociedad signed Isak from Borussia Dortmund for around €10million (£8.4m, $10m) in 2019 and have sold him for more than seven times that. Dortmund are not due a sell-on percentage, with Sociedad having bought that option out last year.
The transfer advanced so quickly that Isak trained with Sociedad on Wednesday and his team-mates were unaware of his impending departure. Mikel Merino, the former Newcastle midfielder, was informed of Isak’s exit while live on Spanish radio.
On Thursday morning, Isak flew from the Basque country to Tyneside by private jet, accompanied by Ashworth and Nickson. He underwent his medical before personal terms were finalised and his contract was signed at a Tyneside hotel early on Friday morning. It is understood Isak then trained with his new team-mates for the first time ahead of the trip to Molineux on Sunday. It is unclear at this point if he was registered in time to be able to appear in that game.
Newcastle securing his signature with a week left in the window, having spent the summer frustrated by a fruitless hunt for offensive reinforcements and fearing they simply could not prise Isak away from Sociedad for less than his €90million (£75.9m, $89.7m) release clause, has injected greater energy into a campaign that has already started in encouraging fashion.
Darwin Nunez was Newcastle’s fantasy forward target during spring recruitment meetings, one they coveted but recognised was beyond their present status. Yet it was Isak who topped a list of ambitious but potentially poachable attackers.
To land Isak, Newcastle have taken the belated and bold decision to smash their transfer record, having spent months in on-off dialogue with Sociedad.
The fee, which features add-ons and a reported 10 per cent sell-on clause, will be paid in instalments, sources claim, albeit with a significant chunk up front and dwarfs the £40million ($47.3m) Newcastle parted with to lure Joelinton from Hoffenheim in 2019. It still feels remarkable that Isak is only the second attacker to sign post-takeover, but unlike Chris Wood’s arrival in January, this feels like a statement of intent rather than an acquisition out of mere necessity.
Although Isak will be among Newcastle’s best-paid players and is believed to be more than tripling his salary, it is understood he fits within the club’s wage structure. Kieran Trippier, the right-back, is the highest earner, thought to be on around £110,000 a week, and Isak’s six-year contract does not break their established model.
After Sven Botman joined on July 1 and despite financial fair play (FFP) concerns, senior sources had always suggested the club would spend big again for “the right player”. With Nickson a long-term Isak enthusiast and, more importantly, Howe convinced by his suitability for Newcastle’s system and the Premier League, the 22-year-old proved to be that individual.
Even more so than with Bruno Guimaraes, given the higher fee, and the need for a regular goalscoring presence within the squad beyond Wilson, there is an internal acceptance that Isak is a calculated gamble. He scored 44 goals for Sociedad, including 17 in 34 La Liga matches in 2020-21, but last season his form dipped and the Sweden international has yet to fulfil his vast potential.
Newcastle, though, believe they can polish Isak — who is quick, tall, technically strong and tactically intelligent — and hone him into a top-class operator. Isak is seen as a versatile forward who can complement Wilson in the same side or deputise for the England international when necessary.
Howe has pushed hard for attacking signings and that has been his priority all along, but insiders suggest the decisive move for Isak following two key events over the weekend is not merely coincidental.
First, Wilson’s hamstring injury, which is set to keep him out for a few weeks, is the latest fitness problem that indicates he is simply not durable enough to be relied upon, even if he is prolific when he plays.
More crucial was Al-Rumayyan’s presence at St James’ on Sunday. PIF holds an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle and all large financial decisions must be approved by the chairman.
Just as Newcastle agreed to exercise Wood’s £25million ($29.5m) Burnley escape clause in January once Al-Rumayyan witnessed their lack of firepower first-hand, they have also released greater funds following the chairman’s first visit this season.
The Isak fee takes Newcastle’s summer spending beyond £115million ($135m), while their post-takeover outlay on transfers already exceeds £200million ($236m). Much of that, though, is still to be paid via instalments.
Signing a striker was essential and Isak’s arrival ensures Newcastle’s business this window has significantly bolstered the first XI, as Howe desired. Nick Pope, Botman and Matt Targett feature in Newcastle’s strongest side and Isak will, too, be it alongside Wilson or in his place.
Newcastle still intend to be active before Thursday’s 11pm (BST) deadline. A winger may be sought, with two bids already rejected for Leeds United’s Jack Harrison, though a midfielder to cover Jonjo Shelvey’s three-month injury absence is being given precedence.
It remains to be seen whether Newcastle’s budget, which has already been stretched, allows them to make further permanent additions. The suspicion is they will instead focus on loans, with enquiries made for Conor Gallagher and Christian Pulisic at Chelsea.
Their interest in Pedro has all but ended, though. Watford rebuffed Newcastle’s improved bid of £25million, plus £5million in potential add-ons last weekend. Newcastle saw it as essentially a take-it-or-leave offer and reignited talks with Sociedad for Isak — essentially conducting parallel negotiations.
Isak’s arrival to the Premier League has provoked intrigue, particularly concerning why a player who generated so much excitement at Euro 2020 has ended up on Tyneside. Newcastle may be an ultra-ambitious club, but they are not yet among the established elite who have tracked the player long term.
Arsenal, Juventus and Manchester City have scouted him previously, while Real Madrid were heavily linked with Isak before he joined Dortmund from AIK, when Ralf Rangnick spent a year trying to tempt the forward to RB Leipzig.
None, though, were willing to meet Isak’s buyout fee, or even test Sociedad’s resolve with a significant offer.
The prohibitive release clause, his testing period at Dortmund — which some in Germany feel was unfortunate timing due to the dysfunction at the club at that time — and the lingering rawness within his all-round game have been floated by those in recruitment circles as possible reasons why none of the big boys ever bit previously.
Any doubts those clubs had were exacerbated by a campaign in which Isak suffered injury problems and a worrying dip in form, scoring just six goals across 32 league appearances.
Newcastle, however, are confident they can extract more from Isak. Like with Guimaraes and Botman, Isak fits the model that Ashworth is looking to replicate: acquiring young players with significant room for growth who can potentially reach an elite level, rather than spending vast fees on already established players.
At 6ft 3in (190cm), Isak ideally suits the characteristics of the side Howe is building; physical, athletic and fit. Isak remains slight of figure, admittedly, but the expectation is that Newcastle can quickly build him up physically.
Of course, Wilson’s latest injury convinced Newcastle to go above their previously held valuation of Isak, with the realisation that Wood alone does not provide sufficient backup. Already, Wilson had been protected during pre-season, working away from the main group as they conducted some intensive sessions and the striker breaking down three games into the season persuaded Newcastle to act, even if his hamstring problem is not serious.
The frustration with Wilson is that, when he is fit, he is an excellent centre-forward. His performances during the final two games of last season led to a reassessment by Newcastle of their summer strategy, pivoting away from signing an out-and-out No 9 once they were quoted “ludicrous” fees for Toney and Calvert-Lewin. While Howe was keen on Calvert-Lewin, others at Newcastle were thought to be less convinced.
But Howe adores Wilson, with those who have worked with the coach describing the England international as his “ideal forward”. Yet, encouragingly, they believe Isak — who has a 90.3 per cent “similarity score” with Wilson on smarterscout — is a “very Eddie Howe player”, too. The Newcastle head coach first watched Isak play for the Sweden national team, for whom he made his debut in January 2017 at the age of 17.
Speaking on Friday, Howe said: “Naturally I think we reacted slightly off the bat (following Wilson’s injury). We were always looking for an attacking player but it changed our focus maybe slightly on the type.”
At one stage, Newcastle considered signing both Ekitike and Isak, though the arrival of the former would have lessened the need for the latter.
But Ekitike’s decision to opt for Paris Saint-Germain greatly affected Newcastle’s offensive plans. Chelsea’s Armando Broja, Red Bull Salzburg’s Benjamin Sesko, Sturm Graz’s Rasmus Hojlund and Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos were among those considered as potential Ekitike alternatives, before Pedro emerged as a genuine option.
Had Ekitike signed, then perhaps there would have been less willingness among the club’s hierarchy, nor the necessary funds, to sanction such a lucrative move for Isak.
Interestingly, Isak, who is comfortable with both feet, is viewed as someone who can be deployed across Newcastle’s front line. Last season, he played almost exclusively as a centre-forward but did feature out wide in earlier seasons. Newcastle expect him to partner Wilson or Wood, probably on the right, in their 4-3-3 formation, or operate through the middle instead of them.
“I think he’s had a lot thrown at him for a young player,” said Howe on Friday. “The experiences he’s had have been incredible, really, for someone so young. He played in Germany at a very young age, and in Holland and Spain, big clubs as well.
“So he’s had some great experiences. I think England and the English game will suit his profile. He’s a really good athlete, technically very good. His best years are ahead of him. If the transfer does get completed, I think we’ve got an exciting player.
“He will add those qualities he has, he has pace, technical ability, dribbling ability. He is slightly different and I think he is capable of scoring goals.”
Newcastle have no intention of selling Allan Saint-Maximin now, despite claims to the contrary. Howe views Isak, Wilson and Saint-Maximin as a potentially devastating front three. Miguel Almiron is not for sale, either, despite links to Everton.
But Newcastle do need to cut their squad size; they have 28 senior players, with four goalkeepers, not including Kell Watts and Matty Longstaff. Martin Dubravka may leave, with Manchester United interested, while Shelvey’s squad place could come under threat if another midfielder joins.
Newcastle’s bloated player pool and Howe’s desire for further signings means that, despite tirelessly concluding a club-record deal, Ashworth faces a busy end to the window.
Isak will be the most expensive signing Newcastle make this summer, but Howe hopes he is not the last.
(Additional contributors: Raphael Honigstein and Dermot Corrigan)
(Top photos: Getty Images;design: Eamonn Dalton)