Premier League – Newcastle: Alexander Isak’s high-priced recruitment says a lot about the Magpies’ strategy

Not so long ago we were praising the approach’chi va piano va sano‘ from Newcastle United. At least on the sporting level, because, as far as its Saudi owners are concerned, it is not a few honorable results and performances like the 3-3 victory against Manchester City last weekend that made people forget where does the Magpies processing money come from.

But, even with gritted teeth, they were recognized at least for this quality: they had been able to show pragmatism and restraint in the management of their club. Finally, with a certain restraint, because in terms of net recruitment expenses, no English club, no club in Europe, no club in the world had made an effort comparable to theirs during the 2021-22 season.

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Newcastle had spent close to €130m in that period – net, as it’s always worth remembering. But Newcastle had not succumbed to treetop sickness the way Manchester City had as soon as Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi United Group took control of it on September 1, 2008. A few hours later, just before the window for transfers closes, Robinho – the future superstar of Brazilian football, remember? – was stolen from Chelsea’s nose and beard for a record amount: 40m euros, which, taking into account football’s own inflation, would represent more than 100 million today. Not far, in fact, from what the Magpies spent in their first season under the Saudi flag.

A smart and smooth first transfer window

With this difference: they had not yielded to the desire to « strike a big blow », to use the arrival of a « top player » as a public amplifier of their ambition. Newcastle made its market without being noticed too much. A Joe Willock here, a Dan Burn there. Kieran Trippier who arrives from Atlético de Madrid for 15 million euros? Excellent deal! Chris Wood had cost double, but there was also something diabolical going into its acquisition. By buying the New Zealand centre-forward from Burnley, where he had been top scorer the previous season, Newcastle also weakened a direct opponent in their fight to avoid relegation. Newcastle finished 11th, and Burnley fell back to the Championship. Good game.

Bruno Guimaraes with Newcastle

Credit: Getty Images

Bruno Guimaraes had certainly cost a little more (42 million euros), but not surprisingly. The price seemed fair, given his age (24), his status as a Brazilian international, the quality of his performances for OL and his potential. All these newcomers had found their place in the team without creating a stir in the locker room: Newcastle had taken care not to recruit big heads likely to threaten the status of pillars of the club like Fabian Schär, Joelinton (successfully converted into a midfield role), Miguel Almiron, Callum Wilson, and the most popular of them all, Allan Saint-Maximin. Long live change, yes, but in continuity.

What’s more, the club’s new owners had refused to be tempted by a ‘name’ when they replaced Steve Bruce, choosing a young English manager, Eddie Howe, who knew what it was like to struggle not to go down, and also knew how to go about building a team over time. With the help of a most generous Russian owner, Maxim Demin, Howe had raised Bournemouth from League Two (D4) to the Premier League in the space of six seasons.

He wouldn’t be a mere interim manager at St James Park like Mark Hughes might have been at Man City, and now that his first mission – retention – has been accomplished with ease, he will now be able to focus on the stages following. Newcastle need to establish themselves in the Top 10. Qualify for the Europa League. Finish in the Top 4. Fight for the title. And barring any hiccups, it will be with Howe, who has just signed a new ‘long-term’ contract.

Horizon 2034

All of this is part of the logic, both prudent and more than ambitious, of the Saudi project, of which Newcastle is only a bridgehead, a project which aims for the horizon of 2034, with the organization of the Olympic Games or the World Cup in sight, a project which also includes the fabulous vision of Neom, a « new town » built in the desert in the north-west of the country under the direction of the PIF, the sovereign wealth fund which owns 80 % stake in Newcastle. Budget: 500 billion dollars. With such resources, why rush? To move forward, it is better to rely on the accumulated inertial force than on a sudden firing which would run the risk of an explosion.

« Chelsea’s typical team will not be enough to win the Premier League »

But that was before we learned that Newcastle had put 70 million euros on the table to bring young Swedish striker Alexander Isak from Real Sociedad, setting a new record for the Tyneside club. He was not the first recruit in his summer transfer window – Matt Targett, goalkeeper Nick Pope and Dutch defender Sven Botman had preceded him, for a total outlay of 72 million euros. But it was a sign that Newcastle had entered a phase of accelerating its investments.

It is true that the decision to acquire Isak was partly precipitated by the injury of Callum Wilson, the club’s number 1 striker, who we will probably not see again on the pitch before the beginning of October. This injury was unfortunately not the first for the centre-forward Howe worked with for six years at Bournemouth, and Newcastle therefore had to find him a back-up. But not necessarily 70 million, twenty more than Arsenal paid Manchester City to acquire Gabriel Jesus.

Sven Botman poses with the Newcastle jersey, Tuesday June 28, 2022.

Credit: Getty Images

What’s betting 70 million when you’re Newcastle?

Certainly, Isak was followed by many other big European clubs since he joined the Swedish selection in 2017, when he was not yet eighteen years old. Thomas Tuchel had moved heaven and earth to bring him to Dortmund that year when Real Madrid were thought to be close to securing his signature. A superb Euro 2020 had revealed it to the general public and made Gary Lineker say that we were in the presence of a « outstanding talent ».

It is also true that Isak did not impose himself in the Bundesliga, and that after two unsuccessful years, Dortmund, who loaned him for a time to Willem II, agreed to part with him for around fifteen million. His record with Real – 33 goals in 105 La Liga appearances, eight of which had been scored in the space of six weeks at the start of 2021 – was creditable, nothing more. There is therefore a part of the bet in the choice of Newcastle. But what’s betting 70 million, when it’s Newcastle? 0.00014% of Neom’s budget.

alexander isak

Credit: Getty Images

For Newcastle, it was about not putting the brakes on the club’s transformation, refusing that an incident – Wilson’s injury, in this case – could slow it down. No doubt Isak figured prominently on the list of targets drawn up by the club’s recruiters. Circumstances will have made the machine start up a little faster than expected. Time will tell if Isak will keep his promise and become the catalyst for a metamorphosis. But the deeper meaning of his recruitment must be found elsewhere. The message is simple, and with a clarity that must make Newcastle’s rivals shudder: progress must continue, relentlessly, inexorably.

And she will.


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