How Isak's return gives Newcastle fresh impetus in top-four pursuit
A trip to the City Ground isn't the easiest to navigate. Indeed, ahead of Nottingham Forest's welcome of Newcastle on Friday night, they'd lost just the four times at home in all competitions this season, earning positive results against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. Considering the Magpies had won just one of seven away games prior to their game in Nottingham, Forest would have certainly fancied their chances of at least a point to kick off the weekend's action.
Emmanuel Dennis fired Forest ahead midway through the second half and it looked as though Steve Cooper's side were set to extend their home unbeaten league run to 10 games. Yet the Magpies' have developed a knack for not knowing when to throw in the towel. Eddie Howe's side have scored just 39 league goals this season, the fewest of those teams in the top-eight, yet eight of those (20.5%) have come from the 75th minute onwards in 2022/23. This never-say-attitude is certainly standing them in good stead as they seek to secure a top-four finish.
This mental toughness to Newcastle's game came to the fore on Friday night as they battled back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 at Forest. Both goals came in injury time as Alexander Isak bagged an equaliser shortly before the break and then remained composed to tuck past Keylor Navas from 12 yards late on. That brace took Isak to six league goals for the season, an impressive return for a player who has registered just 624 minutes of game time.
What's notable still is that of Isak's six goals have resulted in Newcastle earning an additional eight points. The only goal that didn't earn the Magpies a result was his first league goal for Howe's side, that coming in the 2-1 loss at Liverpool, where Fabio Carvalho bagged a 97th-minute winner at Anfield. For a Newcastle side that has been struggling for goals in 2023, Isak's return to fitness and subsequent goalscoring form has given them fresh impetus in their quest to finish in the Champions League spots.
Having joined for a club-record fee from Real Sociedad over the summer, there were high expectations for Isak at St. James' Park. Admittedly, Newcastle already had a first choice frontman in Callum Wilson, but his injury issues meant investment was required. Isak was the marquee addition to the frontline, yet a hamstring injury ruled the Swede out from September until the turn of the year.
Even then, his return to first team action was a 2-1 FA Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday, where Isak was hauled off at the break. Slowly, though, Isak had been building up his fitness and he gave the perfect example of his goalscoring pedigree with the late winner against Fulham back in January. The 2-0 loss to Manchester City, though, appeared to be a real turning point for both Isak and Newcastle.
Two of Isak's seven starts have come in Newcastle's last two outings with Wilson dropped to the bench as a result. The latter came off the bench in the 2-1 win over Wolves, but was an unused sub at Forest on Friday night. This won't have been a coincidence either. As effective a goalscorer as Wilson is, the England international is more the classic number nine centre forward by comparison to Isak.
The Sweden international has the greater mobility on the frontline that results in a more fluid Newcastle attack. This is highlighted in that Isak is completing far more dribbles per 90 (1.3) than Wilson (0.3) in the Premier League this season. There is an argument to be made that Wilson's goalscoring pedigree perhaps stands him in better stead than Isak, but the former has scored just the seven league goals this season, one more than the latter.
Additionally, Isak has the better conversion rate at 25%, that the sixth best of the 108 players to have mustered 20 or more shots in England's top tier this term at the time of writing. By comparison, Wilson has returned a conversion rate of 15.9%. That's not to say that Wilson should be cast aside and not utilised between now and the end of the season, but Howe will feel relieved that he at least has two different striker options to utilise if required.
During Isak's stint on the sidelines, Howe could only call upon Wilson and Chris Wood to lead the charge if required. The pair share similarities in the final third, and this meant Newcastle were far easier to read when they did push forward, thus resulting in a dip in goals on a stagnant frontline. Isak's return, then, is a timely one. Newcastle now have a bit of versatility to an attack that had looked stale in the opening months of 2023.
With just league duties to focus on between now and the end of the season, the onus will be on breaking into the top four, and keeping Isak fit for the run in could prove vital for Newcastle. He gives Howe a fresh attacking approach that may be the difference between Champions League and Europa League football at St. James' Park next season.