With two full seasons now under his belt, Gustav Isaksen is a known quantity in the Danish Superligaen. If the 21/22 season was his breakout, where the 22-year-old racked up nearly 2,000 league minutes, then the 22/23 season was the campaign where he established himself as one of the division’s standout performers. Isaksen racked up 18 goals and 5 assists last season with FC Midtjylland, which consequently prompted links to a host of Champions League clubs.
These links have materialised, as Lazio have signed the Dane for a reported €12m plus add-ons – a fee that places Isaksen amongst the Superligaen’s most expensive exports.
Whilst Isaksen enjoyed a successful season on a personal level, FC Midtjylland, a title contending club in recent years, failed to qualify for the championship playoff when the league split, prompting a managerial switch. The change impacted Isaksen’s role, as he went from a winger on the right side of Albert Capellas’ 4-3-3 to a second striker role under Thomas Thomasberg, who predominantly used a 4-4-2.
Although Isaksen profiles as a high volume dribbler who favours operating in wide areas, Thomasberg was able to utilise his strengths. FC Midtjylland launch vertical attacks from a mid-block and often build down the flanks, where Isaksen is given licence to peel wide to receive possession.
Isaksen’s threat from wide areas is underpinned by his approach to receiving possession. When receiving into feet he tends to adopt a square body shape that at first appears passive, but well-timed scans provide a platform for his subsequent actions to be more assertive. With a mental image of the space available to him, the Dane opens his stance and can access a range of angles that work to immediately square up opponents who have stepped forward to close him down.
His process is similar in transitional moments. If Isaksen recognises he has space to turn he will often let the ball roll through, allowing him to take initiative and receive possession when he’s directly facing up to his opponent.
This spatial awareness also translates into an adaptable first touch. When he’s presented with space to exploit, Isaksen capably pushes the ball out of his feet, but he particularly excels when he’s required to keep it close in tight spaces. Isaksen’s strength in these instances derives from the balance he strikes between deftness and aggression; the assertiveness he demonstrates in initiating 1v1s, head up, looking to attack directly, is facilitated by his technical security.
He typically centres himself over the ball as he attempts a take-on. A detail that enhances a key facet of his skillset: his ability to attack either side of a defender. Isaksen’s capacity to control duels is often dependent on instinctive changes of direction, as the winger looks to force opponents into overcommitting their momentum. By keeping the ball centred, rather than shifting it onto his left or right side, he maintains access to a wider range of potential exit angles.
Whilst this allows him to capitalise on positional errors, these errors are ultimately forced by the way he uses his body. His movements are fluid and agile, and in these phases he is constantly manipulating his shoulders and hips to create a sequence of feints. Isaksen is quick to recognise if his opponent has committed their weight, and intuitively moves into the opening.
There are a number of factors that allow the Dane to maximise his impact in these moments. Physically, his agility and balance enable a nimble turning radius that allows him to execute sharp changes of direction. Technically, he possesses stellar close control, and comfortably shifts the ball with both the inside and outside of either foot. Working in conjunction with his tendency to remain centred over the ball, these qualities allow him to remain unpredictable when attempting to exit away from defenders. Isaksen rarely telegraphs his intentions, but constantly threatens both sides of his opponent, always ready to weaponise their momentum.
When Isaksen attempts to exit from a duel, he remains technically sound. He weights and directs his exit touches superbly. However a lack of explosiveness can limit his ability to create meaningful separation. This is an important consideration when evaluating Isaksen’s scalability as a dribbler, in the context of both settled possession and in transition.
Writing for SCOUTED Notebook, Kees Van Hemmen stresses a need for caution when assessing dribblers who benefit from the space afforded to them by transitional scenarios, and how they may scale to more physically accomplished leagues. Van Hemmen breaks this down further by asking two questions: where and how is the player doing their dribbling?
Playing for a team that don’t look to control possession, the position Isaksen initiates his dribbles from is frequently determined by his side’s off-ball structure. FC Midtjylland break out of their defensive structure quickly, with Isaksen generally pulling wide to show ahead of the ball. As a result, he’s often receiving in relatively deep areas, in transitional phases, and looking to utilise the fair amount of space available to push the opposition’s defensive line further back.
By considering Isaksen’s physical output alongside his reliance on a baiting approach to dribbling, we can see how his ability to generate threat off the dribble may be lessened in a stronger league. As technically refined as his dribbling is, he ultimately depends on his opponent to distribute their weight incorrectly in order to create separation. If Isaksen were more explosive, or had a stronger, less wiry build, he’d be capable of forcing and maintaining separation off the dribble; and consequently his ability to consistently access and create from high value areas in the final third would be improved. As things stand, Isaksen may struggle to exploit these zones against a higher level of opposition.
Currently, a reasonable portion of his chance creation in advanced areas comes via crosses. Preferring to use his stronger left foot, Isaksen has a favoured angle when playing on the right. The Dane tends to knock the ball out to his left side, creating an angle where he can come across the ball and swing crosses into the far post. These crosses are usually accurate, but he leans back as he strikes through the ball, meaning that they can lack the whip often seen in the most threatening deliveries.
In a similar vein, there are some wrinkles in his shooting technique to iron out. Despite instances of clean ball striking on both feet, he can also lack rhythm. The 22-year-old struggles with instinctively getting the ball out of his feet and setting himself before a shot, sometimes limiting the power he can generate. Isaksen does have potential upside as a goalscorer, though. When he’s engaged in 1v1s in and around the box, his ability work a shot from either side could be developed into an effective tool.
That being said, if Isaksen is to realise his potential as a goalscorer at the highest level, his movement needs to become more varied. He makes strong out-to-in runs off the last line, and consistently demonstrates an understanding of how to time these bursts. However, this type of run relies a bit too much on explosiveness and transitional moments for Isaksen to be able depend on them as a source of consistent shooting opportunities. His box movement is currently too static, but he’s shown flashes of good anticipation which could, if his ability to identify and manipulate space is developed, be honed into a steady number of opportunities in good locations.
In deeper areas, Isaksen coordinates his movements competently in order to link play. By capably dropping off the last line and creating passing angles within pockets he’s able to showcase his most productive tendencies as a passer. Primarily a short range passer, Isaksen has a nice rhythm in linking scenarios; comfortable at a one-touch tempo, he can execute give-and-goes as well as improvised flicks that allow for access to unorthodox angles.
Over longer distances and off the dribble, Isaksen’s passing has slight inconsistencies. The weighting of long range passes can be a touch too soft and he has an angle bias when he plays the ball to teammates after a dribble. This is most noticeable when he’s situated on the right, as options down the line can be neglected as he looks to cut onto his left foot and play inside or backward.
Although far from an exceptional defensive presence from the front, it wouldn’t be overoptimistic to suggest there’s scope for improvement. Isaksen’s out of possession role at FC Midtjylland isn’t especially intensive, as his positioning in a settled block often deliberately has one eye on transitional attacks. However it is not uncommon to see him pressing diligently, working back or sneaking in to turnover possession when the situation requires it. He puts in effort, but there are flaws.
When Isaksen looks to apply pressure and counter-pressure he approaches with a narrow body shape, and doesn’t like commit himself too physically, even when attempting tackle. This, in combination with inconsistent scanning tendencies out of possession can lead to approaches from the wrong angle, making him easy to bypass. There’s also a slight lack of awareness at times when defending in a settled shape, and he can fail to adequately cover passing lanes.
The move from FC Midtjylland to Lazio is a sizeable jump up for Gustav Isaksen. Without even acknowledging the enormous culture shift of moving from Ikast in Denmark to Rome, the time it might take to adapt to both the quality of the division and the demands of his new manager, Maurizio Sarri, may be significant.
Whilst there are surface-level similarities between the verticality that FC Midtjylland and Sarri’s Lazio use to progress the ball, the structural realities are quite different. A reasonably long adjustment period would be unsurprising where tactical requirements are concerned, especially without a preseason. That said, he profiles well as a winger in Sarri’s 4-3-3, and with the personnel already at the club, there appears to be a pathway available where he can play a sensible number of minutes without Lazio being overly reliant on his output.
Expectations over Isaksen’s output need to be measured. Isaksen currently ranks as one of Lazio’s most expensive summer additions, but even if he adapts successfully, the Dane is still some way off consistently producing goals and assists in the Serie A.
In the short term, Isaksen’s development may have benefitted another step before attempting to transition into a T5 league, but that was perhaps unlikely given the price he was eventually sold for. He possesses some superb technical qualities and certainly has the potential to be a meaningful contributor to a strong Europa League level side, but he needs to be afforded time and patience.