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Friday, July 19, 2024

Jonah Kusi-Asare: Bayern Munich’s new 16-year-old striker with echoes of Alexander Isak

He is 6ft 4in (192cm), plays up front, and is highly technical. He is Swedish and came through at Stockholm club AIK. He is one of the most expensive exports in the history of the Allsvenskan. He has secured his big move to Germany before his 18th birthday.

But this is not Alexander Isak, now at Newcastle United and his country’s most prominent footballing star. This is Jonah Kusi-Asare, the 16-year-old who has joined Bayern Munich for €6.5million ($7m).

“Isak might be a bit quicker,” says one source at AIK’s academy, speaking anonymously because they were not authorised to speak on the record. “But Jonah’s hold-up and link-up play might be even better.”

Kusi-Asare was born in 2007 into a footballing family. His father, Jones Kusi-Asare, was a Ghanaian-born striker in the Allsvenskan, playing once for Sweden’s under-21s in 2001. Jonah was born during the high point of his career — three years at Djurgarden, AIK’s fiercest rival within Stockholm.

His talented son began his footballing career at a different club — Brommapojkarna, a club in the western suburbs known for its youth development. Though its first team has enjoyed limited success, flitting between the top two divisions, it is funded by its massive youth academy, whose graduates fill the Swedish league.

Brommapojkarna, the half-true joke goes, is the only professional club in the world with more players than supporters — around 4,000 spread over hundreds of teams from under-6 level and up.

Known colloquially as BP, graduates include Tottenham Hotspur winger Dejan Kulusevski, former Manchester City striker John Guidetti, Sporting Lisbon’s Viktor Gyokeres, and Anderlecht and Sweden left-back Ludwig Augustinsson. When Sweden played Belgium last March, eight of their squad had come through BP’s academy or played for the club.

Every year, BP asks players to fill out a self-assessment form with strengths and weaknesses. On his, at age 14, Kusi-Asare wrote: “I am the best at tucking inside and hitting the ball into the first corner.” When Hakar Rashid joined as a coach, later to manage the youngster at under-16 level, he was sceptical about that claim and challenged him to prove it. Multiple successful long-range shots later, he had his answer.

“When I first arrived at Brommapojkarna, I was told that the squad had a player whose potential was a level above everyone else,” Rashid tells The Athletic. “But the problem was fulfilling that potential and performing consistently.

“He was already playing a year up in the under-16s as an under-15 — he was tagged with being lazy, or disinterested, but with super-high ability.”

After retirement, Kusi-Asare’s father had moved to Rinkeby in north west Stockholm to work in a school — one of Sweden’s roughest neighbourhoods, with high levels of rioting — but that helped Rashid, who was from a similar background, bond with the youngster.

“Straight away, we had a good connection,” says Rashid. “So we’d speak about his work rate at a personal level. Why don’t you run? Is it something bothering you? It wasn’t like he wasn’t well prepared and professional, but his attitude was that he’d be disappointed if team-mates or coaches didn’t believe in him: ‘I’ll show you what I can do with the ball at my feet’.

“So I’d try and trigger him — tell him every criticism made by other coaches, other teams. He knew he was good enough to coast, so it was about changing that.”

There is one story where, ahead of Sweden’s most prestigious youth competition, he turned up for his lift wearing only shorts and a pair of sliders. A pair of boots was hastily found and he won player of the tournament, scoring in every game. That included the opening goal in the semi-final against AIK, Sweden’s most successful club — who moved to sign the forward just six months later. BP retained a hefty sell-on fee.

“He was seeking a new environment,” says Peter Wennberg, the head of AIK’s academy. “From his side, he wanted to get out all of the potential and felt this was the time to leave Brommapojkarna.”

Rashid took up a job in the AIK academy at the same time and had a first-hand view of his progress. Kusi-Asare played in the under-19s as a 16-year-old — something unprecedented at the club — before joining in with first-team training.

“What jumped out at me when he joined AIK was his growth as a person, as a professional,” says Rashid. “He realised he could be someone.”

The only tag he was given at AIK was that of a future superstar.

There, he worked closely with under-19s coach Nils Heingard and senior assistant coach Henok Goitom — the latter also a striker, who made over 250 appearances for the club.

“When he arrived, it was obvious he was tall, strong, and with good speed,” says Wennberg. “But his movement around the box, the small things, was not there. So that’s what we worked on — details, body language, body profiling. There’s now a huge difference in his movement. Then we put demands on him to be prepared, to have a professional mindset and work as a unit in a team. But the best thing was that he asked for these two things.

“Jonah is an emotional boy, you need to connect with his feelings as well as the tactical side. He’s a striker who needs to feel the fight in a game against the opponent. Sweeping general or tactical words fly over him.”

When he made his first-team debut in a training match in June, Kusi-Asare, then 15, had to have a betting commercial on the kit taped over.

“He did a good math test the other day,” said head coach Andreas Brannstrom after that game. “Now he is with AIK’s first team. You forget how young they are sometimes, but it’s fun.

“Now he has summer vacation, so then he can be with us for a couple of weeks — it is difficult to pull them out of junior high school.”

School complete, Kusi-Asare made his full debut on August 28, coming on for the final nine minutes in a league fixture against Varbergs BoIS. He was 16 years and 54 days old — becoming AIK’s youngest-ever first-team player — four months younger than Isak was.

His first touch saw him dropping deep, searching for the ball, before threading a through ball past three defenders. Though Abdihakin Ali, seemingly the intended receiver, was just short of reaching it, the ball ran through for AIK’s overlapping left-back, setting up a chance on goal.

Dropping deep to get involved in link-up play is a key facet of his game — often receiving the ball straight from the centre-back around halfway and with the technical ability to flick it in a single touch to an onrushing winger. In one Sweden Under-17 game against Finland, he performed consecutive backheels to beat the press of the opposition left-back.

“When he was younger, he’d get bored on the pitch,” explains Rashid. “He’d go five minutes without getting the ball, so say to himself: ‘I’m going to go into my own half, receive it to feet, and beat four players’. It was a frustration turned into a habit turned into a strength — though he’s calmer about it now.”

Here, minutes into his debut, he goes searching — calling for the ball in midfield before letting it run across his body so he can open up his shoulders to assess the options. He plays it to Ali in a single touch, beating the Varbergs midfield, before sprinting into the box in a bid to meet any cross.

Though both players are technically excellent, the major difference between Kusi-Asare and Isak, stylistically, is their ball-progression preference. While Isak is one of the Premier League’s best dribblers — making him a genuine option on the wing — Kusi-Asare prefers to play a pass before receiving the return upfield.

“They’re both strikers and they’re both long,” explains Wennberg. “But I think there’s a huge difference between them. Jonah is stronger at finishing, more like an Erling Haaland-style player.

“Isak is more of a tricky one, a driving and dribbling player, but Jonah can develop for sure.”

Jones Kusi-Asare was a pure poacher — watch his goals here — and his son has picked up some of those instincts. Here, in a friendly for AIK’s first team against former club Brommapojkarna, Kusi-Asare scores the first of two goals after recognising the crossing space early.

Feigning an initial disinterest, he begins his sprint early and from deep, angling his run to exploit two static defenders’ blindspots. It means he is comfortably ahead of them by the time the cross arrives at the edge of the six-yard box and he scores easily.

“He has the whole package,” Thomas Berntsen, AIK’s sporting director, tells The Athletic. “He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s tall, he can play with both legs. The way he drops deep — he’s talented in the way he understands the game.”

His height is a major asset and, during his debut, watch his movement from this free kick. As the ball goes in, he is the only player moving significantly. He comfortably wins the battle for the ball and arguably should score the header.

Ideally, AIK would not have sold their prize asset so early, despite receiving the second-highest fee in their history (behind Isak). In recent seasons, the club have been forced into deals for Amar Abdirahman Ahmed Fatah, a highly-rated winger nicknamed Triple A, who has joined Troyes and the City Football Group, and midfielder Yasin Ayari, who joined Brighton.

However, in recent years, the club has struggled with issues related to financial planning and squad management. This has left them locked into a model where they need to sell academy talents to purchase less talented but more established senior professionals.

Within AIK, they knew from the spring that Kusi-Asare would likely leave in the near future. Those close to the player say that he would have been happy to stay — wishing to show that he could score in the Allsvenskan as a 16-year-old — but add that his personality means he is nonchalant at the prospect of any change in level.

“We would have liked to see him develop at AIK, but the situation at the club and the player’s willingness to explore this adventure led to Bayern Munich’s bid being accepted,” said Berntsen in the club’s official statement. “It should also be said that the offer that was accepted is the highest ever for such a young player from the Allsvenskan.”

Dutch side PSV Eindhoven were exceptionally keen on Kusi-Asare, while the striker also visited Benfica, Bayern Munich and Red Bull Salzburg when he was 14. Salzburg’s then sporting director was Christoph Freund, who now occupies the same position at Bayern. Matteo Perez Vinlof, a former teammate at BP, is also in the youth academy set-up.

“He was so impressed by the professionalism at Bayern,” says Rashid. “The structure. Then, they didn’t tag him as lazy but focused on his strengths.”

The initial plan is for Kusi-Asare to regularly train with the first team, but more regularly play for Bayern II. In Harry Kane, arguably the world’s best forward at dropping deep to link play, Kusi-Asare has the perfect model to improve his game. Bayern also have highly promising 18-year-old French striker Matthys Tel in their ranks.

“A lot of clubs were interested, but from quite early on, I understood from the player who his preference was,” says Berntsen. “Bayern were very determined, so they were the only club we properly negotiated with. We spoke to about 10 clubs, from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and Germany.

“Now he’s at Bayern Munich, it’s up to him.”

(Top photo: AIK Fotboll)

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