When asked to name his biggest influences in football, Alhassan Yusuf plucks familiar names out.
‘It was FC Barcelona, playing their attractive football with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta’.
Like many twenty year olds, that mesmeric team formed the inspiration for his footballing ideology.
Yusuf has managed to culture that love into his own profession however. An energetic, technical central midfielder, the young Nigerian embodies much of that great side’s philosophy.
One of Scandinavia’s brightest talents spoke exclusively to First Time Finish, to tell his story.
Young Nigerian talent
Born in 2000, Kano, Nigeria, the path to European football is not an immediately obvious one. In the central north of the country, the city has long been documented as a site of Christian and Muslim co-habitance. Not always a peaceful one either.
Yusuf’s recollections of playing football in his native country is largely a positive one.
‘It was fun, but tough. Especially when playing the older players.’
This image of a young Yusuf battling against bigger opposition, is now not an uncommon one. At 5’7″ he is rarely anything other than the shortest player in the centre of the park. Rather than be overburdened by a height disadvantage however, Yusuf has learned to use it to his advantage.
Yusuf was spotted by the Tiki Taka Development Group as a youngster in Nigeria. The Swedish based academy set up a Nigerian wing of their operation in the last decade. Working with grassroots clubs and players, the academy’s aim was to provide coaching infrastructure for young Nigerian’s to forge a career in European football.
It was this very infrastructure that located talent in a teenage Alhassan Yusuf, and took him to Europe.
First taste of Europe
The Gothia Cup. One of Europe’s most prestigious youth tournaments, claiming to also be the largest in volume of competitor teams. Over 1700 teams from over eighty countries descend on Sweden’s capital each year. The world’s greatest youth talent on show.
Previous years of the tournament have seen the emergence of the game’s most illustrious names. Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo and Alan Shearer to name but three.
Alhassan Yusuf can include himself amongst the Cup’s alumni, representing the Tiki Taka Academy twice in the competition. Such an event epitomises the aims and philosophy of the academy. Held in its native Sweden, giving young Nigerian players the opportunity to play competitive European football is the perfect education. That the world’s best scouting teams are in attendance only enhances the appeal.
It was in the 2017 edition that Yusuf caught the eyes of IFK Göteborg. Tiki Taka Nigeria would lose in the final, but the nippy central midfielder caught alight in the process. IFK’s sporting director at the time Olle Sultan had been briefed on a young talent playing in the tournament, and upon watching seventeen year old Yusuf, offered him a trial.
Yusuf’s time with Tiki Taka had come to a fulfilling conclusion. With the teenage midfielder moving to Sweden the following year, Tiki Taka had imprinted itself on his footballing and personal development.
‘Tiki Taka played a big role in changing my mentality as a player in the way that I could adapt to European way of playing faster and easier.’ recalls Yusuf.
A change in culture
‘I was very excited to hear that IFK were interested in me. As well as some other clubs. It is the goal of every player to play in Europe.’
With one stage of his education complete, IFK signed Yusuf on a two year contract following his trail. Sultan described him as “phenomenally good” in an interview with GT.
Leaving Nigeria for Sweden at a tender age is a dramatic cultural shift. Yusuf says living in Sweden has taught him to be “strong, no matter the situation”. It can not be undersold the geographical but also social and cultural differences faced in Gothenburg from Kano. Without resolve and impressive determination to make the move work, it could have proved too much for most teenagers.
One can quickly see from Yusuf’s style how infectious a player he is. There is a whippy energy to him, buzzing across the midfield in search of the ball in defence and in possession. It is no surprise that the club were so taken with him at such a young age.
There is an obvious name that leaps to mind when comparing Yusuf to other midfielders. It is this same player that he names as most comparable to his own game.
The energy in the press, the quickness across the turf and the nimble posture ad to the comparison. Yusuf is arguably already a more interesting passer and carrier than Kanté ever has been. Were he to develop into half the defensive operator as the Frenchman, Yusuf will be a superstar midfielder.
Impact at IFK Göteborg
Awareness of domestic Scandinavian leagues is certainly growing. The growth of online scouting communities, and the availability of performance data from those leagues has certainly catalysed this shift.
It is this exposure that has brought the likes of Alhassan Yusuf to public attention. Covered in Volume VIII of the Scouted Football Handbook, Yusuf’s potential and current standard is being watched.
It was in 2019, having been at the club a year, that the midfielder made his mark. IFK Göteborg won the Svenska Cup and finished seventh in the league. A rewarding campaign for Sweden’s second most successful club. In this campaign, Yusuf won the Allsvenskan newcomer of the year.
What quickly impressed was his passing ability. Despite it being his first full season in Europe, the Nigerian sought to dictate games with his distribution. 57.36 passes per game at 91% accuracy is a huge volume for a new arrival. Shifting the ball quickly and accurately is his major skill.
The following season was far more perilous for the club. Finishing twelfth, and winning just seven of their thirty league games. This was not a campaign to be remembered.
Once again though, Yusuf built upon his previous year. The nature of his passing would evolve to be more progressive and penetrative. His passes into the final third would increase dramatically, as would his completed number of long passes. His defensive interceptions and recoveries too would also climb, showing the development of a top all rounder.
Fourth in the Allsvenskan’s top five passers in 2020, yet also improving on the dynamism of his distribution. Yusuf is enhancing and building on his skillset year by year.
‘I cannot say anything about my passing, it is something that is a natural skill for me. It is my goal to improve every aspect of my game, using each training session to learn.’
The future Yusuf
Yusuf is yet to feature for Nigeria, either at senior or junior level. The arrival of the pandemic will likely postpone that landmark further back until consistent, safe international football can restart.
It is certainly an ambition that Yusuf has his eye on, who describes it as a “dream to one day represent Nigeria.”
His performances domestically warrant such consideration. To be among the Allsvenskan’s best midfielders, having only played two full seasons in Europe, makes for promising reading.
The financial situation of Swedish clubs at current mean that interest in their assets may prove too tempting to turn down. It would certainly mark the next stage of development for Yusuf, and there has already been interest.
As recently as December 2020, newspapers have linked him with moves to Wolves, Anderlecht and Sheffield United. For many clubs looking for a versatile, young central midfielder that would not break the bank, Yusuf could head many lists.
The charisma, both in himself and in his football, already make him a popular face at IFK Göteborg. The essence of Tiki Taka, and confident possession play, run through this young talent, with a huge future ahead of him.