Scouting Time: Joel Asoro
In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting young talents in the world of football. Next up is Djurgardens IF’s 21-year old Swedish forward Joel Asoro.
The navigation of the player pathway is one of the toughest questions in football, and one of the hardest to predict.
How do you know when a player is ready for the next level? How can you predict their evolution, from young prospect to the first team, and be sure that the player continues on a positive upward trajectory, despite the many difficulties and challenges they may face?
This is not easy to answer and is a question that regularly leaves even the biggest clubs in world football scratching their heads.
At the age of 16, Joel Asoro was considered one of the brightest young prospects in European football, with a huge future ahead of him. Hailing from the world-class academy at IF Brommapojkarna in Sweden, Asoro moved to Sunderland – then a Premier League club – with hopes of integrating into Sunderland’s academy and making it as a Premier League player.
That was in 2015. Fast forward nearly six years however and the dream has turned into a bit of a busted flush.
Half a decade later, Asoro is back in Sweden, 21 years old and hoping to start his career all over again.
After five years, a £2 million pound move to Swansea City and a couple of unremarkable loan moves to FC Groningen and Genoa, where he failed to make a single first team appearance, Asoro returns to Allsvenskan ahead of the 2021 season premiere this weekend, looking to not only turbo-charge Djurgardens IF’s bid to reclaim the league title, but also remind people of the talent that saw him picked up so early for a move to the Premier League in the first place.
Asoro’s move back home to Stockholm is one of the biggest moves of this winter transfer window in Sweden. He was clearly out of favor at Swansea City but returning to Sweden didn’t seem on the cards after a loan spell in Serie A at Genoa.
But Djurgardens always tend to be ahead of the curve in their recruitment and when their sporting director Bosse Andersson, who has known Asoro since he was 15, reached out to the out-of-favor player, a move quickly came together. A four-year contract gives Asoro a platform now to show everybody what he can do.
“I want to be a huge player” the Swedish U21 international stated upon his return. And when he broke through at Sunderland, having turned down offers from Manchester United, Chelsea and RB Salzburg, it looked as though those ambitions would quickly be realized.
Asoro became Sunderland’s youngest ever Premier League debutant when he came on as a substitute against Middlesbrough in August 2016. The pathway seemed there for him to make a breakthrough, but the 17-year-old would not play another minute of Premier League football that season as the Black Cats were relegated.
It was in the Championship where Asoro’s Sunderland career really began to blossom. More game time offered more chances to show his ability, and the forward excited fans with his penalty box instincts, creativity, speed, finishing and eye for goal.
In what was otherwise a dreadful year for Sunderland, who finished bottom of the league and were relegated to League One, Asoro was a rare bright spark, scoring three goals in 1465 minutes of game time.
A great example of his promise came in a late season defeat at Fulham. Asoro can play either as a wide forward or central striker in a number nine role off the shoulder, and he showed his instincts for goal when he opened the scoring with a quite brilliant strike against promotion chasers Fulham.
Here he receives a pass, has the skill and speed of thought to turn and fend off two players, one of them Matt Targett, gain himself half a yard with a quick burst of acceleration and dribble, and fire a fantastic low shot into the bottom corner.
It was these sort of thrilling glimpses that saw Swansea City swoop to sign Asoro once Sunderland were relegated, as new manager Graham Potter made the Swede his first signing. Potter of course had just moved from Sweden where he was managing Ostersunds FK, and so will have been very familiar with Asoro’s reputation in Sweden.
Unfortunately, however, it was here where the pathway started to go wrong for Joel Asoro. Potter started the youngster on the right wing, but quickly lost faith in the Swedish star as a starting name in his first-choice lineup.
Asoro began his Swansea career quite brightly, starting four of their first five league games on the right wing and grabbing an assist in a 1-0 win against Preston North End.
But Potter soon discarded the youngster and he began to find himself either on the bench or not in the squad at all. Potter would move on to Brighton and Hove Albion a year later and Asoro would only end up playing 14 more games for the club before being loaned out, and eventually sold.
Now 21, Asoro has said that he had personal problems over the past few years that have affected his progress on the pitch.
In terms of ability, he has a sharp burst of pace and a good eye for goal, but in pre-season for Djurgardens you can see that his positional sense and game understanding are still lacking. The intensity and angles of his pressing need drastic improvement and he needs to bring more sharpness and intensity to his all-round game.
That said, there is definitely a lot of ability there. Returning home after a five year absence, Joel Asoro could and really should be a star player who dominates this league. His presence if fit and firing gives Djurgardens a major chance of competing for the league title.
You can see from his 2019/2020 loan spell at FC Groningen that Asoro’s best position looks to be a central striker, not a right winger. He is good at running in behind off the shoulder of defenders and is an able penalty box finisher, as this goal during that loan spell demonstrates.
“People have forgotten that I’m really a forward. That’s where my position is,” Asoro told Swedish media when he was unveiled as DIF’s latest star signing.
“I have never been afraid of pressure. It’s not about that. You prepare, you take it as it comes. You have to stop thinking about so many things and instead do them. It’s too much talk, you just have to do it on the pitch.”
This move could be the making of Joel Asoro. It may seem a step backward in his pathway but maybe it is one that will lead to more consistency and bigger things in the future. He needs more regular game time in his natural position, so for now the main focus will be to win the Allsvenskan 2021 gold medal and keep improving individually.
Ultimately the words back in 2016 of Seb Larsson, the veteran Swedish international and a former teammate of Asoro’s at Sunderland, ring true. “He has to keep working because there will be ups and downs along the way.”