Can Hakim Ziyech become a top Premier League asset
Since the departure of fan favourite Eden Hazard in June 2019, Chelsea have turned to youth to lead their charge to European football.
A willing youth contingent has stepped up to the fore throughout the campaign, and in turn Chelsea sit 4th with only nine league games remaining.
Although the outlook on youth was forced upon the club to an extent due to a transfer embargo, the change in structure could prove pivotal.
Now player movement is allowed to and from the London side, attention turns to attracting stellar European talent to the club once more.
Frank Lampard’s first signing… Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech.
HAKIM’S PATH FROM HEERENVEEN
Hakim Ziyech has become a vital attacking outlet over the last few seasons at Ajax, and his productivity throughout his Eredivisie career has been remarkable.
The wide playmaker – who can also play in the attacking midfield position – joined Ajax in 2016 after spells at sc Heerenveen and FC Twente, and in that time has recorded 79 goals and 97 assists in 216 games in the Dutch topflight.
The 27-year-old rose to the spotlight last season in an Ajax side that shone, especially on Europe’s biggest stage.
Against all the odds, Ajax beat both Real Madrid and Juventus to reach the semi-final stages of the Champions League – and the contribution of Ziyech and other teammates hurtled this youthful crop of talent into the thoughts of clubs all over the continent.
Expectedly, the team lost some of its stars last summer – with Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong completing big money moves to Juventus and Barcelona, respectively.
Ziyech proved a vital cog in an Ajax team that just kept on going, and recorded three goals and two assists throughout the knockout stages in the 2018/19 campaign – a contribution that was followed by a place in the UEFA Champions League squad of the season.
His stunning form in Europe’s premier competition continued into this season where he recorded three assists away at Chelsea to ignite a stern interest from the London club, but his efforts were to no avail as Ajax succumbed to a group stage exit this time around.
PRODUCTIVE PASSING AND POSITIONING
Ziyech has been an almost ever-present in Eric ten Hag’s line-up this term – starting every game he has been involved in the squad – but picked up a calf injury in February to miss three of the last five league games that were played.
And as a flexible attacking option the midfielder has fit into the side in as a wide playmaker or as an inside forward.
Ziyech boats nine goals and 18 assists this season and proves a constant threat in wider areas, delivering on average 5.1 crosses per 90 minutes, and 1.5 key passes.
In fact it is his passing and crossing stats that stand out as exemplary, with the Contribution Ratings metric showing that passing is by far his greatest asset, while in the crossing statistics he is only second to teammate Dušan Tadić.
Figure 1. Hakim Ziyech’s offensive contribution in terms of passing is the best of any winger in the Eredivisie
Ziyech is now 27 and arguably at a peak age to excel and the big move to Chelsea certainly offers this opportunity.
Nonetheless he is a star turn in his country of birth and one of the most exciting stars in the league.
His SciSkill Rating of 104.6 and such a rating is only rivalled by 23-year old Brazilian teammate David Neres, and such a rating for Ziyech has seen a constant gradual rise over several successful years in the Netherlands.
So much so that his SciSkill is nearly in line with his potential, however he still has the capability to grow and we will have to wait and see as to whether the Premier League is somewhere he can flourish.
Figure 2. Ziyech’s SciSkill Rating has risen higher over a prolific couple of years with Ajax
THE BATTLE OF THE BRIDGE
As Hakim Ziyech put Chelsea to the sword back in November 2019, little did the amazed Stamford Bridge faithful realise that he would agree to make it a more regular occurrence just under three months later.
It may be a long while before a home crowd gets to see him wear a Chelsea shirt, but they already know the damage he can cause.
The 4-4 draw was a memorable one, with Ajax fans banned from watching their team play yet took a 4-1 lead to blow what seemed a large disadvantage completely out of the window.
Ziyech lined up in attacking midfield in Ajax’s 4-3-3 formation – an ever present throughout the season – and acted as a creative core for runners around him.
The Moroccan shows less incentive to make runs past defenders himself though likes to make intelligent runs and pick up cutbacks in space.
He also often drifts into space out wide to complete passes and deliver crosses, in fact two of his goal contributions came from the right-hand side – providing Van de Beek and Promes with decisive goals.
Erik ten Hag likes his Ajax side to press from the front and frustrate other sides, but just how would Ziyech fit into the Chelsea side?
Well, Frank Lampard’s outfit have changed formation much more than Ajax though have similarly used 4-3-3 most throughout the season – but a more attack minded version.
The likes of Jorginho and Kante offer protection, and precision in their passing, to allow the rest of the midfield to attack and push higher up the pitch, and Lampard certainly has options at his disposal both young and old.
Pedro and Willian have been trusted servants over the last few years though the latter is due to run out of contract at the end of the season.
The pair are both into their thirties now and often see themselves overlooked for fresh young talent in Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic.
All four can play in similar roles to Ziyech, although the introduction of the Moroccan into Chelsea’s style of play may take some getting used to.
He is content on finding space and finding the runners rather than running at the defensive lines himself, something in which Frank Lampard’s side tend to do.
A central berth may be more suitable, and with strong defensive midfielders in the teams ranks, this offers Ziyech protection to drift out wide and find space.
His willingness to defend from the front has shone in the Eredivisie though as his contribution in terms of positioning is by far his best defensive attribute – hence this could give the likes of Christian Pulisic more freedom to shine and to play on the wing.
When Ziyech first wears the blue shirt, he will hope to continue where he left off, and strengthen a Chelsea midfield way short of his goal and assist contributions.
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