Chelsea’s transfer policy appears to be one of opportune timing. The players they have already brought in for next season are not just of elite quality, but also acquired smartly and for sensible fees.
Timo Werner seemed destined for Anfield. For months he had been sounded out in the media as the perfect addition to Liverpool’s front line, yet after an eternity of dancing around each other, Chelsea swoop in and pay the German’s £47.7 million release clause. A world class player signed for under fifty million, stole from the grasps of the incumbent champions.
Fellow German Kai Havertz appears to be following Werner to Stamford Bridge, again rumoured to have been pursued by Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid. Chelsea are in the driving seat to add yet another world class young talent to their youthful ranks.
Yet whilst the two Germans represent the future to establish the Blues as a European force, the side’s other recruit is of a different blueprint. Hakim Ziyech is twenty seven, and will be playing in a ‘big five’ league for the first time in his career, yet the powers already at his disposal could make him one of the league’s star attractions, even for those not of the royal blue persuasion.
Dutch Origin Story
Ziyech was arguably the headliner in Ajax’s outstanding Champions League run in 2018/19. However whilst the younger co-stars departed at the end of that campaign, Ziyech remained for a season later. It always appeared to be a waiting game with the Moroccan; supposedly available for an affordable fee, the only question was of whether a player of his type would thrive beyond the Eredivisie.
Before clubs decide to take the plunge on a player, months and years of recruitment and analysis are required to ascertain just what the player is capable of, and of their suitability. The number of scouts that must have watched Ziyech in the last five years, and returned with positive verdicts, must have been unparalleled. Yet each time there would have been a dissuading factor, likely to be this fact of his adaptability.
Playing primarily as a right winger under manager Erik ten Haag, Ziyech does little to fit the stereotypical modern winger. Not especially blessed with pace, he is best optimised when cutting onto his left foot and providing shots at goal or distributing passes. In essence he is a creative midfielder playing on the wide right.
He is afforded this role because of Ajax’s unique shape. Their shape is largely a 4-3-3, yet without a designated striker, as Dusan Tadic spearheads the attack as a false nine, dropping deep between the lines rather than playing a centre forward role. With Tadic playing this role and linking midfield with the wingers, the onus is on Ziyech and his opposite winger to provide the end product.
This responsibility falls on him to take shots at goal, provide the final pass, and to spread play to the other wings. Ajax’s midfield, post the departure of Frenkie de Jong, is not a creative not expressive one. Donny van der Beek is an energetic runner, and provides a goal threat in the penalty area, yet neither he nor his midfield partner provide cutting passes. Ziyech is the side’s best passer, either as that assist provider or in switching play to the flanks for the advancing full backs. in reality, Ziyech spends most of his time in the middle than on the right as the team sheet suggests.
Regardless of how brilliant he has been in Holland and in the Champions’ League, English fans will have their doubts about his adaptability. Even when playing alongside Frenkie De Jong and Mathias De Ligt, Ziyech was arguably the Eredivisie’s best player, and with this comes a level of scepticism. The league’s best talent playing in the league’s standout team, in a league of lower quality than the ‘top five’ major leagues and potentially the English Championship.
Similar doubt surrounded Bruno Fernandes before he arrived in Manchester. Again, far and away the best player in his league, with obscene underlying numbers that beg the question of whether he was praying on weak sides and his own importance as the star man.
Whilst his mere presence and aura has lifted United, his statistical output remains exceptional. He still takes over three shots per game, and although his key passes have fallen from 3.7 to 2.2 per game, this figure still makes him the side’s best creator. It represents the toughness of the Premier League, in that defenders and opposition midfields are not affording him the time and space to pick an intricate pass. Yet to still be the side’s best creative passer having arrived from a supposedly weaker division, reflects that the best players adapt and that their quality is transferrable so to thrive in other contexts.
Ziyech’s league statistics are comparable to Fernandes’ in that they stand so far above the rest of the league’s players, and those that doubt whether this output is padded by weaker opposition must look at the Portuguese’s transition to the Premier League before doubting Ziyech.
There are two fronts from which to understand Hakim Ziyech. First is to look at his statistical output, both in the Eredivisie and in Europe. Doing so earmarks the Moroccan as not just a talent, but as one of the world’s best.
With the league cancelled in late April, Ziyech was the league’s second highest assist provider with twelve alongside six league goals. This output is sustained by ludicrously high attacking output; a league high 4.98 shots per ninety minutes and 3.7 key passes, a figure bettered only by Dimitri Payet across Europe’s top five leagues.
Of those nigh on five shots, 34.8% were on target (1.74 per game). This doesn’t necessarily translate well when considering that he finished the domestic season with six goals, and is certainly an aspect Ziyech can improve on.
His modus operandi is cutting from the right and curling left footed shots at goal. As a reference he is comparable to Riyad Mahrez in the languid posture and fizzing shot at the far corner. Yet whilst Mahrez usually attacks the full back, standing him up before casting him aside with a flick of the left foot, Ziyech sits slightly deeper so occupies the deep lying left midfielder. This results in efforts from ludicrous range and often disguised as crosses.
In the Champions League fixture against Chelsea, Ziyech crossed for Quincy Promes to head home on twenty minutes, retreating deeper than his overlying right back to send an angled swirling cross for the Dutchman to head home. Again rather than standing up the left back, Ziyech’s unusually deep positioning leaves him with Chelsea winger Mason Mount to beat. Very few wingers sit as deep as this, and it means that they have a far higher chance to shoot or cross when faced with an ill equipped midfielder as opposed to a full back.
Hs free kick from close to the corner flag also assisted the third Ajax goal, hitting the post and rebounding in off goalkeeper Arrizabalaga. It soars before dipping viciously over the Chelsea keeper’s head, more than likely a well-directed cross but Ziyech’s audacious shot taking could well have made this effort intentional.
There is an arrogance and swagger to Ziyech’s play, as is present in Mahrez. In shifting the ball on to his left foot there is no burst of acceleration, nor whirring stepover combination, instead he uses his heavy inside touch to tee himself up. His marker dare not leap in with Ziyech standing stationary with shoulders back, as one jerk of the outside of his favoured foot takes the defender out the game and the goalkeeper braces.
To go with this danger around the box, Ziyech is also an excellent long passer. His 3.9 long balls in the league, and 4.2 in the Champions League, is almost unparalleled amongst attacking and wide midfielders again owing to his unusually deep positioning as well as the high advanced running of his opposite winger and full back. This aids itself to his crossing ability, and often makes it hard to distinguish just how deep his passes will end up, and whether the goalkeeper must rush to claim them.
His relationship with Promes was especially proficient in the 19/20 campaign, time and time again the Dutchman runs into the half space between full back and centre back to meet a deep Ziyech cross at the back post. For an aggressive goal scoring winger, Ziyech is the perfect supplement.
How Chelsea will benefit?
For all of the change and youthful resurgence under Frank Lampard, there are many aspects to Chelsea’s game that were underwhelming and in need of improvement. Ziyech rectifies multiple of the attacking problem areas.
Firstly is the matter of shots. Whilst Chelsea’s 16.6 shots per game were the second highest in the league, individually their players were often relatively shot shy. Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic were the side’s most prolific shot takers with 2.6 SpG, and Ziyech’s numbers are close to doubling this tally. It is likely that he will shoot less than he did in Holland, however it is unlikely for his figure to halve and be lower than Abraham or Pulisic’s.
Assuming that Ziyech would play as either the attacking or right midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, he can be compared to Mason Mount and Ross Barkley, players likely to be most affected by his arrival. Mount has had a breakthrough campaign, offering energy and endeavour from midfield and the left wing, however he lacks the final pass of an elite creator. Many though Barkley would become a creative midfielder of this calibre, but injuries and inconsistent form mean he simply will never become this player.
Ziyech shoots and dribbles more than both players, and ahis 3.7 key passes are extortionately higher than their respective 1.3 and 1.2 efforts. Again, it is unlikely he will be afforded such time and space to play this huge number in England, however without them dropping by two-thirds he would still play significantly more than the two named players. The highest in the squad is Willian with 2.1, so again Ziyech would head this metric.
Having seen the relationship between the Promes and Ziyech perform so impressively, one can expect similar dynamic to strike with Christian Pulisic. The United States winger has shown an eye for goal, both in finishing a dribble but also in getting on the end of crosses. He makes similar far post runs to Promes, so expect Chelsea to increase their crossing threat with Ziyech supplying from the right.
The final point is more abstract in that there were no left footed players in Chelsea’s midfield all season. Adding a creative left footer in Ziyech provides variety in that he can switch play to the other side with ease, but also dynamism and the chance to rotate the Moroccan with the roster of promising wingers. Against the top sides he can be fielded as a ‘10’ so to play with pacier wingers on the counter, yet against deeper blocked defensive units his final ball from wide can give them a new attacking dimension.
The potential arrival of the fellow left footed Havertz adds further to this dynamic, only benefiting Lampard’s depth of selection. The German’s aerial presence alongside Pulisic and Werner’s late running will give Ziyech a lethal group of targets to barrage with crosses.
The hype and excitement surrounding Chelsea’s new recruits is deserved and should Havertz arrive, they will arguably be in possession of Europe’s best young attacking arsenal. However whilst there may be doubts about whether Ziyech is capable of replicating his Ajax brilliance in a rougher league, the talent and magic already shown to be at this brilliant Moroccan’s disposal will likely prevail. Prepare to be entertained by this elegant and brave attacker. He may not stay for long, but his best will be exquisite.
featured image credit sky sports