Chelsea made headlines this summer during a feverish transfer window, in which Frank Lampard’s side managed to recruit the services of players like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy. With the English Premier League now back in full swing and Lampard trying to find his ideal starting line-up, the Chelsea manager will soon have another major summer signing ready for action – former Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech, who is set to join the Chelsea matchday squad for the first time this weekend.
For Ziyech, his debut will be a personal highlight after spending eight years in the Dutch Eredivisie. Unlike many of his former teammates, Ziyech was not a swanky Ajax academy graduate, but rather a product of the sc Heerenveen youth system, where he was handed his first-team debut in 2012 by legendary striker-turned-manager Marco van Basten. After moving to FC Twente in 2014, Ziyech made a huge impact on the Enschede team with 30 goals and 27 assists in just over two seasons.
His performances earned him his big move to Ajax, where he would continue racking up goals and assists, eventually winning the Eredivisie, the Dutch Cup and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League.
With Hakim Ziyech ready to make an impression in the Premier League, we take a look at his formative years in the Eredivisie and how he evolved into the all-round modern playmaker that persuaded the Blues to get out their chequebook. Will he bring the magic that he displayed at Ajax to Stamford Bridge this season?
It’s Not Rocket Science
It was Ajax’s fourth group stage game in the 2019/20 Champions League, a decisive match at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. A win in London would drastically increase their chances of qualifying for the next round. Hakim Ziyech stood over a free kick close to the corner flag, an area from which a shot on goal seemed highly unlikely. In typical fashion, Ziyech attempted the shot anyway, and as the ball ricocheted off the post and Kepa Arrizabalaga’s head into the net, Ziyech proved that for him, it was not so unimaginable after all. Three months later, the Moroccan playmaker signed a five-year contract at Chelsea.
The goal was evidence of Ziyech’s daring approach to shooting at goal. But it did take the Dutch-born Moroccan playmaker a while to combine that boldness with picking the right moments and positions to shoot at goal.
His most difficult season in this regard was probably 2016/17, his maiden season at Ajax. Ziyech scored just twice from 114 attempts from outside the box in the Dutch Eredivisie that year. It prompted Ajax manager Peter Bosz to assure the media that Ziyech’s shooting was one of his strengths and that he should definitely keep utilising it.
Ziyech attempted 78% of his shots from outside the box that season, his highest rate in a single Eredivisie campaign.
The following year, his ratio went down to 73%, while Ziyech’s goal tally from outside the box went up to six in total. The pattern continued in 2018/19 where 63% of his attempts and seven of Ziyech’s league goals came from outside the 18-yard box.
In his final season at Ajax, the percentage stood at 65%, with Ziyech scoring twice from outside the box before the season was ended early. Ziyech’s two Champions League goals this season also came from outside the box.
He leaves the Netherlands as the player with the most goals scored from outside the box in the Eredivisie since the turn of the century (31). But the numbers show that by picking his moments and shot locations more carefully, Ziyech became a more prolific player from both short and long range.
A Contemporary Playmaker
Off the back of their 2018/19 Champions League campaign in which Ajax nearly reached the final, the Amsterdam side signed Quincy Promes from Sevilla. It indicated something of a new era for Ajax. They were signing players from other major European leagues, something that did not seem feasible just a year earlier. The transfer benefited Ziyech greatly, who spoke about his desire to raise his game by playing with top players such as Promes and Dusan Tadic.
Ziyech and Promes formed arguably the most prolific duo in Dutch football last season, with Ziyech repeatedly finding Promes via in-swinging crosses from the right almost instinctively. Last November, five consecutive Promes goals for Ajax were assisted by Ziyech.
In a team that matched his ambitions, Ziyech thrived.
Just two years earlier, Ziyech made headlines for the wrong reasons when he lost possession 46 times in a league game against ADO Den Haag, an Eredivisie record at the time for an outfield player since Stats Perform started recording detailed Opta data for the Dutch top tier (2010/11). It seemed like an inevitable part of his game – to create chances, you must take risks. But critics were quick to point out that he would need to be more effective if he wanted to make a move to a top European league.
Ziyech’s numbers do show an improvement over time. In his first three full Eredivisie seasons at Heerenveen and FC Twente, he lost possession with around 38% of his touches. After joining Ajax, that number dipped to 32% in his first two seasons and in his last season at Ajax, he lost the ball with just 29% of his touches, his lowest number in a single Eredivisie campaign.
His creative output did not suffer from this change. He went from creating 2.9 chances per 90 minutes in his last season at FC Twente, to averaging at least 3.8 chances over his four seasons at Ajax. His average of 4.3 chances created per 90 minutes in the 2019/20 Eredivisie season was his best return in a single campaign.
This led to Ziyech’s most prolific season when it came to assists and his average of 0.67 assists per 90 minutes is also his highest in any Eredivisie campaign.
It showed how Ziyech benefited from playing in a better team, but also how he managed to raise his own game.
Hakim Ziyech In The Eredivisie
|Season||Assists/90||Chances created/90||Possession lost/touches|
During his four years at Ajax, Ziyech assisted 51 Eredivisie goals, 15 more than any other player over the same period. He’s also the player with the most assists in the Eredivisie since the turn of the century (87).
Crossing The Channel
In a league usually known for its attacking football and not so much for its defensive qualities, Ajax lit up the Eredivisie in 2018/19 with high pressing football and fast turnovers. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, key members of that Ajax team, moved to Barcelona and Juventus in the subsequent summer. At the same time, the Dutch national team emerged from a barren period with world-class defenders and midfielders like Stefan de Vrij, Virgil Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum. A shift in Dutch football that ran parallel to Hakim Ziyech’s transformation at Ajax – from a soloist to a contemporary high-pressing playmaker, not afraid to track back – was underway.
Just like Ziyech’s creative output, his defensive statistics also saw a jump when he moved to Ajax. In his last season at FC Twente, Ziyech won possession 4.7 times per 90 minutes. In his first season at Ajax, this number increased to 7.1, and in his second campaign up to 8.6, his personal best in the Eredivisie. This can be partially explained by Ajax’s more attacking play compared to Twente, but Ajax manager Peter Bosz had an influence as well with his brand of high-pressing football.
In 2018/19, Ajax’s glory season in which they won the double, Ziyech’s recovery rate of possession went down (6.8 per 90), but his rate of possession-won in the final-third of the pitch went up (1.9 per 90) compared to 2017/18 (1.5). Ziyech was often deployed as a right winger that season but did not shun his defensive duties and often tracked back to recover the ball.
Ziyech’s defensive growth feels like his final transformation into a player that can succeed at the highest level. His performances in the Champions League are certainly a testament to this claim and the Ajax midfielder tops many lists over the last two seasons. Ziyech notched three goals and three assists in the 2018/19 Champions League season and repeated this feat in 2019/20 in five fewer games. In 2018/19, Ziyech took the most shots in the Champions League (56), two more than Lionel Messi. To complement his attacking output, only teammate David Neres (21 times) won back possession more often in the final-third that season than Ziyech (17 times).
In 2019/20, Ziyech’s numbers demonstrated his playmaking abilities. He was one of only two players with four assists in the 2019/20 Champions League group stage, alongside Riyad Mahrez. Indeed, only Hwang Hee-Chan (14) created more chances from open play in the group phase than Ziyech (13) and the Moroccan played more passes into the opposition box than any other player in the 2019/20 group stage (72).
Champions League 2018/19 & 2019/20 Group Stage
Hakim Ziyech Combined Total Rank Assists 7 3rd (joint) Chances Created 39 4th (joint) Passes Into The Box 161 1st Shots 75 3rd (joint) Possession Won In Final-Third 23 1st (joint) Crosses In Open Play 38 8th (joint) Dribbles Attempted 92 2nd
The numbers show why Chelsea have decided to sign Ziyech as part of this season’s title bid. The midfielder departs the Eredivisie with a lasting impression and will be eager to prove his worth in the Premier League. The numbers show he can.
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