The winter transfer window may have shut less than a fortnight ago but that doesn’t mean deals are off the table.
One club playing catch-up is Chelsea, who were prohibited from making any signings by Fifa last summer. That sanction was lifted in January, but the Blues opted to remain quiet despite supporters imploring otherwise.
They will soon get their wish. It was confirmed on Thursday that Ajax star Hakim Ziyech is to become Frank Lampard’s first signing as Chelsea manager. The Premier League outfit will pay their Dutch counterparts £33m for the pleasure.
The Blues saw Ziyech up close and personal in the Champions League this season. Particularly his imperious performance at Stamford Bridge, where he was the heartbeat of Erik ten Hag’s side in that incredible 4-4 draw.
A move away from Ajax has looked inevitable for some time, though Ziyech’s choice of destination will raise eyebrows. His stay in Amsterdam should really have come to an end in 2018, but he remained and subsequently enjoyed his best-ever campaign. Second time’s a charm it seemed last summer, especially given the whole of Europe knew what he’s about via Ajax’s Champions League run. Yet the mercurial forward remained at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Extending his Ajax tenure into a fifth season then became a strong possibility. But it was too good to be true for the club’s loyal fanbase. The fee sporting director Marc Overmars will receive may seem modest given Ziyech’s excellence and what others possessing less quality have gone for in the market, but it’s part of a gentleman’s agreement between player and club. A while back, the powers that be promised they wouldn’t price him out of making the next step in his career, and now they have made good on their word.
Numbers don’t lie
It would be accurate to suggest Ajax and Chelsea share a similar playing style, and it’s clear and obvious Lampard is building an exciting team laced with brilliant young footballers; despite some hiccups this season – which is to be expected – there’s a fixed pattern of play, one which Ziyech could hypothetically ease into. But of course, every transfer comes with a risk attached, no matter how exciting.
And there’s good reason for the Chelsea faithful to be welcoming his arrival with great delight. Ziyech, without meaning to demean an entire league, has simply outgrown the Eredivisie, in the process producing some ridiculous numbers. For example, since joining his present club, he’s been involved in 89 goals, scored 38 himself and created a further 51 for his teammates. It doesn’t stop there. The man dubbed “wizard” has created 421 chances, which is 134 more than the next best.
89 – Since making his Ajax debut in September 2016, Hakim Ziyech has been involved in a league-high 89 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie (38 goals, 51 assists). Agreement. pic.twitter.com/jBOcchkgHq
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 12, 2020
Now, some are mistrusting of attacking talents from the Netherlands’ top division. There are those who suggest goals scored here count for less and point to failed alumni in other countries (Afonso Alves being a particular favourite). But it’s worth pointing out there are many variables in play. And regarding Ziyech, there’s another league in which he’s proved his worth, namely the Champions League.
During De Godenzonen’s improbable semi-final run last year, Ziyech would create 24 chances across 11 appearances, three fewer than Lionel Messi and 10 more than Mohamed Salah. This doesn’t mean he’s at their level but it does suggest an ability to handle the hustle and bustle of next season’s surroundings.
This could be what clinched it for Lampard and Co. Chelsea were clearly after another source of goals in the January window as, so far this season, Tammy Abraham is in a world of his own. Thirteen goals from 24 played is a decent return, but immediately behind him in Chelsea’s top-scorer list you’ll find Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic on five goals each. They have dropped a lot of points of late, but it is worrying to think where they might be without recent goals from defensive personnel such as Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Jorginho.
Their trigger-happy summer signing could help address this type of issue, either by creating more, better-quality goalscoring opportunities for others or finishing them himself. No one has produced more shots on goal in this season’s Eredivisie than Ziyech (85) and only Tadic has more assists (14 to 13). Where Ziyech is concerned, there is a definite willingness to be among (or directly involved in the goals) – he scored 21 times across all competitions last season – and this is a trait shared by a signing recently made by rivals Manchester United, Bruno Fernandes.
For their part, United haven’t scored in the Premier League since Marcus Rashford’s injury. Both teams will be determined to move away from an overreliance on their leading goalscorers, something runaway league leaders Liverpool have mastered under Jurgen Klopp as well as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Though Ziyech and Fernandes are likely to play in slightly differing positions, one stationed from the flank but with a licence to drift inside while the other bombs onwards from central midfield, their roles are somewhat similar. In terms of where to field your key attackers, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, it seems.
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It goes to show how well Ziyech has done in recent seasons that he’s effectively seen as a winger when in truth the No.10 role remains his best position. The conversion really came under Ten Hag, who fielded him and summer 2018 signing Dusan Tadic – preemptively signed as Ziyech’s replacement – either side of a number nine before the Serbian playmaker himself took on this present false nine role. His seamless transition could be explained by Ajax’s system.
He’s not really a ‘winger’, but a wide-forward who loves to operate centrally from the wings. As a central player, he can dictate proceedings like a traditional playmaker, and he makes it look so easy. On the flanks, however, he’s evolved into a cross demon. Ziyech can also do his best Arjen Robben impersonation by cutting inside and shooting — which succeeds most of the time.
A step too far?
It is suggested Lampard, determined to belatedly sign an Eden Hazard replacement him last month, sees Ziyech as a winger. No problem, given Ziyech’s adaptiveness. However, there are two concerns (albeit not huge ones) worth considering. Firstly, there’s the system. Ajax play a certain style that Ziyech really bought into. Consequently, both he and the team drew out the very best in each other, a marriage made in heaven if you will. Secondly, given the club’s dominance over their domestic competition, he’s seldom under the cosh.
That’s not to say Ziyech is a flat-track bully, it’s more of a word of caution. When he joins up with Chelsea this summer, no one should expect him to ‘world class’ from day one. Like every new recruit to a foreign country, he’ll need time to assimilate, get to know his teammates and Lampard’s instructions. There’s no competition like the Premier League, where every game is played at a level he’s only experienced a few times before.
It will be interesting to see how Lampard constructs the Blues’ forward line next term with Ziyech on board. A front-three of Abraham and Pulisic seems exciting on paper.
There’s also an alternative option to play him behind the striker, where he can distribute the ball effectively. But those who have followed Ziyech closely know his old habits must be addressed, especially with the league’s tempo being so high. Playing casually is fine in a team that is so far ahead of their competition. Even losing possession (something he is prone to do) is acceptable, but not in the Premier League. The scrutiny he’ll come under, on and off the pitch, will be like nothing he’s experienced before.
Defenders will draw a lot tighter to him, but this has been Ziyech’s story all along, proving doubters wrong. This will be his biggest challenge yet, but if he can rise to it – and play like the Champions League version of Ziyech week in, week out – then English club football will have another star from The Lowlands on their hands.