After coming seconds from reaching a first European Cup final in 23 years, very few expected Ajax to retain much of their brilliant team.
But here were are, days away from their Champions League group phase opener against Lille and manager Erik ten Hag has at his disposal eight of those who starred in that stunning 4-1 victory at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
That said, the reigning Dutch champions have been somewhat struggling to fill the void left by Europe’s best midfielder, Frenkie de Jong, who essentially became the club’s metronome as their historic 2018/19 season unfolded. In his absence, others – notably the senior crew – will need to step up to an even greater extent.
But if De Jong was Ajax’s heartbeat, Hakim Ziyech was their brain. The 26-year-old playmaker, who now calls the right flank home, is entering his peak years. But to the amazement of anyone who has followed his career, he will be playing this season in Europe’s 11th strongest domestic competition.
A footballing romantic
The befuddlement stems from recent trends. With the greatest respect in the world, Ziyech has long outgrown the Eredivisie, in which he’s made 199 appearances to date. Interestingly cap number 200 is scheduled to come against Heerenveen, where he broke through seven years ago. Players younger than him have departed for pastures new despite achieving far less.
Unlike his many predecessors, Ziyech has consciously put personal enjoyment before riches. Following the 2018 World Cup, in which he starred for Morocco, the powers that be in Amsterdam granted him a transfer, but no club to his liking made a move and so he stayed. And it was more of the same a year later, even after Europe saw firsthand what he’s truly capable of.
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To call him fussy would be unfair. Ziyech outlined explicitly he’d only swap Ajax for a team cut from the same cloth. One who shares a similar identity and plays an aggressive brand of progressive football. Naturally, there are such outfits which exist (one being Pep Guardiola’s aesthetically pleasing Manchester City), but they fall short when it comes to his second prerequisite: a guarantee he’ll be among the first names on the team sheet. Too many have left the Netherlands’ top division only to seemingly fall off the face of the earth.
Such a fate is one the Dronten-born footballer will not allow himself to suffer. With a further stay guaranteed – an unexpected but pleasant delight for supporters – Ziyech penned a new contract extension keeping him in the Dutch capital until 2022, meaning for at least one more campaign he can enhance his growing legend at home while reminding those abroad he can still keep up with Europe’s big boys as the Amsterdammers embark on another Champions League journey.
Watch the throne
From day one, Ziyech was destined for big things. When he emerged at Heerenveen, renowned Dutch publication Voetbal International described him as a “classical ‘number ten’ with a golden left foot”. It is a characterisation that still rings true, although these days he’s more of a wide-forward who enjoys cutting inside. Another fact that remains accurate is that, wherever he’s been, Ziyech has been his side’s most influential player.
Possessing the ability to bring a different dimension to whomever he’s representing – Heerenveen, FC Twente or Ajax – has been the fundamental reason behind his success. Ziyech can be equally frustrating given the amount of times he gives possession away in a game, nominally through playing the most difficult ball or trying his luck from distance, but at full flight he is a joy to watch; regardless of where he’s fielded – playing as the deep-lying forward or on the flank – his spatial awareness, energy and technical ability are rightfully lauded.
Ziyech, one dubbed as “the Mesut Özil of the Netherlands”, is the archetypal playmaker Eredivisie observers have long enjoyed watching. He seamlessly controls the game’s tempo, is able to create space for his teammates and provides for those around him. His ability to run with the ball glued to his feet, crossing and playing through balls can be considered as strengths. All of these facets combined has seen him become the league’s undisputed ‘assist king’.
Hakim Ziyech named as @eredivisie Player of the Month (August) 🏆
Achievements of Ziyech @AFCAjax:
💪 4 goals & 1 assist
⚽ 352 ball touches
📊 13 chances created
— Eredivisie (English) (@EredivisieEN) September 13, 2019
So far, after 199 games played, he’s created no fewer than 85 goals. The bulk of those have come with present employer Ajax (47 across 95 appearances) followed by Twente (28 in 68) and boyhood club Heerenveen (10 in 36). These efforts have enabled him to finish as the division’s top assist-maker in four of the last five seasons. In the one campaign (2015/16) that saw ADO Den Haag forward Édouard Duplan steal his crown Ziyech missed out by one goal. Early days, but he’s got a fight on his hands this season.
After the opening five rounds Sparta Rotterdam midfielder Bryan Smeets boasts five assists to his name. Ziyech has one, although the Amsterdammers have a game in hand. Saying that, it seems the biggest threat is from teammate and telepathic partner in crime Dušan Tadić, who has created four goals to date while producing 15 scoring opportunities, two more than Ziyech, but two fewer than Smeets (17). Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition.
As touched upon, Ziyech is yet to get going in terms of creating, but he’s been deadly in front of goal. His four goals last month saw him named Eredivisie player of August, which is comforting for Ten Hag as their real European campaign is about to begin in earnest. Truthfully, in the Champions League last season he played a supporting role as Tadić grabbed the headlines; nevertheless both were instrumental as Ajax took Europe by storm and they’ve continue where they left off. Christophe Galtier has been warned.