Hakim Ziyech can be Chelsea's new Eden Hazard, if they let him loose
One of the most thrilling sights in football is watching Hakim Ziyech fire a 50-metre, cross-field pass. Ziyech thinks so too. He'll often pause for a split-second to admire its flight. Sometimes, after backheeling his way past another opponent, he'll glance up at the big screen to catch the replay. (He has so many different feints but doesn't yet boast a trademark one.)
Only a couple of footballers in Europe right now are more creative than Ziyech at Ajax. But if he is to become equally influential at Chelsea, the club at which he will play from next season, Frank Lampard will have to do something brave: give Ziyech the keys to the shop and let him do what he wants on the field. The Dutch-Moroccan isn't moving to London just to become an ordinary, play-it-safe footballer. "Free Hakim Ziyech!" could be the drama that plays out at Stamford Bridge next season.
Ziyech's origins help explain the footballer he became. He was born in 1993 in Dronten, a small town founded only 20 years earlier on land reclaimed from the sea. There weren't many other good footballers anywhere nearby. Like the northern villager Arjen Robben before him, Ziyech grew up as the best player in his rural region, and so nobody nagged him about passing, tracking back or playing it safe. His job was to win games single-handedly.
He was the ninth and youngest child of poor Dutch-Moroccan parents. On Saturdays, after his game at the local amateur club, he and his dad would share fries in the canteen. But his father had multiple sclerosis. One night, 10-year-old Hakim fell asleep on his dad's bed in the living room, then roused himself around midnight to go upstairs. At 3 a.m., he recalled recently for the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper, he came down to find his father dead.
Ziyech started his professional career at Heerenveen before making a modest step up to FC Twente. Ryo Miyaichi, the Japanese winger formerly at Arsenal, marvelled after their first training session together at Twente: "What's he doing here? He belongs at Real Madrid." Ziyech appeared to agree. He passed to the only one or two Twente players whose talents he trusted, and he never bothered defending.
He also made obstinate career choices. Selected for Holland's squad in 2015, a year after the Dutch had finished third at the World Cup, he suddenly left training camp pleading injury. Holland's then-coach, Guus Hiddink, recalled thinking: "A shame, but I had the feeling his future with Oranje would come." It didn't: Ziyech chose Morocco instead.
Holland's assistant coach Marco van Basten called him a "dumb boy" following his decision. Didn't Ziyech understand that Holland would always be better than Morocco? At 23, Ziyech was still fighting against relegation with Twente, and it seemed feasible that he'd spend his career performing brilliant cameos in football's shallow end. Ajax had checked him out, but in August 2016, technical director, Marc Overmars, said he wasn't going to buy him because Twente wanted too much money and Ziyech would only block the development of academy players. Days after Overmars' verdict, Ajax were humiliated 4-1 by Russian side Rostov in a Champions League qualifier and the club hurriedly forked out €11 million for Ziyech. The player moved into a posh flat in Amsterdam that he furnished with a billiards table and little else. But it had enough guest rooms for his beloved nephews and nieces to visit.
That season, 2016-17, Ziyech helped transform Ajax. Against every expectation, the absurdly young side reached the Europa League final, which they lost 2-0 to Manchester United. The club's keeper Andre Onana recalls thinking of Ziyech: "What is this man? He's good on free kicks, he's good at one-on-ones, he's fast and scores many goals. But his best quality: decisive passes. He really sees everything. Sometimes I think he has three eyes." Ziyech was also suddenly pressing and tackling opponents, even in the 90th minute with his tongue hanging out and his spindly legs buckling. Stranger still, he enjoyed it.
"If you'd shown me those images of myself when we lost possession five years ago, I'd have said you were crazy," Ziyech told Voetbal International magazine.
His only shortcoming was a habit of shooting from almost anywhere on the field and, perhaps not coincidentally, Ajax's 2017-18 season was a flop. Ziyech is a player who aims to be decisive with every move -- whether beating defenders, playing a splitting pass or finding the top corner -- but the flipside is that he often loses possession. When he isn't brilliant, his scowl, drooped shoulders and bowed head can lose him friends, notes Dutch journalist Sam Planting. Ziyech became a hate figure to disappointed Ajax fans and he once retaliated by removing all his Ajax-related posts from Instagram. He distrusts people he doesn't know and detests the chatter around football. Still, in the summer of 2018, he went to the World Cup with Morocco while Holland stayed home.
Last season, as Ajax got to the brink of a Champions League final, Ziyech -- even more than his teammates Frenkie de Jong, Dusan Tadic and Matthijs de Ligt -- emerged as probably the Eredivisie's best player in 25 years. He even finally grew out of his shoot-on-sight policy. Ajax's coach, Erik ten Hag, moved him from midfield to outside-right, where he could cut in on his left foot and take all the risks he liked, knowing there were enough men behind him in case he lost the ball. Holland's former striker Youri Mulder summed him up: "If he gives 10 passes, he loses possession five times, gives two normal balls and creates three brilliant openings that can produce goals."
'A player we hope can bring that bit of creativity'
Ziyech is at his most brilliant against big teams, making and scoring Ajax's first goal in their 4-1 win at Real Madrid in March, but he visibly loves playing football against anybody. After Heracles were thumped 4-1 by Ajax, their forward Cyriel Dessers marvelled at Ziyech's passing: "Three, four times, the ball suddenly drops dead at the back post. How is that possible?" When Ten Hag tried to give Ziyech some rest by substituting him late in a 4-0 pounding of Feyenoord last October, the player was outraged. He knew he was playing the best football of his life and he didn't want to miss a minute. During his time at Ajax, Ziyech has had more assists, shots, chances created and dribbles completed than any other player in the Eredivisie, according to Opta.
Fans have learned to adore him, and he now reciprocates, too. When an admirer invaded the pitch during a match at Lille, Ziyech hugged the boy, inviting him and his parents to Amsterdam. He took time for cheery chats with disabled fans.
Ziyech outgrew the Eredivisie years ago, yet until last week he kept turning away foreign clubs inquiring about his availability. "I'm very choosy," he told the Algemeen Dagblad. "Last summer, Sevilla made a concrete offer. Absolutely a nice club, but there's a technical director there [Monchi] who had wanted to bring me to Roma a year before. Everything was almost sealed until we suddenly didn't hear from him anymore. And now I had to join his club. Well, forget it: I don't let anyone mess me around."
The bigger problem is that only about 10 clubs on earth are now obviously better than Ajax and the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid aren't about to give Ziyech the freedom to take any risk he likes. "Big clubs had doubts because you have to build a team around him," noted Holland's former playmaker Rafael van der Vaart. Ziyech wasn't going to leave Ajax just to play boring safe football in the service of some other creator.
Even though he turns 27 next month, Chelsea are getting Ziyech cheap for €40 million, possibly rising to €44 million with bonuses. (Overmars had promised Ziyech he'd be cooperative when the right club came along.)
Lampard explained after the signing: "This season, there have been games where we've maybe struggled to unlock the door, and he's certainly a player who we hope can bring that bit of creativity."
In Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 system, Ziyech could play outside-right or as a No.10. However, Lampard may not realise just how much freedom his new signing expects. If Ziyech can inherit Eden Hazard's old role as Chelsea's designated risk-taker, he'll love it. If he can't, he will one day look back on the 2018-19 season at Ajax as his pinnacle, the time in football that he was happiest. So will many Dutch fans.
Last year's great Ajax team is now falling apart. De Jong and De Ligt have gone, Donny van de Beek will probably join Real Madrid this summer and Onana may yet follow Ziyech's path to Chelsea. We may need to sustain ourselves these next 25 years with memories of Ziyech.