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Scouting Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech: A true modern playmaker

Zi-yay or a Zi-yuck? Find out in this scouting report

Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Nearly seven seasons after bursting onto the scene back in 2013-14, Hakim Ziyech is finally on his way out of the Eredivisie, and on his way in to Chelsea as our first left-footed right winger since Mohamed Salah (and Kenedy) — neither of whom managed to make much of an impact at Stamford Bridge.

Expectations will be much higher for Ziyech, who arrives having won everything that can be won in the Netherlands, but with his fair share of heartache on the European stage. Ziyech’s Ajax lost to José Mourinho’s Manchester United in the 2016-17 Europa League final, and last season lost tragically to Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League semifinal after a dreamlike run saw them beat heavyweights Real Madrid and Juventus.

He will be hoping to continue collecting all the trophies at Chelsea, and he’s set to play a big role in those ambitions.


History

Ziyech was born in 1993 in the town of Dronten, in the Netherlands. At the age of 14, he joined Heerenveen’s youth academy and made his debut for the senior team at the age of 19 in 2012, in a Europa League match against Rapid București. Over the course of that first season, Ziyech made 8 appearances in total.

The following season was Ziyech’s breakout season, as he scored 11 goals in 36 appearances for Heerenveen (9 in the league). Other clubs came calling and he ended up joining Twente while rejecting interest from Feyenoord.

At Twente, Ziyech amassed 34 goals and 30 assists in 76 appearances over two seasons. Such was his impact, that he was selected to be the club captain after just one season. However, he was stripped off his captaincy in January 2016, after he criticized the club’s decision to sack head coach Alfred Schreuder and publicly indicated his desire to leave. Despite that, 2015-16 was Ziyech’s best season yet, as he scored 17 goals and provided 12 assists.

After falling out with the club, Ziyech joined his current club, Ajax Amsterdam, for a reported €11m. In 160 games so far for them, Ziyech has scored 48 goals and grabbed a whopping 82 assists.

In fact, since joining Ajax, Ziyech has always finished with the highest number of assists in Eredivisie (2016-17: 12 assists, 2017-18: 17 assists, 2018-19: 17 assists — joint-top with teammate Dušan Tadić). He’s once again locked in close competition with Tadić for the top spot this season.

Dutch Footballer of the Year winners

Thanks to these performances, Ziyech has been named in the Eredivisie’s Team of the Year for three years in a row as well, while he was also in the Champions League squad of the season for 2018-19.

Meanwhile, he’s won Ajax’s Player of the Year for the last two seasons and was also the Dutch Footballer of the Year for 2018, an award previously won by the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum, Luis Suarez, Daley Blind, Jan Vertonghen, Wilfried Bony and Davy Klaassen.


Strengths

Hakim Ziyech is a true modern playmaker in every sense of the word.

He can pass, press, tackle, score and create, not only from open play but also from set pieces. What amplifies all these skills are his positioning and footballing intelligence, which are very underrated aspects of his game. We’ll look at his major strengths in detail.

1. Creativity

Since 2017-18, Ziyech has created the most chances in the league (354), which isn’t surprising given his aforementioned habit of finishing with the highest number of assists for the last three seasons.

Ziyech creates chances at a ridiculous rate. He’s been involved in a shot every 10 minutes, according to Squawka and that is due to his willingness to always create something for his team: with a pass or a shot (more on this later, which may not be a good thing), a cross, a cutback or a through ball. The wide range of his abilities forces defenders to into awkward decisions and poor positions, freeing space for himself or others in the process.

His amazing technique also makes him set piece specialist (as Kepa Arrizabalaga might recall from earlier this season).

The moment he receives the ball, the first thing on his mind is to make something happen — and more often than not, he does, both when higher up the pitch (with a through ball for example) or when dropping deeper (with his distribution). He often shows urgency while in control of the ball, making him a lethal creator always looking to find that final pass.

Ziyech has been credited with 3.7 key passes per game in the Eredivisie and 2.5 key passes per game in Champions League this season. Even if he’s only able to live up to his Champions League standards, he’d still be sixth best in that category of key passes in Premier League! (Kevin de Bruyne is tops with 3.7, followed by Buendia and Grealish at 2.8 and 2.7 key passes, respectively.)

Ziyech’s passing statistics this season

2. Movement

Another big reason for Ziyech’s astounding numbers (like 21 goals and 24 assists last season) is his positioning and movement, which make him a huge threat and one who is really difficult to shut down. He almost always manages to find himself in pockets of space from where he can deal the most damage.

It is because of this reason that Ziyech is not really a right winger in the traditional sense. He pops up all over the pitch, wherever he feels he can make a difference.

This movement is also a key reason behind most of his goals, and was fully on display against Spurs who kept failing to pick up his run into the space left vacant by the run of the centre-forward.

3. Defensive work

Ziyech is no slouch without the ball either. He’s made the most ball-recoveries in the final third in the Eredivisie since 2017-18. While not quite Willian, Ziyech does some impressive work in pressing and also, in tracking back.


Weaknesses

While his strengths make Ziyech seem like a perfect player, he is not. He has some clear weaknesses, most of which are the flip-sides to the qualities that make him such a good creator.

Since Ziyech’s constantly looking for decisive passes or shooting chances, he can often overdo those things. His penchant for shooting is especially notable, often taking aim from impossible angles or distances. He’s averaging 4.7 shots per game in the Eredivisie this season, which is the same average as Lionel Messi in La Liga and Neymar in Ligue 1. Only Cristiano Ronaldo takes more (5.6) in any of Europe’s top five leagues.

The two most frequent shot-takers in Premier League this season are Mohamed Salah (3.9) and Sergio Agüero (3.4), while Tammy Abraham leads Chelsea at the moment with a 3.0. Ziyech, who averages 3.2 shots in Champions League matches probably won’t replicate his shooting numbers from the Eredivisie in the Premier League, but that’s probably a good thing.

Let’s compare Ziyech's shooting to Salah in detail. Both Salah and Ziyech have the same number of total shots in their respective leagues (as of 14 February, 2020) so this makes for good comparison and also showcases why Ziyech’s shooting, or rather his love of it, is such a weakness.

Ziyech’s accuracy is not a big concern: 36 out of 85 shots (42%) may be off target, which is a fair bit worse than Salah, but there are plenty of worse shooters in the league. Sadio Mané, for example, has put 24 of his 53 shots off target (45%).

Ziyech’s big problem isn’t where his shots land, but where they come from, namely, from outside the penalty area. Approximately 66% of Ziyech’s shots (56 of 85) are from outside the box — Salah is under 19% — which makes him one of worst culprits at going overboard on long shots in Premier League history. Step aside, Philippe Coutinho!

In Coutinho’s last full season, 63 out of his 106 shots (59%) came from outside the area. Ziyech’s last two full seasons in the Eredivisie (2017-18 & 2018-19) saw him take 97 and 121 long-range shots, out of 154 and 165 total, respectively, which translate to percentages of 63 and 73!

Ziyech easily surpasses the former Liverpool midfielder, and it’s not a new habit. Even at Twente in 2015-16, Ziyech took 102 shots from outside the area in Eredivisie matches. Burnley, as a team, took 107 shots from outside the area the entire 2018-19 season!

Ziyech is similarly prone to sometimes trying a bit too hard to force a long ball or a through ball and giving the ball away to the opposition. With Premier League defences often playing with 10-11 men behind the ball, a little bit of patience can go a long way (though a lot of patience will not go very far).

Here are a couple examples of this.


Final thoughts

All that said, Ziyech’s biggest fault may be that he is not named Jadon Sancho. And maybe his own impatience. But in a Sancho-less vacuum, Ziyech is the perfect signing at the right price, with great underlying creative stats and a willingness to work hard.

Ziyech, turning 27 by the time he will arrive, is a true modern playmaker (central or right) in the prime of his career. His threat is multifold and he’s a force to be reckoned with both on and off the ball.

His impatience and habit of forcing play can be a worry, as can his previously encountered attitude issues, but in the right hands, he should be a fantastic asset to the team.


PEC Zwolle v Ajax - Dutch Eredivisie Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images
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