Despite having their ban lifted, Chelsea were unable to complete any deals during the January transfer window. Frank Lampard’s pursuit of a striker was unsuccessful, as Edinson Cavani and Dries Mertens ended up staying with their current clubs.
It seemed as though that would be it until the summer, but then news emerged that Chelsea were in advanced talks for Hakim Ziyech. A £34million move was agreed this week, with the playmaker set for Stamford Bridge once the current season comes to an end.
Ziyech has spent his whole career in the Netherlands so far, coming to wider prominence during the last four years at Ajax. An enterprising and unorthodox player, he starred in the club’s surprise run to the Champions League semi-finals last season. He scored in both legs of the round of 32 as Real Madrid were eliminated and also impressed in a heart-breaking defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
Capable of playing on either flank, or through the middle, Ziyech’s arrival will create plenty of exciting possibilities for Lampard. He is a joy to watch, with an incredible array of skills. Nutmegs, elasticos, backheels and scooped passes are all part of his impressive armoury.
The Moroccan international has the potential to elevate an inconsistent and occasionally misfiring Chelsea side. A theme running throughout their season had been an inability to break down inferior opponents, resulting in costly defeats to West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle United, where they have failed to score on each occasion.
Ziyech will help to address this issue. He specialises in finding openings where others can’t, unlocking stubborn defences with his touch, vision and trickery. They call him ‘the wizard’ for a reason. His consistent delivery, both in open play and from set-pieces, makes him a reliable source of chances and goals. Nobody has come close to matching his 54 assists in Eredivisie since the start of the 2016-17 season.
Chelsea witnessed his threat first-hand during two Champions League group-stage meetings earlier this season. In an epic 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge, Ziyech swung in the teasing cross for Quincy Promes to put Ajax 2-1 up midway through the first half. He then provided the third as his deep, curling free-kick clattered in off the post via Kepa Arrizabalaga. He even teed up Donny van de Beek for the fourth, before Chelsea embarked on a stirring comeback.
Captaining Ajax that night was former Southampton man Dusan Tadic, who was initially signed by Ajax in expectation of Ziyech’s departure. He was intended to be the replacement for the Moroccan maverick, but they’ve struck up a great understanding instead as part of fluid forward line. Together they make an irresistible attacking combination.
Ziyech is a born entertainer, a dying breed in modern football that we should be thankful still exists. He always wants the ball and isn’t afraid of losing it. Dribblers who relish one-on-one situations, challenging their opposite number to a personal battle and backing themselves to win are all too rare in a game where team play and possession has become king. Ziyech loves taking risks, but he’s so often rewarded for doing so.
He strikes the ball cleanly and is more than willing to shoot from distance. Justifiably so given his track record of spectacular long-range goals. Already this season he has whipped the ball into the top corner from an outrageous angle against Valencia and cut inside from the right to finish smartly from the edge of the box to set Ajax on the way to a 6-1 win over ADO Den Haag.
Considering his demonstrable quality and desire to influence important matches, it’s surprising that a club from one of Europe’s big leagues hadn’t signed the 26-year-old sooner, particularly at such an attractive price. With the escalating cost of top players, Ziyech is a relative bargain.
Although he will have to adapt to the increased physicality of the Premier League, and perhaps a reluctance to indulge him quite as much as Ajax have done, he has no shortage of ability and should have a huge impact on Chelsea next season.