Moroccan midfield maestro Hakim Ziyech has been central to much of Ajax‘s success and attacking prowess over recent seasons in the Eredivisie. The inevitability of his exit from the club has loomed over the club and their fans for some time, and that scenario is now becoming a reality. As of the upcoming 2020/21 season, Ziyech will be plying his trade in the Premier League under Frank Lampard at Chelsea, a move thought by many to be deserved and beneficial for the midfielder. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Ziyech and how he contributes to the Ajax system. We will analyse the major effective components of his game as well as any shortcomings in his skill set, before discussing how he may fit in at Stamford Bridge under Lampard.
The image above is a heat map of Ziyech’s movements during the 2019/20 season with Ajax so far. It is clear that he possesses an ability in versatility as he can operate on either side in midfield as well as centrally. Most of his contributions take place between the 18-40-yard zone, where he often tries to execute a through ball to a teammate, recycle possession to a wide area, or make an attempt on goal. As seen above, his most common position is on the right-hand side of the Ajax midfield, usually in an advanced position to allow for more creative and attacking impacts. In these areas on the right, he opts to cut inside to set the ball onto his stronger left foot to give himself a better chance to create something dangerous.
His involvement on the right wing suits the Ajax style of play as they like to build attacks from defence before finding dangerous areas to exploit in wide areas. His technical capabilities in departments like passing, dribbling, and movement allow Ajax to often build attacks with Ziyech at the heart of the phase of play – he has displayed an ability to unlock resolute defences with smart pin-point passes as well as using tight ball control at high speed to beat opponents and create a goal-scoring opportunity. Ziyech’s involvement in either role – central or on the right – is essential for Ajax and they have been struggling in chance creation when Ziyech does not play.
Arguably Ziyech’s best asset in his skill set is his passing range. His ability to pick out a teammate from a range of positions and distances, using a variety of techniques to progress an attack. With a huge hunger to drive attacks, he very rarely places a backwards pass, and even the majority of his sideways passes are to allow his teammates to take up the attacking shape wanted by Ajax manager Erik ten Hag. Ajax are most dangerous when attacking at pace – playing with a high tempo with quick and concise passes with a clear intent to take the ball forward, often controlled and driven by Ziyech, who likes to pick the ball up in the gaps between opposition players, often in the centre in these situations, and pick out a winger with a quick pass. He seems to be fully aware of his shortcomings when using his right foot and is always prepared to set the ball onto his left foot to execute the pass.
In the analysis above, Ziyech has just taken a less-than-good pass with smart ball control and set the ball in front of him before lofting the ball into the path of Nicolas Tagliafico. This was made possible by Ziyech’s movement off the ball in the middle to make himself available. Following this, almost by second nature, he progressed to set the ball up, knowing he would go on to set up an attack down the left wing. The decision to start the attack down the left wing may have been made by the sheer presence Ajax had down that side – allowing them to outnumber the opposition.
This next example demonstrates Ziyech’s impressive passing range. He has a tendency to drop deeper to receive the ball and progress the attack himself with a series of combined passes. However, this situation displays a different method of progressing the attack via a switch of play.
In the analysis above, Ziyech performs a move which is becoming somewhat synonymous with his style of play in this Ajax team. He notices the movement of one of the two deeper Ajax central midfielders and recognises this as his queue to drop in and pick the ball up. While he usually drives forward before bringing other close-by teammates into the equation with a combination of passes. His pass in this instance is a longer one, executed with enough height and pace to reach the left-winger – who didn’t even have to move to receive the ball. This is a smart move because the opposition are set up to defend the attack on the current side, leaving space on the left wing for Ajax’s left-back and left midfielder to exploit.
Another impressive feature of his game is also an essential part for any attacking midfielder or winger. His confidence and composure on the ball are two main elements and combined with his technical talent it allows him to create unique and dangerous positions for Ajax to create goal-scoring chances. His most impressive and effective dribbling occurs when he’s playing on the right wing as he enjoys starting with the ball from a wide but deeper area before driving forward and inside.
A combination of his close control, agility, and natural skill on the ball all equates to a giant problem for a defender in a one-on-one situation. He has also displayed instances of cutting back outside and driving towards the by-line to cross the ball back into the box. This facet of his game suits Ajax as they love to build attacks from the wing with overloads in and around the box, putting combinations together in tight areas.
The action in this analysis only takes place in a small and tight area, but Ziyech shows great balance and footwork to glide past two opposition defenders before drawing a foul from a third present defender to win a free-kick. He fools the two marked defenders with a quick feint and drop of the shoulder, which allows him to drive into the box which is occupied by a large number of Ajax players, causing great difficulty for the opposition defence. Thankfully for the away side in this example, the attack didn’t quite reach that point, with Ziyech being fouled on the edge of the penalty area immediately after beating two defenders. This shows his ability and initiative to switch between his calmness on the ball and pure ferociousness on the ball to beat players. Despite the previous point indicating that this move was performed to set up an outnumbered scenario for Ajax in the opposition area, the likelihood is that Ziyech would’ve attempted one of his trademark shots: bending the ball with pace towards the far post with fierce pace.
Ziyech possesses an abundance of technical ability, as discussed, but he also has an impressive tactical mind at his disposal. This was visible in the clip above, as he noticed Mazraoui turning to make his run because the two defenders both committed to stopping Ziyech. Ziyech saw this opportunity and executed some quick footwork in a small space to shift the ball around the defenders, showing great balance to retain the ball and playing a perfectly weighted pass to allow Ajax to continue their attack. This kind of talent on the ball is rare, and Ajax almost centre their attacking tactics around the Moroccan star.
There is no debate that Chelsea are getting an absolute bargain, with the transfer costing the blues a reported £38m starting fee. Positionally, he can offer some positive competitiveness for central attacking midfielders such as Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but also offers a stronger option on the wings, especially the right wing. If there is one downfall to be highlighted from his playing style at Ajax, it would be his willingness to chase down the opposition and track back when Ajax are out of possession – a trait Frank Lampard and his staff will look to alter in some form to allow Ziyech to perform to his full potential in every area of his game, not just his attacking features. The first major signing for Chelsea since the ending of their transfer ban, Ziyech’s attacking qualities suit Lampard’s philosophy in regards to Chelsea’s attacking tactics. His goal contribution holds an impressive track record, with a combined 29 goals and 45 assists in all competitions since the beginning of the 2018/19 season, highlighting his capabilities to both score goals himself but also contribute selflessly to his team.
It is well known that Ajax are a much more dangerous side with the midfielder on the pitch, as he possesses that rare spec of talent that allows him to produce a moment of magic in any moment. Despite him being 26 years of age, he is not yet the finished article. It is strongly argued that this is a perfect time to move to the Premier League, to sharpen every corner of his game and improve his match experience. Undoubtedly, Ajax will miss the player massively, and will likely look to their young and upcoming stars to fill the void left by the playmaker.