AJAX charmed Europe in 2018-19 season and players like Donny van de Beek, Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt all won rave reviews for their performances in the UEFA Champions League.
But the Dutch side’s success was also owed to the presence of Hakim Ziyech, a 26 year-old Morocco international whose virtuosity and creative skills helped make Ajax tick.
It was something of a surprise that Ziyech was still be on the shelf as Europe’s top clubs lined-up to buy Ajax’s top talent last summer. Less celebrated than the young Dutch internationals, and certainly cheaper and more mature, two transfer windows went by without a deal, largely because Ajax needed to replace him before he would be allowed to leave.
At the start of November 2019, Chelsea hosted Ajax in one of the UEFA Champions League’s more appealing group stage matches. Ajax’s new generation had revived memories of their wonderfully fluid teams of the 1970s and once more placed the Netherlands in the first class carriage of European football. The 4-4 draw represented a wonderful night of skill, drama and excitement, but one particular moment of brilliance reminded us that Ajax’s resurgence was not all about fresh-faced, home-grown prodigies.
In the 35th minute, with Ajax leading 2-1, Ziyech took a free-kick at a very narrow angle and right out by the corner. It looked an impossible angle, but he swung his left-foot cross high and, in an attempt to deceive Chelsea’s keeper, sent it to the very far post with enough power to strike the woodwork and fall into the net off Kepa’s back. Ziyech acknowledged the applause and gestured as if to say, “what?….big deal…I do this every week.” It could easily have been a jaw-dropping Eric Cantona or Zlatan Ibrahimovic moment.
Ziyech also created a goal and generally looked outstanding against Chelsea, obviously leaving a mark on Frank Lampard and the Stamford Bridge recruitment team. Just after the January 2020 transfer window closed, the Blues agreed a € 40 million fee for Ziyech with an agreement for the player to join Chelsea in the summer.
Rated the 29th best player in the world in the Guardian top 100 for 2019, Ziyech has an excellent left foot and makes as many goals as he scores. He was born in the Netherlands and started his career with Reaal Dronten and ASV Dronten. The town of Dronten is in the province of Flevoland, a central region that was formerly the Zuiderzee.
From there, Ziyech moved to Heerenveen and then onto FC Twente. Ajax signed him in August 2016 for € 11 million, handing him a six-year contract. By the end of his debut campaign, he had played in the UEFA Europa League final where Ajax lost 0-2 to Manchester United in Stockholm.
Ove the next two seasons, Ziyech was a consistent performer and in 2018-19, he was among the Eredivisie’s top scorers and led the way in providing assists for the third consecutive season. He was also named in the Eredivisie team of the year.
Ziyech’s scoring rate and ability to provide multiple assists makes him a key signing for Chelsea, who have not always capitalised on high possession rates. A scorer/playmaker is a rare commodity these days and since Eden Hazard departed, Chelsea have been lacking that vital spark. After three good seasons at Ajax, his ability to carve-out chances shows no sign of diminishing and he’s already assisted 12 times in 2019-20. At € 40 million, he could be something of a bargain.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Some people believe that the Premier League may prove too hard for Ziyech while others have sneered at the move, claiming that he is not moving to a “big name” and that Chelsea are an unstable football club. Back in the Netherlands, Ajax followers are worried that Ziyech’s departure could signal an exodus in the close season, with players like Blind, Van de Beek and Neres among those that could leave.
Some of Chelsea’s recent signings have been underwhelming and over-expensive, but Ziyech could be an outstanding acquisition and good business. As Europe looks for its next generation of superstars, Chelsea may just have signed one of the players that could light-up the post-Ronaldo-Messi years.