Twitter was an interesting place to be Wednesday afternoon. With Chelsea coming to the end of the two-week ‘Winter Break’ and gearing up for Monday night’s crucial clash with Manchester United, the Twitterverse had been (somewhat refreshingly) quiet. The biggest news thus far had been the much anticipated return to first-team training of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and the announcement that Billy Gilmour was now, officially a first team player; both bits very well received in the midst of a barren 16 days without on-field action.

Then, it happened. The peaceful solace and cardiac-recovery time most Chelsea fans desperately needed after a rollercoaster ride jolting us since August, was broken. Within the span of what seemed like minutes, subdued serenity became unbridled euphoria. And it was all over one man, Hakim Ziyech.

In reality, like most news stories, momentum started slowly. Most attributed the rumors to the enormous news vacuum that breaks from footy inevitably create, as reporters notoriously reach for any crumb of “click-worthy” story they can find to fill the void. But this time the momentum kept building, this had legs. First it was Matt Law, followed by Simon Johnson and Nizaar Kinsella. Sky Sports and ESPNFC jumped on board soon after, as the ball was now clearly rolling downhill. Many others connected to Chelsea did fact checks, and all came back with the same answer; this is legit. Finally, the ‘Don’ of transfers, Fabrizio Romano made it official. And somehow within the space of just a few hours, Hakim Ziyech had gone from YouTube fanboy-fantasy, to Chelsea FC-player.

New Signing? What is this?

The reaction was interesting, although not unexpected. Personally, I found myself in an unfamiliar position of disagreeing with many Chelsea fans I rarely (if ever) disagree with, and aligning with some that I rarely ever align with. Those who had been starving for that warm, new signing feeling for over a year (Kovacic, yes, I know, but he was on loan, not completely the same, work with me here…), finally had their fix. The reality is, there is nothing in the football world more intoxicating to fans than player transfers. So, considering that Chelsea’s last ‘new player’ signing (the January 2019 acquisition of Christian Pulisic) was over a year ago (thanks to the summer transfer ban and lack of activity this past January), Chelsea fans were, shall we say, on edge.

Even before the club’s official announcement this morning (Thursday), Chelsea fans and Chelsea Twitter went ballistic, finally free to release all of their pent-up transfer excitement. Stats, highlights and opinions flew faster and further than the British Airways 747 that broke the transatlantic speed record just last week. Seemingly every Chelsea fan, from every corner of the globe, appeared to be sharing the same moment of joy and excitement. Well, nearly every fan.

“Proceed at Your Own Risk”

Going against the grain of ‘Football Twitter’ can be like trying to stop a two-ton boulder from rolling down the side of a mountain… by yourself. Neither scenario tends to end very well. However, hidden aside the ecstasy of those who were desperate for a signing (irrespective of who it was), and those who were mildly on the fence but fell off when the deal seemed certain, were the huddled few who dared to voice their hesitations with the new star-boy’s pending arrival. The majority balked at even slight reservations about Ziyech’s ability, and immediately dismissed any voice daring to dissent.

However, taking a step back from the consensus wave that swept the fan base is important, even if it means facing the inevitable Twitter firing-squad. There are reasons to be ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Ziyech’s arrival this summer.

Credit: Kristen

The Run that Started It All

Ziyech shot to prominence in fan circles after Ajax’s Champion’s League Semi-Final run last season. The Dutch champions, led by the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, finished second in their group behind Bayern Munich, and in true underdog fashion, swept away Real Madrid and Juventus in the knock-out stages. Their impressive run ended due to away goals during the semi-finals against Tottenham (namely, Lucas Moura’s last-second decider.)

While superstars Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt did depart Amsterdam Arena over the summer, the majority of the squad remained intact despite predictions they’d be picked apart by outside recruiters. Now, whether the offers that were expected to come flying in actually did or not, we may never know. But it seemed that the likes of Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, Andre Onana, and David Neres could have missed their best opportunities for a big-money transfer. Nevertheless, their Champion’s League run had made them all household names, and this kept the rumor mill going and fueled further links throughout the fall (some based on reality, most in fantasy).

Like fans do with most players in the rumor mill, (or simply players they admire) a deep dive into stats and highlight clips commenced. Ziyech, presented relatively impressive stats with 19 goals and 16 assists in all competitions during Ajax’s magical season. Those attractive stats combined with YouTube clips showing a deadly left foot, left fans salivating. However, fans are notorious for being just that, fans. And fans see things through ‘fan lenses’, often missing or even ignoring context or anything else that may detract from their fandom.

So what happens when the fandom glasses come off? Well, let’s take a look.

Stat Bombed

Many Ziyech defenders will highlight goals and assist stats, and performances in the Champion’s League as indicators of his quality. Well, let’s review:

So far in 2019/20 Ziyech has made 24 appearances (18 league/6 CL), played just under 2,000 minutes and contributed 8 goals and 16 assists. That breaks down to a goal every 2-3 games (1 per 240 minutes/90 =2.66 games), and a bit over an assist per game (1 per 120 minutes/90 = 1.33 games).

Go back to 18/19, the best season of his career so far, and the numbers are in a similar neighborhood. 40 games played (29 league/11 CL), just shy of 3,400 minutes, 19 goals, 16 assists. The math on that, 1 goal every 2 games (1 every 179 minutes/90= 1.98 games) 1 assist every 2 ¼ games (1 every 212 minutes/90=2.35 games).

What is important to remember about the stats above, is the context of the league in which Ziyech plays, the Dutch Eredivisie. Last season, Ajax won the league by three points over PSV Eindhoven, who were 18 points ahead of 3rd place Feyenoord, and 25 points above 4th place AZ Alkmaar. More impressive then the point separation is the goal difference, which saw Ajax finish top, with 119 goals scored/32 conceded, GD at +87, PSV 2nd at +72, and Feyenoord 3rd at +34.

What does this mean? It means that Ziyech played in a team that DOMINATED their league. They were the highest scoring team by 21 goals, outscored their opponents by 2.5 goals per game, and won both the league title and the domestic cup in 18/19. Translation: Ajax runs the Eredivisie.

So for the sake of argument, let’s remove the league stats from Ziyech’s resume, and focus only on the Champion’s League numbers. Theoretically, that should give us a better idea of his abilities against high-level competition.

In the current, 19/20 Champion’s League, Ajax has been sent to Europa League after finishing 3rd behind Valencia and Chelsea. Ziyech made six appearances totaling 499 minutes, and contributed two goals and four assists (two of which came against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge). But let’s do the math again, one goal every three games (1 per 249 minutes/90= 2.77 games) and one assist every 1 ½ games (1 assist per 125 minutes/90=1.38 games)

In the 18/19 Champion’s League, Ziyech played 11 matches, 985 minutes, scoring three goals and adding three assists. Break that down and that is a goal or assist every 3-4 games (1 goal or 1 assist per 328 minutes/90 = 3.65 games).

The numbers show that his goal and assist-contribution ratios during last year’s UCL run were much less than his league numbers (Goals-1.98 overall, 3.65 UCL/Assists-2.35 overall,3.65 UCL). This proves that the overall numbers are skewed for weaker-league competition. While the numbers are more aligned this season (Goals- 2.66 overall, 2.77 UCL/Assists 1.33 overall, 1.38 UCL) it is also important to remember that Ziyech’s worst performances of the group stage were concurrently the two most important games of the group stage; a victory at home against Chelsea would have put them in the driver’s seat to advance. He failed to impress as well against Valencia on Match Day 6, where any result would have seen them through.

Eye Test

If you start typing H-A-K into YouTube, you’ll likely be bombarded with hundreds of Ziyech highlight-clips (it may be thousands by now with the transfer officially announced). Many would argue “Rightly so!”; that his talent is more-than-worthy of the countless compilation videos that deserve your attention. And for the most part, I agree. Ziyech has the ability and capability of
making the highlight play. But take a second, deeper look at any video, and really concentrate on what stands out. For me, two things raise the alarm. Let’s take a look.

The first concern, and probably the bigger of the two, is the amount of space that Ziyech has on every single highlight play. I would say somewhere around 75% (that I have personally seen and only counting YouTube or Twitter highlight-clips) show Ziyech with no less than five yards between himself and the nearest defender. This allows Ziyech the time to pick his head up, find the runner, set, and play the ball he wants to play. The problem here? When is the last time you saw a Premier League winger get more than two yards of separation outside of a counter-attack? I’ll just say it’s been awhile.

This leads into the second concern; Ziyech is dominantly left-footed, by a large margin. Let’s go to the math again, real quick. Ziyech has taken 104 shots so far this season, 96 have been with his left foot, which is 92%. For comparison, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, arguably one of the most one-footed players in the PL, has taken 112 shots this season, 90 on his left foot, which is only 80%. Another player who some compare Ziyech to is Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Mahrez’s shooting stats are, 58 shots total, 43 on his left, which is 74%. So the eye test, and the numbers, both play out that Ziyech is essentially a one-footed player.

I can almost hear you asking, “So what?” Well, glad you asked. The eye test tells me that Ziyech will have some serious adjustments to life in the Premier League. Not only will he be afforded
significantly less time and space on the ball, he will also be facing quicker defenders who are able to close him down faster; more athletic defenders able to impede his favorite long passes over the top; and smarter defenders able to contain him, close off his left foot, and force him to his much weaker right side.

Credit: Kristen

“I don’t care, we NEED a left footed winger”.

Oh boy. I was trying not to, but if you insist on going down this route, fine. Needing a left-footed winger is a complete fallacy. Every player has a dominant foot, even if the difference is marginal. But the notion that you need a left-footed winger on the right to cut in and shoot is laughable. What makes a winger dangerous is their ability to pose multiple threats and beat defenders in a variety of ways. I am sure most Chelsea fans remember the days of the Hazard-Mata-Oscar triumvirate having carte blanche to roam anywhere they wanted. Melding the roles of the sole #9 and deeper #6/8’s, those guys produced some absolutely mesmerizing combination-play and beautiful attacking moves. What made them so good was not only their undisputed PURE talent, but also the uncertainty they caused defenders. While all three were different players, each had a unique ability to read the game and each other, to understand movements and find dangerous spaces to receive the ball. It was the uncertainty of where they were going to appear and what they were going to do that gave PL defenders nightmares worse than childhood fantasies of clowns in storm drains.

The point is, Ziyech is almost completely left-footed. It will not take defenders long to learn exactly how to push him wide and onto his right foot, and completely nullify the left foot everyone is crying out for.

The “Project”

Probably the most controversial questions surrounding Ziyech’s addition are in regards to his role on the team, as well as how he fits into Chelsea’s long-term plans. On the pitch, he will give Lampard versatility by being able to play on the right in both a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, as well as being able to play centrally, most likely as the #10, in a 4-2-3-1. He is also capable of deputizing on the left of either formation as needed.

It is well understood that Pedro could depart Chelsea this summer, and it is looking more likely that Willian might be close behind. This means that we can count Ziyech as an immediate replacement for one of them (we will assume Pedro now since it is known he is leaving). As things stand, that leaves Lampard with four options out wide next season, (CHO, Pulisic, Ziyech, and Willian or his eventual replacement) and three options in the #10 position (Mount, Barkley, and Ziyech (do not start on Ruben, he is not a #10)).

Honestly, not a bad set of options. You have decent depth (4 for 2 on the wing, 3 for 1 as a#10), and decent variations between each player. Hang on though, look at it again, but, differently.

  • CHO – 19 – 5 year contract
  • Pulisic – 21 – 5 year contract
  • Mount – 21 – 5 year contract
  • Willian – 31 – 1/2 year contract if he stays
  • Barkley – 26 – 3 Year contract
  • Ziyech – 27 – ?? year contract

Now project a little, say four years. Safe to assume we can cross Willian off the list as whether he gets the contract or not, he will be long gone by then; and, safe to assume we can reach consensus that Ross Barkley is not at the level required to remain at Chelsea in the long term. So that leaves us with a 23-year old CHO, 25-year old Pulisic and Mount, and 30-year old Ziyech (without any other additions). Who makes the front three? Pulisic, Mount, and CHO with three years further PL experience starting to hit their peak? Or, 30-year old Ziyech, likely somewhere between his peak and the start of his decline?

Projecting four years out is likely a bit of a reach for most. In fact, it’s likely that most fans don’t even see this as a concern at all, and the few who might see it as something will concern themselves with it well, in FOUR years. That is all understandable, but give me a minute to try and tie things together.

Try to see it another way, in the more immediate future. I will start with this question. Does Ziyech seem like a player, who at 27, will move to a new team in the PL and not expect to play the vast majority of matches? Not to me he doesn’t. 

Let us assume Ziyech will be a prominent feature in the starting XI next season; who does he replace in Lampard’s 4-2-3-1? Does he play on the right, disrupting the emerging CHO/Reece partnership and forcing Pulisic and CHO to battle for the left side? Or does he play as the #10 and force Mount into a rotational role?

“LAMPARD SHOULD PLAY THE 4-3-3”, yes, I heard you, we’ll try it your way. Same problem however, Ziyech on the RW forces Pulisic and CHO to compete for one spot on the left, and without a #10 position, moving Ziyech into the midfield would likely mean sitting Ruben, Kovacic, or Kante.

Now before you start screaming about depth and rotation, yes you need depth and Chelsea, specifically, need quality depth. But, that does not answer the underlying questions here. The underlying questions are:

What role is Ziyech expecting to have within the team, both in the immediate future, and 4/5 years down the line?

Do Ziyech’s expectations match the role Chelsea have in mind for him?

– What impact does his role have on the roles of existing players (CHO, Pulisic, Mount, etc…) and any potential additions or subtractions?

– How does his role fit into the overall plan that Chelsea has for the next 5 years?  

What a Bargain

Another popular argument for the signing is the fee, rumored to be around £34mil. While relatively low by today’s standards (that saw Pepe move for £72mil and Maguire for £80mil), it still represents a decent outlay of the initially rumored £150mil budget Frank has to work with. Add in the fact that there was an apparent release clause active over the summer (before Ziyech renewed terms in August, which no other European club activated), and you land in the region of the fee Chelsea have agreed to pay.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of the fee, is the affect it has had on the reputation of Marina Granovskaia. She has gone from the target of immense vitriol after an inactive January transfer-window, to the Queen of Stamford Bridge, all within the span of about 2 weeks.

There is Always Risk

Football clubs, and specifically players within football clubs, operate in something of a closed system. That is to say that everything that happens, every player movement, incoming, outgoing, good, bad, or otherwise, has an effect on the rest of the system. Nothing happens in a vacuum. There are a limited amount of minutes in a season; a new player arrives, minutes get shifted. Maybe the minute’s math doesn’t work out, someone gets sold. Someone gets sold, team bonds break a little, friendships are strained or broken. Everything is connected, and every movement has ripples.

This is, and always has been, part of football, and it is a big reason why every transfer comes with risk. Clubs will always do their best to manage and mitigate risk, though some moves are inherently riskier than others, but no move is completely perfect.

Is Hakim Ziyech’s move to Chelsea a risk? Absolutely. Now given the rumored fee, it is perhaps not the biggest risk monetarily, but as we discussed, there are certainly other factors to be considered.

Would I have made the move given the decision-making power? No, probably not. Do I believe Ziyech can adapt and overcome the potential pitfalls he will face? I would hope so. Do I believe he will be “a gift to the Premier League”? Doubtful. Do I believe he is an improvement over Pedro or Willian? Of course. Will I be hoping he succeeds? Absolutely. Will I be shocked if he doesn’t? No. Despite any reservations I may have, once Ziyech is on the field in a blue Chelsea kit, he will have my support as a fan of the football club.

Every fan has a right to be excited about their club and new signings. But I am hopeful that people, despite their excitement, will remember there are always two sides to every story.

Written By: Ryan Morse

Edited By: Kristen