When Eden Hazard moved to Real Madrid last summer, it marked the end of an era for Chelsea. The Belgian playmaker was a prime protagonist of the Premier League, capturing the imagination of English football with his elegance and endearing swagger.
Chief among his wide array of attributes was his superb ball control. Hazard’s seemingly symbiotic relationship with the ball typified his brilliance, as he instigated desperate challenges from opposition defenders only to glide past them with audacious poise. When combined with his searing pace and lethal finishing, he developed the capacity to alter the complexion of a game in an instant and earned his status as among the best attackers in Europe.
The absence of such game-changing quality at Stamford Bridge since Hazard’s exit is palpable. Frank Lampard’s implementation of an attack-oriented style and Tammy Abraham’s positive start as Chelsea’s line leader has allowed the Blues to reliably score goals.
Yet in recent games against Newcastle, Arsenal, Leicester City, and Manchester United; they have perhaps lacked the necessary unpredictability and decisiveness in the final third to bring them victories. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, and Christian Pulisic are all promising players who in time could emerge as game-changing personnel in Chelsea’s squad. At present, however, they lack the necessary skill set.
Chelsea will never be able to replicate Hazard’s particular qualities exactly. Yet in Hakim Ziyech, Lampard may have found the perfect player to inject added dynamism and unpredictability to the Chelsea attack.
Ziyech’s attacking productivity for Ajax has been nothing short of remarkable. In 163 games for the Dutch side, he has recorded 50 goals and provided 83 assists. Such figures are tainted by the lower standard of competition in the Eredivisie, but they are substantiated by his showings in the Champions League.
In Ajax’s sensational run to the Champions League semi-final last season he scored three goals and made three assists in eleven appearances, whilst this season he scored twice and assisted four times in the group stage. Given that he played primarily as a right-winger, the consistency and volume of his output is impressive.
Ziyech is the creative fulcrum of Ajax, cutting inside and drifting into space to supply dynamic attackers such as Donny Van de Beek, Quincy Promes, Dusan Tadic, and David Neres with crosses, long passes, and through-balls. He averaged 2.2 key passes, 0.9 completed crosses, and 3.5 completed long passes per 90 in the Champions League last season, highlighting his creative role.
The Moroccan is also adept at creating opportunities for himself with his dribbling and shooting, with his 3.25 successful dribbles per 90 affording him the space to unleash lethal strikes with his left foot.
He averaged 3.8 shots from outside the box last season, but the majority of his goals are scored through arriving late in the box to score from cutbacks. His tendency to linger in space combined with intelligent movement enables him to consistently arrive in the area at the right time and score from these situations.
Despite common stereotypes regarding playmakers, Ziyech is a willing contributor defensively. Under Erik ten Hag, Ajax pressed assertively and aggressively, looking to win the ball high up the pitch through astute counter-pressing. As shown by his 1.3 interceptions, 2.5 tackles, and 1.62 possessions won in the attacking third, Ziyech is an effective presser. This will no doubt be invaluable to Lampard, who also encourages his team to press high.
For Chelsea, Ziyech could play in a number of roles based on the formation Lampard employs. He could play as a wide attacker in a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, or 4-3-3, although accommodating him may also prove problematic. Unlike most wingers in the modern game, Ziyech does not make runs beyond the defensive line to pose as a goal-scoring threat.
Rather, he tends to drop deep to play raking passes and looping crosses to more advanced attackers. Given that this is unusual for most wide forwards, Lampard would have to alter his tactical setup to accommodate Ziyech’s playing style. If he fails to do this, he could hinder the Moroccan’s influence by asking him to perform a role that does not align with his strengths.
Alternatively, Ziyech could be used as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1. Lampard has used the formation both at Derby County and at Chelsea and it could afford Ziyech the positional freedom to dictate play and pose as the focal point of the attack.
He could even be used as an advanced central midfielder in a 4-3-3. Manchester City has become synonymous with a midfield three consisting of two attack-minded players and one holding player. In N’golo Kante, Chelsea has a defensive midfielder with the necessary quality to play as a single pivot behind two attack-minded midfielders, possibly Ziyech with Mason Mount or Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Lampard could also use the Blues new signing as the sole creative presence in the middle alongside Kante, Jorginho, or Kovacic. Given Lampard’s tendency to change formation and be tactically flexible, Ziyech’s positional versatility will be an asset for the Chelsea manager next season.
Regardless of the formation, Ziyech will need to be surrounded by dynamic attackers who can make line-breaking runs into the box to get on the end of his through balls. While players such as Olivier Giroud and Willian would not fit this, Christian Pulisic could find himself back in favor at Stamford Bridge.
The American excels at making intelligent runs into the box and could develop an excellent relationship with Ziyech. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham, and Mason Mount also have the necessary characteristics to thrive from Ziyech’s creativity.
Ziyech is not simply a productive attacking player; he possesses an allure, one that allows him to command a unique presence on the pitch and change the course of games. Whether through perfectly weighted crosses, breathtaking shots from outside the box; or as Chelsea witnessed in the Champions League, freekicks that are virtually corners, Ziyech has the ability to create something out of nothing.
As long as he adapts to the Premier League and Lampard adapts Chelsea’s setup to his playing style, Chelsea may have found the ideal player to unlock their attacking potential and step into the void left by Eden Hazard.