“I say what I think and that’s why I’m not the easiest guy for some coaches.” Many things can be said about Chelsea’s new €44m signing, Hakim Ziyech, but one thing is for sure: he is not a yes man.
The quote comes from an interview I did with him in 2015, when he was at Twente, and few people at the club were spared. He was brutally honest about what he felt the problems were with the coach, most of his teammates and the board.
When I asked him just before publication whether he was aware of the potential fallout he said: “That’s fine. The truth hurts.”
A lot has happened since and Ziyech is 26 and ready to take the biggest step of his career by moving to Chelsea in the summer. He has developed significantly as a man and a player in the past five years and Chelsea are signing someone who has adapted to the very highest level and will always play with his heart, trusting his intuition.
“This is a good step; Hakim is really ready for it now,” says Aziz Doufikar, a former professional player and a youth worker who kept Ziyech out of trouble when the youngster grew up in Dronten. Despite being 30 years older than Ziyech, Doufikar played street football with his protege in the early 2000s and coached him at indoor tournaments.
They have a lot in common. “Just like it happened to Hakim, my father died before I had my breakthrough and that’s difficult. I said: ‘Our fathers look at us from above and we have to make them proud. Come on, don’t worry, get started.’”
Ziyech will never forget the support Doufikar offered and still invites him to Amsterdam for games. Doufikar, asked what has turned Ziyech from a good Eredivisie player into a world beater, says: “He has learned not to always put on his smoking jacket, but sometimes his overalls.”
Certainly Ziyech has added hard work to his eye-catching talent. He is no longer just a flair player. He makes more runs, he contributes heavily to the defensive work and always urges teammates to keep going, even at 4-0 up.
The Morocco international was one of Ajax’s standout players as they took Europe by storm last season. He developed into a much more complete player but, crucially, lost none of his attacking spark. He scored in both legs as Ajax eliminated Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 and was on target in the semi-final second leg against Tottenham.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Ziyech’s importance was that when he was injured in mid-January, Ajax lost their spark. Ajax fans were devastated when the news broke that he is joining Chelsea. They will miss the swirling passes, creativity, delightful technique, eye for the game and scoring ability of a playmaker who mostly operates from the right wing. “I wouldn’t put him below someone like Riyad Mahrez,” the former Ajax coach Frank de Boer said recently on Fox Sports.
The former Ajax and Tottenham player Rafael van der Vaart, a TV pundit, says he brought up Ziyech’s name at Spurs a couple of months ago. “He deserves a top competition,” Van der Vaart said, “although I would miss him terribly. He is such a fantastic player. He has such a gifted left foot and is so creative. He’s the kind of player I watch football matches for. He would be great at Spurs.”
But Spurs never made a serious bid. Just like Bayern Munich, who refused to pay the €30m release clause last summer. Almost no one in the Netherlands understood why, other than critics who kept pointing to his high-risk play. Ziyech had offers but did not want to join Sevilla, one of his strongest suiters, because he did not regard the La Liga club as a step up.
Eyebrows were therefore raised when he decided to join Chelsea, given that Ajax nearly knocked the Premier League side out of the Champions League this season, being 4-1 up at Stamford Bridge before two red cards for the Dutch side contributed to the game finishing 4-4. Ajax were eliminated from the group stage after losing 1-0 at home to Valencia in the final game.
Chelsea are not title contenders this season and do not play as attractive football as Ajax but Khalid Boulahrouz, who played for the London club and won 35 Netherlands caps, thinks it is a good match. “Ziyech has got to be Ziyech,” he says. “Under [former manager] Antonio Conte that would have been difficult, but under Frank Lampard it will work. I played with Frank, he loves beautiful football, just like Hakim.”
It is not often a player steps from the Eredivisie to a big Premier League club aged 27, which Ziyech will be in March, and the most fascinating thing about Ziyech’s career path is that he seemed ready to make that move five years ago. At Twente, a mid-table club in the Netherlands, he made his mark in 2015 by scoring 17 goals and supplying 17 assists, stats that on a goals/assists-per-game ratio put him on the same level as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Gonzalo Higuaín.
In his first Ajax years he would continue to score and provide assists (he has 79 goals and 87 assists since his Eredivisie debut in 2012), excelling in European games especially. But he looked a bit grumpy and misunderstood on occasion and in interviews sometimes spoke about a lack of appreciation and about leaving. He was even pushed by an Ajax supporter after a defeat at PSV in April 2018 and Ajax gave his No 10 shirt to Dusan Tadic that summer.
But he kept signing new deals with Ajax and eventually a strong bond formed between the playmaker and fans. Ziyech seemed to enjoy himself more and more in the Johan Cruijff Arena and warmed supporters’ hearts by donating money to Leon de Kogel, a former player whose career was ended after a car crash in Malta in 2018. Ziyech had never met De Kogel but wanted to contribute.
He received even more public acclaim when he hugged a child who ran to him during a Champions League match against Lille last November. Afterwards he gave his shirt to a man who said he was the child’s father. When the man turned out to be a liar and put the shirt on Ebay, Ziyech made sure the child got to visit Amsterdam and gave him his shirt and tickets to an Ajax match.
Chelsea are getting a prodigious player who is more and more comfortable in his own skin; a player who works hard and creates and scores goals. But how should Lampard handle him? Well, in 2015, when I asked Ziyech how any coach should get the best out of him, he grinned and said: “Hard. Rock hard. With a little bit of fun in between. And with lots of communication but also with the message that ultimately you are responsible for your own career.”