Back in early December Chelsea received some good news, their transfer ban had been lifted.
The ban had prevented the club from making any signings during their first summer under new manager Frank Lampard, a summer that had seen them lose superstar Eden Hazard.
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It was therefore expected that when Chelsea were unleashed in January Roman Abramovich’s cheque book would be seeing some action. Yet the Blues remained surprising quiet, instead preferring to wait until the end of February when they swooped to sign Hakim Ziyech from Dutch champions Ajax.
The Moroccan’s arrival was somewhat overshadowed by the signing of Timo Werner, and he may slip further from the limelight if Chelsea can bring in any of Thiago Silva or Kai Havertz. Yet the first signing of the Lampard era is going to have a vital role to play if Chelsea are going to take the step forward they expect this season.
The long and short of it is this. For large swathes of last season Chelsea looked short of ideas. At times Lampard’s high-tempo football was a joy to watch, particularly when his young starlets were slicing through teams. But before lockdown, and occasionally afterwards, teams started to figure out a few ways to stop the Blues. The chief way of this was teams dropping their defences deeper and playing in two well-organised blocks. It’s not exactly a new way to stop big teams but this younger, perhaps almost naïve, Chelsea team couldn’t figure out a counter.
That’s clearly where Ziyech comes in. For the past three seasons no player in Holland has created more chances than him. His ability to cut open defences is something that Chelsea don’t have, even if the numbers would suggest they were one of the better teams at creating chances last season. In terms of chance creation consider Ziyech an almost hybrid of Jorginho and Mason Mount. He combines the long-passing of the Italian with the shorter stuff of Mount, except he might be better than both at them at each relative skill. Ziyech is one of the players who seems to be able to see the entire field at all times, it’s a rare skill and one Chelsea have been crying out for since Juan Mata left. In previous years teams normally had to double-team Hazard, which opened up spaces that were easily exploited. Or before that they were simply battered into submission by Diego Costa. Last season’s Chelsea didn’t have those options. Ziyech should give more to the likes of Werner, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic. Players who want to exploit space with their speed and instincts. Ziyech may get less time in the Premier League but he’s got more weapons to work with.
The numbers will also tell you that Chelsea were one of the better teams from set-pieces last season, but most Chelsea fans know that regularly reliable delivery has been missing for some time. Mount alleviated some of the pains last season but Ziyech should raise the game. Mount’s no slouch in the air and having him in the box should theoretically make Chelsea even more of a threat this season.
His goalscoring can be hit and miss. He is certainly capable of popping up with goals, as all modern day attackers need to be able to do, and the team will benefit from that. However he does have a tendency of taking on some outrageous shots. That will frustrate fans and Lampard, but his technique is good enough that it will be something opponents will have to factor in, even if they’re speculative. His movement is excellent though and he drifts a lot from that wide right position, and those late runs could be a valuable source of goals. Plus, crucially, his work-rate is up to scratch. Lampard suffers no fools when it comes to putting in the dirty work and Ziyech is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. It’s something that’s crucial for Chelsea wide players, particularly in Lampard’s system.
But ultimately it’s his creativity that will bring him to the fore at Chelsea. No player will have the level of inventiveness that he has and you can see what Lampard and Chelsea are trying to do. Pairing Ziyech and Mount with a host of players with pace and movement makes perfect sense, it can help make Chelsea more unpredictable and more difficult to deal with.
Where he will play will be a lot more interesting to watch. Lampard has toyed with a variety of formations during his time at Chelsea, but you would expect him to go back to a 4-3-3 having used three at the back to try and find some defensive solidity.
If that is the case then you would think that Ziyech would line up on the right, the same position he played for Ajax. If you assume that Pulisic and Werner fill the other two slots then it’s harsh on Mount and Abraham. Mount could always drop deeper to play alongside N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. In fact don’t be surprised to see Ziyech fill that third central midfield role either.
Other options involve Mount and Ziyech rotating between the number 10 role and wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation or playing behind the sole striker if Lampard goes back to a 3-4-2-1. All of this definitely sounds ominous for some of Chelsea’s home-grown stars. It’s hard to see how Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi or Ruben Loftus-Cheek immediately fit in. One thing you can say for certain is that there is going to be plenty of competition.
Top-level football is all about the fine margins. Ultimately at some stage it’s the minute things that make the difference. Bringing in someone like Ziyech isn’t as flash as Werner or Havertz but he is the metronome that can make those around him tick. That phrase can be applied to Jorginho, Kovacic and Billy Gilmour but they all play a slightly different role. Chelsea need that creator in the final third when teams are frustrating them, that’s where Ziyech comes in. If Chelsea do take the step forward you can be sure Ziyech’s performances will have a big say in that.
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