The Perfect Shade of Blue: How Ziyech can paint a Chelsea Masterpiece

When Frank Lampard joined Chelsea in the summer of 2019, the common consensus of the fanbase was to avoid stacking the pressure on the Englishman. They had just lost their best player – Eden Hazard – to Real Madrid, had a transfer ban imposed on them and had hired a young, inexperienced manager, all with the overall aim of overhauling the squad.

Halfway through the season, however, Lampard started to impress the Chelsea faithfuls with an eye-catching style of football, and some brilliant results to back that up. With the club visibly in the driver’s seat to earn a Champions League spot now, the pressure is well and truly on.

Lampard has been able to harness most of the youngsters in the Chelsea squad, with the likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori reaping the benefits of the transfer ban. His use of these youngsters, though, does not stem from the duress that has been put on the club by fans to watch one of their own in the blue shirt. It comes from what they bring to the table for him.

Overachieving. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images)
Overachieving. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images)

Chelsea’s energetic, fluid style of play and use of youth have earned them plaudits from all corners. Despite this, there are worrying signs that have emerged.

These hassles start from Chelsea’s style of defending. Lampard’s idea of defence is hugely demanding and consequently, exhaustive. The frontline is the first line of defence, narrowly pressing the opposition player with the ball, with Mount leading the line on several occasions, while the centre-forward sits slightly behind him.

The central midfielders and the full-backs shuttle upwards to cover passing lanes and act as the second layer of pressure, while the anchor – usually Jorginho – drops deep.

Lampard prefers his team resemble a deep block if the opposition build-up is slow and the first two layers of the press have been bypassed. His problems while attacking, however, stem against the same type of system – a low block.

Chelsea like to attack from wide, with the wingers tucking in while the full-backs make an overlapping run. They then feed the ball into the box with the help of low driven crosses, cut-backs or shots across the goal which find a second attacker. As a result, this means it becomes easier to defend when you have assembled a deeper line of defence. And at other times, it’s just too predictable.

Jorginho helps to add that defence-splitting killer pass from forty yards out, but the team lacks a creative outlet in the final third. This adds to uncertainty and frustration while attacking, leading players to try irrational shots from outside the box, misplacing passes and hogging the ball, among other things, consequently leading to turnovers.

Playing in the hybrid 8/10 role, Mount adds an attacking threat, but his best quality would be his well-timed runs into the box and long-range shots. He averages 1.4 key passes per game, but his xA per game reaches a mere 0.16, which is not even the highest in the Chelsea squad. Willian holds that post with 0.31 per game.

A lack of creativity. (Source: Understat)
A lack of creativity. (Source: Understat)

At the moment, the London outfit are not doing justice to either their xG or their xGA, underperforming both by 5.80 and 7.89 respectively. And when we figure in the inevitable departure of Pedro and Willian, it would have been safe to assume Chelsea were heading for trouble. Maybe not now, though.

As his first season comes to a close, it is clear that what Frank Lampard’s needs in his team is quantity on one end of the pitch and quality on the other. Also evident is the fact that Chelsea are overperforming with the kind of squad depth they have and their needs in the transfer market are far from boorish.

Chelsea require(d) a left-back, a centre-back, a winger and a striker before they head into the next campaign, or they will be run down, as they have so often this season. They have been linked with several defenders who could fill the gaps, but a move has not gone through. Chelsea’s signing of Timo Werner has already become this window’s headliner; it might not be the most crucial one, though.

Presenting – The Wizard of Amsterdam

You're a wizard, Hakim. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
You’re a wizard, Hakim. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

After closing in on him for several months, Chelsea announced the signing of Hakim Ziyech on February 14 of this year for €40 million, with little to no competition. This deal could have been pulled off in January itself, but Ajax did not want to run the risk of losing the best player in the league and damaging their chances of retaining the Eredivisie.

According to The Athletic, this venture comes after three years of intensive scouting done by Chelsea. The transfer could have gone through last summer, too, if not for their transfer ban. Frank Lampard & co. have, however, finally signed the world-class winger-playmaker at the peak of his powers. He is someone who will give them the cutting edge they have lacked this season.

The Ajax star played in a wide variety of positions during his time in Netherlands, starting from central midfield as a No. 8 to a False Nine and everything in between. Despite his versatility, he is at home on the right flank; a role he made his own in a 4-3-3 as well as a 4-2-3-1.


Levels. (Source: Tifo Football)

Ziyech has gone from strength to strength as teammates and seasons have passed him by. He is the only player who has lived up to and arguably improved from Ajax’s fairytale 2018/19 campaign.

At Ajax, Ziyech was never burdened with the load of stringent positioning; he was always more of a free spirit. A lot of credit for that can be given to Peter Bosz, who refused to play him on the wing. “He belongs in the No. 10 role — he’s a creative boy who does not belong on the flanks,” he said. Ziyech continued to rack up numbers in every role he was given, but it was under Erik ten Hag that he showed his true potential.

As a left-footed inside forward, the Moroccan loves to start out wide and tuck in on his left before attempting a shot at goal, or changing flanks. He boasts of threateningly accurate crosses, but is more than capable of disrupting defences with a deadly through ball. Usually, Ziyech loves to test the keeper from range by curling the ball past the back-line, but this season, he has adopted a new approach to finding the net.

Before drifting inwards, he spots a runner on the other side of the pitch who is moving into the box. Ziyech then rolls the ball to his left, and before the defenders know what happened, he whips the perfect cross right on to the feet of his teammate, who has just the keeper to beat. This was difficult to do last season with David Neres, who liked to rove on the edge of the box than inside it. Chelsea themselves have been on the receiving end of Ziyech’s wicked curler to Quincy Promes.

Ajax manager ten Hag took full advantage of Ziyech’s range on the pitch and experimented before giving him a free role on the right flank, where he could drop deep to collect the ball before spraying it forward or carrying it on his own.

He has also had the autonomy to switch flanks and move into the box, and he uses this movement after propelling a crossfield pass to the opposite end. This has been a critical attacking trait for Ajax in the last two years, as it allows Ziyech to leave his marker and attempt a shot after a cut-back is played in through the flank.

Since his debut for Ajax in September 2016, he has managed to create a whopping 421 goalscoring opportunities – 134 more than any other player. Ziyech’s machine-like productivity has seen him score six goals and set up 12 more for his teammates. His dozen assists this season means he has racked up assists in double figures for seven seasons in a row – an unprecedented feat in Dutch football.

However, the 27-year-old does not stand in the top ten for expected goals per 90 this season in the Eredivisie, but none of the highest assist providers over the top five league match him for expected assists per 90. Not even Dusan Tadic, who has the most assists in the Dutch top-flight.

Clearly, there is a lot Ziyech offers, and a lot more he can do, but how does he fit at Chelsea, if at all?

Take Me Back to London ft. Hakim Ziyech

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Frank Lampard has deployed a 4-3-3 for the best part of the season, and we have to work under the assumption that it will be continued next season as well. This paves an easy way for Ziyech on the right-hand side of Timo Werner. Christian Pulisic is expected to retain his position on the left. Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi are likely to be options from the bench unless Lampard finds a way to accommodate all his stars in one arrangement.

This season, the right flank has been under the supervision of Willian, who has stepped up as Chelsea’s best creative outlet in the absence of Eden Hazard. The Brazilian leads the squad for chances created, key passes, assists and expected assists.

In theory, it would be easy for Ziyech to take over this position since both Willian and Pedro are tipped to leave the club this summer. For context, his xA for the season and per game sit at a brilliant 15.54 and 0.74, respectively, as compared to Willian’s 8.68 and 0.31.

Moreover, Willian is in the mould of a traditional winger and likes to take the ball wide before taking action. This leaves a gaping hole in the half-space near the edge of the box which is covered by either N’Golo Kante or Ross Barkley.

This will not happen when Ziyech takes on the pitch. He operates in these exact half-spaces, which means the full-back will get more chances to move forward while Kante can stay back and add to Chelsea’s defensive solidity.

Pulisic has been an integral member in Lampard’s team, especially in the second half of the season, aiding the attack to come alive as Abraham continued to fall short. He is a direct player who relies on his speed and dribbling to go past players before hitting a low ball across the goal or cutting in to play a through ball behind the defence; or shoot.

Much like Quincy Promes, who shared a flourishing understanding with Ziyech, Pulisic is likely to ease the Moroccon’s transition into the side due to a notably similar profile. Obviously, this would work really well for Timo Werner as well, seeing as the German likes to rove to the left to look for space.

His ability to whip in spectacular crosses will also come in handy when he plays alongside Tammy Abraham, whose physical presence allows him to get the best of defenders in an aerial battle. And let’s not forget Olivier Giroud.

Starting on the right would mean he will be cutting in to shoot, as he so often does. Ziyech is not one to shy away from taking shots from range. However, he might have to cut down on this trait as he will lock horns with defences and goalkeepers of a higher degree.

Another formation that Lampard has used this season is the 4-2-3-1, where Mason Mount occupies the attacking midfield role. Former Ajax sensation Ziyech could be deployed there instead of the young Englishman if need be.

This works on a lot of levels for Chelsea, because, firstly, Ziyech’s productivity changes as he switches positions. When he takes on a more central role, he is able to fuel his artistry even further as this graph indicates.

A testament to versatility. (Source: Tifo Football)
A testament to versatility. (Source: Tifo Football)

Secondly, playing him in what is a very attacking formation will not compromise Chelsea’s defensive output. Ziyech is a hard worker who is more than keen to press the opposition defenders and drop deep to defend if need be. He has won 2.3 tackles per game in the Champions League this season, a number topped by only Kante outside of Chelsea’s defenders, and 1.3 more than Mount.

However, it would be safe to rule the 4-2-3-1 out until Lampard finds a way to accommodate two of his several midfielders into a double pivot. Jorginho has not been able to impress outside a trio, while Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek  are far from strong defenders.

Dropping deep to defend not only works for Chelsea, but for Ziyech’s style of play as well. He loves to occupy positions in the middle of the park to collect the ball because he is an assertive player who likes to take responsibility for each move and makes his way up the pitch through one-twos and marvellous take-ons. This should remind the Chelsea supporters of a certain someone donning the #10 not too long ago.

He does this every game, but there is no better example than Ajax’s game against Tottenham Hotspur last year in the Champions League that springs to mind. It is quite remarkable how much he was involved everywhere on the pitch, including as deep as the centre-backs.

It might not be necessary, but Ziyech can slot in on the left side of the midfield three as a hybrid 8/10. It would be far-fetched but not surprising because 1. Ziyech played there several times this season in the Eredivisie and 2. It is a role that is quickly gaining popularity in the Premier League. James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Barkley and Mount are just some players who have regularly assumed responsibility of this fusion.

Like the lord, he comes in many forms. And while he is not a Hail Mary like Eden Hazard, he is the shepherd that can guide and shape the former Derby County manager’s burgeoning boys.

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