COMMENT By James O'Connor
Ajax Amsterdam’s impressive performance against Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday should once again propel their young stars into the transfer thinking of Europe’s biggest and richest clubs.
In one of the biggest games of his career, did Morocco playmaker Hakim Ziyech take his chance to impress the plethora of watching scouts?
His form last season was so good that he won the Rinus Michels trophy for best player of the season at Ajax, voted for by the fans, and he also won the Golden Shoe for the best player in the Eredivisie last term.
Yet, despite specifically strong interest from AS Roma and enquiries from other clubs, no move materialised last summer or in January.
The Real Madrid draw gave him a chance to impress on the highest stage and convince clubs to take the plunge.
In Wednesday’s 2-1 home defeat, Ziyech lined as on the right flank, but his role was always to bring the ball inside to link up with Dusan Tadic and De Jong, whilst freeing space for his countryman, Noussair Mazraoui to overlap.
When Ajax had spells of possession, Ziyech was given full license to move across the front-line, especially with Tadic employed as a false nine.
The role of the two inside forwards was to get into goalscoring positions and not hug the touchline. In the first ten minutes alone, Ziyech twice picked the ball up in the left half-space, once firing a shot across the box and then delivering a cross to the back post.
Of course, many supporters will look at his overall display in terms of his highly impressive actions on the ball; he has 92 touches, more than any other attacking player.
He attempted six shots, hitting the target with three of them, including scoring the equaliser, and completed five dribbles.
However, arguably as impressive was his role in Ajax’s aggressive pressing game. He won two tackles and made three interceptions, but he also forced Madrid to play backwards or to rush forward passes into surrounded teammates.
Much of his pressing won’t show up in simple statistics, but you can be sure that scouts in the stadium, who can see the full pitch, will have been observing his work off the ball.
This display was more Bernardo Silva than Juan Mata in its intensity out of possession.
Should any of the clubs linked with him, including Roma, Liverpool, Dortmund and Everton, sit down and discuss a move for the player based on this performance, then his off-the-ball work will have drawn their eye as much as his goal, dribbles and shots.
A crucial factor to consider when moving for a player is whether he will fit into your club’s style of play.
If you’re signing a player who is excelling in a counter-attacking side who sits deep and exploits space in-behind, but you use a game model where dominating possession is the strategy, then there may be a mismatch.
If a player has gone from a smaller club to a top side, you’re likely to suddenly find man-orientated marking something new to deal with. Many Premier League clubs in particular will defend by sticking close to individual players.
In fact, in the 2017 Europa League final, Ziyech got a taste of this as Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side used aggressive man marking in midfield. That night, Ander Herrera kept a very close eye on Ajax’s number 22, who was operating on the left of a three-man central midfield.
Even moving wide, dropping deep or playing higher up could not buy Ziyech space away from Herrera, and his impact on that final proved minimal.
For that reason, smart clubs look not only at whether players fit into their own style, but also how they operate against different styles of opponent. Ajax players very often fit perfectly using the first criteria, as they play the traditional Dutch style of building up from the back, using a high defensive line, pressing opponents in their own half and taking the initiative.
As most of the world’s bigger clubs play in a similar way, signing players from Ajax means they can easily fit into your own game model.
However, there is one major drawback – Ajax mostly face teams in the Eredivisie who play the same way. If you’re used to facing opponents with an open style of play, who are trying themselves to play out from the back, then you can enforce your high pressing and possession game.
If the hypothetical buying club is expecting to often face teams in a low block, you have to ask whether the player will be able to adjust to the decreased space to operate within.
Players from the Eredivisie rarely have experience of facing teams ‘parking the bus’ or bypassing any high pressing by playing long from the goalkeeper.
On the limited evidence of Ziyech facing defensive opponents in the truly big games, he still has some developing to do.
His issue is how exactly he can improve this facet of his game whilst remaining in Dutch football. A carefully selected move is the ideal path, but with clubs seemingly reluctant to pull the trigger, he may need to take his chances on any big five league team, and learn fast against tougher opponents.
So far in his career, he has taken every new step with aplomb and his consistent displays over his two and a half seasons in Amsterdam, as well as his now excellent defensive game, should mean he will succeed at a bigger club eventually.