“I have always said that we have a better team, better players and more quality,” Hakim Ziyech said after his Ajax side beat Feyenoord 2-1 to remain in the Eredivisie title race. He may have a point, but the attacking midfielder is too modest to acknowledge that it is thanks to him that they stand a chance.
The pressure was on the Amsterdam side on Sunday. Failure to collect three points against visitors Feyenoord would see the title surely end up in Rotterdam for the first time in 18 years, but they delivered in style.
On top from the beginning, Ajax backed up Ziyech’s claim with a strong display, leaving him, coach Peter Bosz, Davy Klaassen and Justin Kluivert all mentioning their regret that it wasn’t 5-0.
Lasse Schone’s astounding free-kick took the headlines and put Ajax in the lead within 53 seconds, but as the most talented and creative player in the Eredivisie, Ziyech was the key man in maintaining that dominance.
That Ajax failed to really kill off the leaders – now just three points clear with six games to go – is no surprise and Michiel Kramer’s 90th minute goal reiterated that big issues persist. It has been a problem all season and they paid for the ongoing inefficiency in recent draws against a 10-man Groningen and then Excelsior.
There are many reasons for their sloppiness – a youthful attack and inconsistent and seemingly directionless wingers, and while improvements will come, they should have reaped more benefits from Ziyech’s talents.
Signing from Twente for €11 million at the end of the summer transfer window, he joined a stale team shaken by awful results against Roda JC and Willem II. Ziyech immediately added a central spark and inventiveness to Ajax that they have lacked since Christian Eriksen’s departure almost four years ago.
Kasper Dolberg and Davy Klaassen have been effective in front of goal and in providing assists this season and have been key, but no one has been as consistent a provider and threat than the No.10 - and with his best display in an Ajax jersey on Sunday, he proved he can help raise the team.
His instinctive passing was on display throughout and he was the architect of many dangerous moves.
A simple pass wide to Kluivert allowed the winger to move inside and shoot from inside the box, the rebound was pounced on by Ziyech and although his attempt was blocked too, it was their first real threat inside the box.
Just a few minutes later, Kluivert moved the ball inside from the left to Ziyech who took it forward and rolled it towards the back post where David Neres met it to get a goal on his full debut. It was a brilliant team move and deserved the finish.
“I saw Miquel Nelom had moved inside and Neres was free,” Ziyech explained. “I made a low cross and he took it well.”
He combined well with Kluivert and Daley Sinkgraven on the left, making for a far more prosperous flank than when Amin Younes – injured before kick-off – features instead of the former. The 17-year-old was unlucky not to get an assist when he ran onto Ziyech’s well placed through ball but saw his cross fly across the face of goal. Those two complement each other well as Ziyech reads Kluivert’s moves and the youngster’s good control helps him in tight spaces.
Ziyech then opened a chance for Bertrand Traore in a nice counter-attack, taking on Andre Onana’s roll and playing a long low pass to the striker who slipped under a tackle from Jan-Arie van der Heijden.
Further to his credit, Ziyech did his fair share of defensive work too, pressing well, winning the ball and tracking down opponents.
"It feels like one of my best games for Ajax,” he said afterwards. “I've played many good games, but this one was extremely good.
"We knew it was our last chance and we grabbed it with both hands. We were on top from the first minute and Feyenoord had nothing to say. We wanted to make it 3-0 soon after the break. But we didn’t. When you see how many chances we had in the second half, it’s unbelievable. We can only blame ourselves for that.”
15 - Hakim Ziyech made 15 recoveries v Feyenoord, his highest tally ever in an Eredivisie game (128 in total). Industrious.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 2, 2017
He does have his share of the blame – he is wasteful himself and was too trigger happy once again. An incredible 98 of his 128 shots have come from outside the box, amounting to two goals. It helps keep his game varied, but it is imperative that that impulsive energy be quelled or channelled by Bosz.
As well as 12 assists and eight goals, according to Opta, he has created 106 chances (95 for Ajax) – by far the best in the league, with Davy Propper next on the list on 67. He finished top of that chart in each of the last two seasons at Twente – with 88 in 2014-15 and 95 last term. No Ajax player has come close to his current numbers since Christian Eriksen’s tally of 138 in his last full season.
With a player like that in their ranks, it is amazing that Ajax are sweating so much over their goal difference. Feyenoord’s is far superior and it could prove decisive come the conclusion of the campaign.
Ajax are lucky to have Ziyech. He caught the eye of many top sides across Europe but has been forced to prove himself at another level within the Eredivisie after Twente’s dismal season. He has been underestimated elsewhere too – he was called up to the Netherlands national team just once but left early because of injury. After being overlooked further, he opted for Morocco. A huge oversight for a crisis-struck Oranje in need of more impulsive players.
The capital club have benefited from that, though, and Ziyech showed once again that he is the inspiration behind Ajax’s endurance this year.