Chelsea: Hakim Ziyech needs the ball, not even time on it

Hakim Ziyech has come under a lot of criticism from Chelsea fans over the past few months. The reason being that they feel they were promised an ultra-creative, big chance machine and they were sold a lie. In many ways, they were promised an ultra-creative big chance machine, but they weren’t sold a lie. That said, why haven’t we seen the Ziyech we saw at Ajax?

It’s true that the Blues haven’t seen the Ziyech they saw at Ajax in terms of chance creation. However, they’ve also not gotten him on the ball as much as Ajax did. Most of the Dutch giant’s attacks went through the Moroccan as he was trusted to orchestrate attacks, which he did. At Chelsea, he is only allowed to orchestrate attacks in two or three out of the 22 games he played; the 4-1 Sheffield United win and the 3-0 Burnley win last season. Ziyech got injured against Leeds United in a 3-1 home win, and since then, Chelsea has trusted other players to orchestrate. That wouldn’t have been a problem if fans didn’t still expect Ziyech to create the mad goal scoring chances without the ball.

Hakim Ziyech doesn’t need more time on the ball for Chelsea, he needs more of the ball in general

Of all the players on the pitch, attackers get on the ball the least and defenders the most. Midfielders fall somewhere in the middle. In the 21 games Ziyech played for Ajax two seasons ago, he averaged 6.2 percent possession of the ball in an average match (Ajax averaged 64.4 percent possession). Therefore, Ziyech averaged to get on the ball about 9.6 percent of Ajax’s total possession. This paid off as the winger had freedom to play, create chances and distribute the ball. He was trusted so much that when he got on the ball, players started making runs down the channels and between the lines because they knew he would find them and he did.

In the 2019/20 Eredivisie season, Ziyech completed 2.3 crosses per game at a 28 percent success rate—which is high. Of course, this means he attempted 8.2 crosses per game. There were about 5.9 crosses in every game that Ziyech attempted that failed, but Ziyech wasn’t defined by that. “We want to Ziyech we saw at Ajax,” well that Ziyech attempted loads of crosses, of which many were not successful either. There’s a reason even the best crossers in the game hardly exceed a 30 percent crossing accuracy. Getting frustrated every time Ziyech tries a cross that doesn’t come off is silly; crosses aren’t long balls, they’re difficult to make. Virtually every player will miss over 80 percent of the crosses they attempt.

Ziyech also completed 61 percent of his long balls (3.9 per game). The creative freedom given to the 28-year-old is highlighted in the fact that, not only did he create nearly four chances per game (which is quite high), but he created more big chances than games played. Ziyech created about 1.1 big chances per game, leading the whole league. Ziyech was given a lot of the ball, and he showed why he should be. It was the responsibility of Ziyech’s teammates in Amsterdam to give him the ball whenever they could so the Moroccan could create as many chances as possible. This is in direct contrast to the trust—or lack thereof—he’s been given at Chelsea.

When a player has a 23 percent crossing accuracy, it means he may not get a successful cross if he only has enough opportunities to try four crosses. In 23 games for Chelsea, Ziyech has controlled 2.9 percent possession of the ball per game. Chelsea averaged 61.2 percent possession throughout those games. That comes to about 4.7 percent of the Blues’ ball possession. Ziyech averaged a 79 percent pass completion for Chelsea during the 2020/21 league season, compared to his 77 percent pass completion at Ajax in the same window. However, another indication of the little trust shown to Ziyech—mainly by his teammates—is in the amount of passes Ziyech makes per game.

At Ajax, he completed 41 passes per game, compared to his 22.9 passes per game for Chelsea. He has completed a higher proportion of his passes in west London, but the amount itself wasn’t high. A player can only make a pass if he has the ball, and for him to have the ball, it has to be given to him by another player, especially as it relates to attacking players. Ziyech has changed his game, playing it safer in the physical Premier League. As such, he no longer takes as many risks, and this has meant that he has not come close to matching his creation tallies from years past.

Ziyech now completes just 0.5 crosses per game from an attempted 2.6 (19 percent). 19 percent cross completion is actually not so bad as a crossing success rate in itself, but when you only attempt 2.6 crosses per game, the number of completed crosses is likely to be low because crosses rarely find their target. Compare this with the 8.2 crosses he attempted at Ajax per game and the difference is bound to be glaring.

Ziyech created 1.5 chances and 0.27 big chances per game at Chelsea last season. It is important to note that the amount of possession a player has relative to the team is heavily dependent on how much time he spends on the pitch. In Ziyech’s best games last season—the 4-1 Sheffield United win and the 3-0 Burnley win—the Moroccan had 5.7 percent possession and 4.3 percent possession of the ball respectively. In the Sheffield United contest, he created six chances (three big chances), attempted six crosses (three successful) and has two assists. In the Burnley clash, he created one chance (one big chance), scored a goal and had an assist. Ziyech averaged 51 minutes per game.

In the Eredivisie season under scrutiny the Moroccan averaged 77 minutes per game. Even if Ziyech had averaged 77 minutes per game at Chelsea, as well, he still would’ve averaged out at about 4.3 percent possession of the ball per game (about seven percent of Chelsea’s possession). This is still not the 6.2 percent (9.6 percent of team’s possession) it was at Ajax, but it would have been significantly more ball to work with during those matches.

Many fans are irritated with Ziyech because he hasn’t produced what he was producing in the Dutch League. However, he has not been given the freedom by the manager or the trust by his teammates to enable him take those risks and produce those goods. This also looks like it may never happen, so it might be better to just stop playing Ziyech and sell him, rather than playing him and not playing through him.

The player with the most chances created and big chances created per game for Chelsea last season was Mason Mount. This is impressive as he stepped up when he was needed. Mount played 36 games for the Blues last season, averaging 80 minutes per game. There are many indications of the freedom and trust Mount got from manager and teammates. He made 40.9 passes per game at an 86 percent completion rate. He created 2.4 chances and 0.36 big chances per game. However, he also had about 4.8 percent possession of the ball across those 36 games.

Chelsea had 61.4 percent possession in that time, as well. Mount accounted for about 7.9 percent of all his side’s possession during that period. This freedom given to Mount clearly paid off in the chance creation numbers. If Ziyech had gotten the minutes Mount got, with the freedom and trust he was given, the Moroccan would have controlled 4.3 percent possession (7.4 percent of the Blues’ overall possession). That’s still not the same as Mount’s, though close, but it would have been significantly more than what he had. This would probably have increased his passing numbers (key passes and big chances).

Many will be quick to claim “he has to adapt, he won’t always get the time on the ball he did at Ajax,” and that is true. But he doesn’t need time on the ball, he just needs the ball. One is given to you by the opponents, the other is given to you by your teammates. Ziyech will always be judged and condemned for not producing the creation numbers he did at Ajax, but he cannot do that if the Blues don’t play through him. Chelsea needs to give him the freedom and trust.

Player possession numbers from WhoScored. They account for possession of the ball amongst all 22 players on the pitch unless otherwise stated.

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