Hakim Ziyech: The Moroccan Assist Machine Behind Ajax's European Dream

It wasn't until the 2018/19 season that Hakim Ziyech fought his way into the global spotlight.

As part of an Ajax side who took the Champions League by storm, Ziyech racked up 21 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, starring against both Real Madrid and Juventus as De Godenzonen made it all the way to the semi-final of Europe's biggest competition.

For many, that will have been a first introduction to what Ziyech is about, but truthfully, he has been doing that for years.

Hakim Ziyech
Ziyech has earned himself a move to Chelsea | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

A Moroccan international, Ziyech was born and raised in the Netherlands, but his football career was nearly over before it had even started. When he was just ten years old, Ziyech lost his father to multiple sclerosis, and the Moroccan confessed to De Volkskrant that it hit him so hard that he considered giving up football.

"I didn’t go to school anymore," he admitted. "Football didn’t matter to me either. I was completely gone."

There were allegations that Ziyech turned to drink and drugs when he was just 14 years old, while those close to him had fears that he could follow in the footsteps of some close friends and family end up in prison. Mentor Aziz Doufikar denied that Ziyech ever had a drug problem while speaking to Hessport, but he did admit that the youngster needing some serious encouragement from his family and Doufikar himself to remain on the right track.

With his life slowly coming back together again, Ziyech headed over to Heerenveen to join the academy, and he made his senior debut for the Eredivisie side in 2012.

Dutch Eredivisie - SC Heerenveen Photo Call
A young Ziyech at Heerenveen | VI-Images/Getty Images

After excelling with Heerenveen and leading them up to sixth in the Eredivisie, Ziyech opted to head for FC Twente, specifically choosing that team as he felt Twente would play him in his favoured attacking midfield role.

It was a decision which paid off as Ziyech ended his debut season with 17 goals and 17 assists in all competitions. However, the reality was that this Twente side were not actually very good. In fact, he was handed the captain's armband after just one season when he was just 22 years old, such was his importance to the team.

His form carried over into the 2015/16 season, but that year was filled with controversy for Ziyech. He realised he was too good to be playing for a side who were flirting with relegation, and he publicly spoke out to express his desire to leave - a decision which earned him a 'bad boy' reputation around the league.

His wish was granted in the summer when Ajax moved to sign him, but even that came as a surprise. Let me give you a bit of a timeline.

8 May 2016 - Ziyech finishes the season with Twente and begins to be linked with Ajax.
19 August 2016 - Ajax director Marc Overmars tells Ajax TV that they will 100% not be signing Ziyech as they already have too many midfielders. Frenkie de Jong and Daley Sinkgraven deserve minutes more. Definitely not happening.
20 August 2016 - Ajax fall down to eighth in the Eredivisie following a 2-1 loss to Willem II.
30 August 2016 - Ajax sign Ziyech for €11m.

He enjoyed an impressive debut season, overcoming some scepticism from fans who felt he was more trouble than he was worth, but Ajax officials knew they could get more out of both Ziyech and the team as a whole. They offloaded manager Marcel Keizer and replaced him with Erik ten Hag, and that's when Ziyech's career reached a new height.

Channelling the legendary Johan Cruyff's idea of space and pace, Ten Hag turned Ajax into a fluid machine, and he built his side around Ziyech, and it was this move which gave Ziyech the chance to explode on a global scale.

Shifted out to the right wing on paper, Ziyech was given all the freedom in the world in Ten Hag's side. He was allowed to use his outstanding vision and positioning to drift all over the pitch in search of possession, and he was tasked with pulling the strings because of his creativity and range of passing.

Described by many as a wizard or a conductor, Ziyech sees things on the pitch which mere mortals cannot fathom. If you're taking the first step towards a goal, Ziyech is already on step five in his mind. It's the kind of foresight which even elite creators dream of.

It was in this 'wide' role that Ziyech shone against Real and Juventus in the Champions League, firing Ajax all the way to the semi-final of the competition - an accomplishment which was nearly unheard of for a side outside Europe's top five leagues.

The 2018/19 season brought about 21 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, and the curtailed 2019/20 season saw eight and 21. That's 29 goals and a ridiculous 45 assists in one-and-a-bit seasons.

That form earned him a move to Chelsea and a hero's goodbye from Ajax. De Godenzonen treated him like an academy graduate who had spent ten years with the club, not a once-controversial player who only managed four years. That speaks volumes of the impact he had on those around him and the skill he consistently showed.

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