The date was March, 2019 as Ajax travelled from Amsterdam to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu – the home of the defending champions of the UEFA Champions League – to play the second leg of the Round of 16.
The hosts were playing at their fortress after barely emerging with a first leg 2-1 lead. However, there was still a sense the result wasn’t in doubt. Even the most optimistic of Ajax fans could only foresee the lead being stretched.
What was about to unfold, however, would turn out to be one of the most scintillating nights for the Ajax class of ‘19. The game was turned on its head after a mere 7 minutes when Moroccon virtuoso Hakim Ziyech tucked the ball into bottom left corner from a Dusan Tadic layoff.
The game ended in a 4-1 win for the eventual Eredivisie champions, and Ziyech was hailed as a hero. The 26-year old finally got the recognition that he merited for after a cracking display against the most revered side in the competition.
As the world’s attention was focused on him, the number 22 continued to give spectacular performances in Europe as well as in the league. The side from the Dutch capital were set to travel to Turin to face European giants Juventus in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals. De Ligt and Co. touched down in Italy with the tie beautifully poised at 1-1. However, Cristiano Ronaldo did what he does best and headed in a perfect Miralem Pjanic cross to put the Vecchia Signora into the lead. A certain Hakim Ziyech wouldn’t let that last, assisting Donny van De Beek for the equaliser few minutes later. The young Ajax side went off to score another goal before the 70th minute and went on to qualify for the Semi Finals of the tournament.
The Ajax Amsterdam fairytale ended on a rather unfortunate note when Tottenham Hotspur pulled off a miraculous second-half comeback to advance to the finals, after being 3-0 down after 3 quarters of the matchup. This was inspired courtesy of a Lucas Moura hattrick. Despite this, the Morrocan International ended the semi-finals as the best Ajax performer scoring once and assisting once
Ziyech also enjoyed a very fruitful Eredivisie season, where he scored 16 goals and created another 13 to attract even more interest from the public. In an Ajax team which has seen fans from all around the world awed by some of their outstanding players this season, like Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs De Ligt or Dusan Tadic, Ziyech has managed to carve a niche for himself. His 21 goals and 24 assists across all competitions have been vital in Erik ten Hag’s side completing a domestic double. And this definitely has not gone unnoticed; with some of Europe’s biggest clubs on red alert to try and sign the talented winger.
Ziyech’s departure has been confirmed by Marc Overmars, Director of Football at Ajax. With both age and talent on his side, it won’t be a surprise to see a big club bagging the Moroccan for his mere €25 million release clause.
At the forefront of the chase for the 26-year-old have been Bavarian giants, FC Bayern Munich. The German champions announced the departure of the iconic duo of Ribery and Robben midway through the season. While Serge Gnabry seems to be the replacement for one of the two departing wingers, the other slot still remains empty because Bayern now face a winger problem with most of their direct replacements being raw, like Alphonso Davies or Woo-Yeong-Jeong or being injury prone, like Kingsley Coman.
The German giants will be looking to bring in an experienced, big stage performer to replace seasoned Internationals like Robbery, and Ziyech fills the criteria perfectly.
The ex-Twente man would fir perfectly into the side on either the right side of a 4-2-3-1 or behind the striker. Ziyech has managed excelled in both positions throughout his career.
During a conversation on record with Justin Kluivert in 2017, Ziyech stated his dream destination would be either Arsenal or Barcelona.
While all slots seem to be full at the Spanish club, Ziyech’s affordable price tag may just cause Arsenal to bring him in.
Unai Emery’s Arsenal seem to have noticeable improvements from last season, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette firing up them to a Europa League final. The Spanish manager has most often deployed a 4-3-1-2 formation with Mesut Ozil behind the two star strikers.
The club can also use a 4-4-2 system to play both strikers and Ziyech, where he can be deployed on the wide right side of midfield. His defensive productivity is far greater than Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and would fit in like a glove in the system.
Another English club in dire need of a right-winger are England’s finest, Manchester United. The Red Devils have recently undergone a change in management and will be looking to splash money this window, giving Ziyech a sweeter deal than most clubs.
Another reason why this transfer could work out for both parties is because of Romelu Lukaku’s high attacking work rate. Glimpses of the Belgian’s brilliant off the ball movement have been seen for both, the national team and Everton. However, due to the high number of underperforming creative players at United, the striker drops to the right flank to put in crosses in the box. Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford have failed to build on their successful start.
Ziyech boasts of a different skillset than the two, both of whom fall under the winger-striker hybrid. With Paul Pogba and Hakim at the theoretical peaks of their career, the link up of the two with the strikers could serve as a solution to the Norwegian’s problems.
A little away from the Premier League, a team that could do with someone like Ziyech this summer would be Atletico Madrid. The Spanish giants announced Antoine Griezmann will be leaving the club this window. The Moroccan forward might just be the best player available on the market similar to the Frenchman.
Ziyech’s goal scoring ability, and his ability to find a pass allows him to play as a shadow striker in Atleti’s 4-4-2 system. He can also play as the right wide midfielder in the same formation. His unorthodox technique from set pieces also make him a threat from a dead ball which can be exploited by the likes of José Gimenez, Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata and others.
The Italian Old-timer, Massimiliano Allegri was able to recruit a certain Cristiano Ronaldo to the club, with the hopes of winning the Champions League they desire so much. This resulted in Allegri undersizing ‘La Joya’, Paolo Dybala who was supposed to be the next big thing for the Old Lady.
After being dropped game after game, it’s only natural for transfer rumours to spark. If and when the Argentine decides to leave, Ziyech seems to be the perfect upgrade for several reasons. Ziyech, not unlike Dybala, possesses a similar creative vogue on the pitch. Natheless, the latter’s selfless attitude and his consistent scoring return makes his portfolio thicker than Dybala’s. He can also help the goalscoring load off Cristiano.
The Ajax man boasts a huge range of strengths, from pace to accuracy, from long shots to dribbling and finishing; all you can ask for in a winger. His extreme versatility across the frontline and his encouraging work rate also make him a real threat to any opposition. He can cut back and dribble into the box, taking on defenders; or he can also create space and deliver quality crosses and through balls.
Ziyech is one of the hottest properties come the end of this season in the transfer market and fans and pundits alike are eager to see where he takes his talents now. What we do know is that after his sublime season and staggering numbers, Hakim Ziyech is made for the big stage.