Hakim the dream: Ziyech holds key to Ajax’s problems

This piece was written by Dutch football writer Lukas Schröder. You can follow him on Twitter @LukasSchroder

They may have left it late, but Ajax have signed one of the most talented and exciting young players in the Eredivisie – and he is exactly what they have needed.

In recent years, Ajax, under Frank de Boer and this season Peter Bosz, have been stale and lacking creativity. Despite a large selection of midfielders to choose from, there has been no inspiration in the middle of the park.

But three years since the sale of Christian Eriksen to Tottenham Hotspur, they have finally found a player in that mold capable of injecting a spark into the team.

Ajax are lucky, in a sense. The consensus is that Ziyech has no business remaining in the Eredivisie. So integral and impressive has he been for FC Twente that it was expected a team across one of Europe’s top leagues would snap him up even in January, never mind the summer transfer window.

Despite links to various clubs in England, Italy and Germany, it is Ajax who have seized the opportunity and the bargain by signing him for €11 million.

While it is a good move for the capital club, it has been quite frustrating that, having initially publicly passed up on him, they have turned to him so late.

After all, Ajax have already failed to qualify for the Champions League, losing a humiliating 5-2 on aggregate to FK Rostov.

But with PSV improving further and looking heavy favourites to lift another Eredivisie title this term, Ajax’s flat performances so far have made it clear that a player like Ziyech is an absolute necessity.

You only need to look at Ajax’s first leg clash with Rostov to see how poorly assembled they were in midfield – their 4-1 capitaluation in the second-leg was so bizarre and calamitous that the midfield was basically non-existent, never mind disorganised.

Even in the Amsterdam ArenA, Bosz’s men failed to take the initiative and generate any sort of creative threat.

The most obvious problem was, again, the construction of the midfield three. Just as most of last season, Davy Klaassen was played in an attacking midfielder role, with Nemanja Gudelj and Riechedly Bazoer behind. The trio undoubtedly have enormous skill and potential, but together they prevent Ajax from imposing themselves enough on the ball. Part of the problem against Rostov originated in midfield, with defenders Jairo Riedewald and Davinson Sanchez having tremendous problems in the build-up.

Because of the 4-2-1-3-construction of the side, there is no midfielder dropping to the defence to accelerate the build-up. Furthermore, the lack of movement from the midfield three has been a big problem, as they have been unable to get into good positions to advance attacks. As an effect, Riedewald and Sanchez are forced to play long-balls, or hand the ball over to the full-backs far too early. Especially Joel Veltman, who replaced Kenny Tete on the right side of defence, had a lot of problems when he received the ball in midfield. The Dutch international had enormous struggles getting the ball to a team-mate when he got the ball earlier than at crossing distance of the Rostov-goal.

In the 1-1 draw, Bazoer struggled for around 75 minutes in almost everything he took on. His passing was terrible, his movement could be even worse. In the last 15 minutes, however, he showed his true capacities. With a couple of risky tackles, he was able to kill off several Russian counter-attacks. It reminds us why Bazoer was considered a defender when he was at PSV, and after his move to Ajax a defensive midfielder. Frank de Boer, however, made Bazoer into a dynamic midfielder, and Bosz seems to have no intentions of making Bazoer a defence-focused player again.

In the early De Boer-days, Ajax did play with a defensive midfielder, or No.6. This proved pivotal in the build-up and crucial when defending against a counter-oriented team. De Boer used players like Vurnon Anita (a dynamic midfielder capable of setting the tempo) and Thulani Serero (a defence-minded worker bee) for these roles. Bazoer could be the ultimate hybrid of these two players. His stamina is second to only Davy Klaassen’s and his defensive skills are vastly underrated. Against a stronger opponent, like Rostov, Bazoer could provide much more in a deeper role.

Another option for that No.6 role is Jairo Riedewald, who played in that position in the first games under Bosz. Against PAOK at home, he ruled the midfield, but he returned to defence when Gudelj and Bazoer returned from suspensions and injuries respectfully, until moving back into midfield in Ajax’s 3-0 win over Go Ahead Eagles on Sunday. He is however much more of a ball-playing defender than a stone-cold defender, like his current partner Davinson Sanchez. From midfield, he can dictate the play against opponents who are uncomfortable off the ball.

The main problem in the current midfield-setup, however, is not the lack of options in the build-up. It lies within the lack of creativity the midfield provides. Bazoer seems to be afraid of giving risky passes, only attempting easy five-yarders, while Nemanja Gudelj still seems unsure of his role within the Ajax XI. He tries to be some sort of hybrid between of a defensive midfielder and a box-to-box-player, but unfortunately fails at both as he tends to go sideways and backwards with his passing. As for Klaassen, he still proves to be the most vital player of this Ajax-side, but he gets used in a role that isn’t his. He is a dynamic midfielder, and should be used to provide defensive cover as well as an attacking threat.

As an attacking midfielder, he only gets used to get in behind the defence when the strikers drops into midfield. That is a task he could be given as the right man in a 4-1-2-3 as well, as is proven by Siem de Jong’s dynamic play in 2013. However, like De Jong, Klaassen should be able to track back as well, but now is forced not to. Also, his creative skills lack too much to be a vital creator of chances for players like Traoré and Younes.

The solution to this problem is simple: switch back to a midfield using a defensive midfielder, then buy Ziyech to cover the left-side of the midfield three. Bazoer or Riedewald could be deeper playmakers, or even pure defensive, while Klaassen could provide a more dynamic style. Leave Ziyech to create chances for Amin Younes, Bertrand Traoré and Anwar El Ghazi and Ajax’s problems could be solved.

The Dutch side initially passed up on the opportunity to sign Ziyech, with Marc Overmars stating they had enough midfielders. Ajax are overloaded in that part of the team, but signing the Morocco international on a five-year deal for a bargain €11m is an opportunity that could not be ignored when you consider the deficiencies in the team over the last few years.

It is a shame that Ajax have waited so long to pounce on a rare, creative talent like Ziyech after their Champions League elimination, but he will boost their Europa League and Eredivisie campaign immensely. They may have done it in the least efficient and intelligent way, but Ajax have made a smart move and will profit from it in many ways.

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  1. Paul Nessit

    I believe Hakim is the best player on the Dutch fields. His challenge will be that is going to play in a team that over the last seasons has proven mentally weak. Was the tough get going Ajax loses (Rostov -Away, De Graafschap -Away, Molde-Home to name a few). I don’t doubt his talent or mentality but he is surrounded by ten other players whom many have the talent but not the mental resilience. Keep fingers crossed for him

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