DUBAI: Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, and now Hakim Ziyech.
It seems left-footed Arab forwards from North Africa are a must-have if you want to win the English Premier League. Chelsea and manager Frank Lampard are betting on it.
At 27, he is hardly an overnight success, but Ziyech’s transformation from an under-the-radar star into one of Europe’s biggest names has been worth the wait. Although try telling fans of Ajax — where he won the Dutch league title, KNVB Cup and played a pivotal role in the team’s memorable run to the Champions League semi-finals two seasons ago — that he is underrated.
Ziyech was also a key member of Morocco’s squad at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where they impressed without getting the results their play deserved.
But today’s Ziyech — at least in the sometimes insular world of the English Premier League — is a different prospect to the one that returned from the last international break in October ahead of his Chelsea introduction.
The man who in Casablanca tomorrow will take to the field against Central African Republic in his nation’s colors, has, in less than a month, established himself as arguably Chelsea’s most important signing of the season.
It may have taken the Moroccan international until October 28 to make his first start for his new club, but since then he has scored two goals, set up several more and generally dominated in the four matches he started. Man of the match awards have become almost a forgone conclusion over the last few weeks as Ziyech has weaved his magic, albeit in front of empty stands in the Premier League.
The parallels with Algeria’s Mahrez — a Premier League winner with both Leicester City and Manchester City — and Liverpool’s Egyptian king Mohamed Salah, Champions League and PL winner, are unavoidable. And who would wager against Chelsea’s new star becoming the third Arab footballer from Africa becoming Footballer of the Year?
In style, substance and identity, there will in the coming months inevitably be comparisons — and no doubt one-upmanship — among supporters of the trio’s respective clubs and countries.
For now, however, Lampard and the Chelsea fans will care little for that. They have found a ready-made superstar.
While all eyes were initially on Chelsea’s big-money signings from Germany — Timo Werner and Kai Havertz — and, to a lesser extent, defenders Thiago Silva and Ben Chillwell, Ziyech had to wait patiently for his Chelsea debut as he recovered from injury.
His first introductions to English football came with 20- and 10-minute cameos in Chelsea’s draws against Southampton (3-3) on October 17 and Manchester United (0-0) on October 24, but it was in the comfortable 4-0 Champions League win over the Russian club FC Krasnodar four days later that Ziyech took center stage.
He scored a fine goal with 10 minutes left and, throughout, Ziyech gave hints of things to come by constantly dropping deep to receive the ball on the right and spreading majestic crossfield passes to the left wing. Already, his signature move looks like it will become one of Chelsea’s main weapons.
As is the case with the likes of Mahrez, Salah and, perhaps most famously, Arjen Robben, defenders know exactly what’s coming but can’t necessarily deal with it.
Since that game, Ziyech has flourished. He scored his first Premier League goal in a 3-0 win against Burnley at Turf Moor, with a trademark finish with his left foot after starting a move that also included Werner and Tammy Abraham. In another dominant display, he set up Werner for the third in the 70th minute.
Back in the Champions League, Ziyech again starred as Chelsea strolled to a comfortable 3-0 win over Stade Rennais.
Arguably his best performance came in Chelsea’s last outing, the impressive 4-1 win over Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge. Ziyech displayed his full range of skills, with his remarkable assist for Chillwell’s tap-in the highlight of the day.
It would be misleading to say that Ziyech’s presence is solely responsible for four consecutive wins by three-goal margins for the Blues when Thiago Silva and Ben Chillwell have returned from injuries and Werner and Havertz look to be settling into their new surroundings too. But neither is it far-fetched to suggest the team has looked far better and more balanced with him starting on the right side of a front three in Lampard’s favored 4-3-3 system. Having the exceptional Reece James supporting, and often overlapping, from his starting right-back position has no doubt provided Ziyech with the freedom to execute his favorite moves of dropping deeper and cutting onto his left foot, From there, he has wreaked havoc on Premier League defenses.
Before that, Lampard had tried out several different formations, with Havertz in particular veering from excellent to peripheral as Chelsea struggled for consistency, cohesion and, thanks to the chopping and changing, a recognizable shape.
Now Ziyech’s brilliance has surely solved one of Lampard’s conundrums. The Moroccan will take some shifting from the starting lineup, and with Christian Pulisic or Mason Mount occupying a similar role on the left-hand side, Timo Werner preferred to Tammy Abraham up front, and Havertz potentially a focal number 10, Chelsea look a formidable collective going forward.
The next week will see Morocco in a double-header against the Central African Republic in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying Group E, where they currently sit in second place behind Mauritania, but with a game in hand.
With a team that includes the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Nordin Amrabat, Youssef En-Nesyri, Yassine Bounou and, of course, Ziyech, Morocco will be expected to win their group and will ultimately be one of the favorites to win the competition.
For the Chelsea forward, next up in the Premier League will be Newcastle, Tottenham and Leeds.
One by one, Chelseas’s opponents are being introduced to the Ziyech factor. What they can do about it is another matter.