A common criticism of Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech is that he “loses the ball too often”, or “he tries too many risky passes”. That’s like criticizing the sun for being hot, or a kangaroo for jumping; it is expected. Chance creation is about trying risky passes. There’s a reason passes in the final third have less completion rates than passes in the defensive third. Chance creation involves risky plays and risky passing. What this means is that many of those risky passes will not reach their intended target, some will come close, but some will find their intended target. Creating chances is often about catching defenses out, making the pass at the exact time the defense is asleep.
The most creative players lose the ball the most, because they take the most risks. Of course they’re not the most creative just because they take the most risks, but with their advanced passing and ball striking skills they can be very effective with taking a lot of risk.
Ziyech’s style of play is centered around catching the opposition out. Quickly. As a result he doesn’t dally on the ball and looks to release it quickly. He’s very direct so he often looks to get the ball to a player as close to goal as possible. Ziyech would often attempt a pass to a player running towards goals behind the opposition defense, rather than just pass it to the nearest man and keep play going, though he can do that too. You only need one player like Ziyech on your team, or on the pitch.
Ziyech’s knack for trying riskier passes are justified too, because he has shown that if he spots a runner, he can pick him out. His chance creation numbers indicate an excellent decision maker in the final third. He created the most big chances in the Eredivisie for the past three years. Creating more than 20 big chances consistently for three seasons.
If you’re not impressed by that you can look at his Champions League numbers, as in the two seasons he’s been in before the current one, he has created 0.71 big chances per game. One of those seasons included a semi-final run where he played against Juventus, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, knocking out the former two. In that same frame of time, Kevin De Bruyne created 0.67 big chances per game and Trent Alexander-Arnold created 0.56 per game. De Bruyne’s also included two quarterfinals and Alexander-Arnold’s includes a Champions League victory.
At Chelsea, Ziyech seems to be making safer passes and trying a lot less risky balls. Are these changes good for the Blues or him in the long run? His crosses attempted per game and long balls attempted per game have reduced significantly. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. It could be that his managers (Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel) have told him to reduce the number of risks he takes. If anything Tuchel is more likely to give him this instruction because he places high value on possession of the ball. If this is tactical, then the drop in risk taking is understandable.
The question then is: is it In Chelsea’s best interest for Ziyech to take less risks on the ball? Does the club want him to focus solely on creating chances or to just be another player in the system working super hard to keep possession?
Many fans have lost patience with the Moroccan because he’s not putting up the numbers that they’ve come to expect. He created four big chances in his first two league starts, and has created none since then. It is worth noting, that Ziyech has averaged less touches and less passes per game for Chelsea than he did in any season for Ajax. Why Chelsea doesn’t get him more involved in plays is near baffling. Is it because he loses the ball often? Because he has reduced that too.
Ziyech averaged 28.2 possession losses per game at Ajax across his last three seasons. That’s high, yes. But at Chelsea he has averaged 13.6 possession losses per game this season. That is one stat that shows he’s consciously playing safer passes. He has also completed 3% more passes this season 78% this season compared to 75% on average over the past three seasons at Ajax. He attempted 8.8 crosses per game on average through his time at Ajax, completing an average of 28% of them, which is quite impressive. In that period of time Trent Alexander-Arnold averaged 22% crossing accuracy and Kevin De Bruyne averaged 24%.
Compared to 8.8 crosses attempted per game at Ajax, this season Ziyech has attempted 3.5 crosses per game, completing 20% of them. This is another indication that he’s a lot less direct than he was at Ajax, though it could also because he simply has a lot less of the ball now. He averaged 6.7 long balls attempted per game with a completion average of 59% throughout his time at Ajax . This season he has attempted 2.8, with a 51% completion rate.
Scrutiny would show that 12% of his attempted passes at Ajax were long passes, now it’s only 8%. He’s a very good passer of the ball, so if he’s attempting less long balls, it might be tactical. His average of 26.5 passes per game this season is a major drop to the 41.1 passes per game he averaged for Ajax. For whatever reason, Chelsea is not getting him as involved they should be.
He created 0.88 but chances per game for Ajax, over a three season period and recorded 0.48 assists per game in that same period. For Chelsea he has 0.29 big chances per game and has averaged 0.21 assists per game. These numbers suggest that the more involved Ziyech is and the more risks he takes, the more benefits Chelsea stand to gain from having him in the side.
An important ingredient for chance creation that must be mentioned, is player movement. This means the team you’re playing is just as important as, if not more important than, the opposition you’re playing against. Ziyech was able to create as many chances as he did at Ajax because they have superb movement off-the-ball. Chelsea’s movement in the final third is improving and it’d be an essential ingredient for chance creation whether or not Ziyech is on the pitch.
Kevin De Bruyne has attempted 6.5 crosses per game over the past three seasons (excluding current), attempted 4.6 long balls per game at a 68% completion rate and 8% of his attempted passes have been long balls. In that time he has created 0.69 big chances per game and has 0.42 assists per game. This season he has attempted 5.8 crosses, 3.5 attempted long balls at 71% accuracy and 7% of his attempted passes have been long balls. This has yielded 0.7 big chances created per game and 0.48 assists per game.
Bruno Fernandes has attempted 6.1 long balls per game at 66% accuracy this season, 4.6 crosses per game and about 11% of his attempted passes have been long balls. This has produced 0.61 big chances created per game and 0.36 assists per game for the Portuguese.
Speaking of possession loss, Fernandes has averaged a possession loss of 20.2 per game this season (22.3 over the last four seasons including current) while De Bruyne has averaged 17.9 possession losses per game this season (18.4 over the last four seasons including current). These players don’t lose the ball as much as Ziyech, but they also don’t take as many risks as Ziyech and have also not created as much as the Moroccan in that time. The point being that you can’t create chances without taking risks and losing the ball more than a few times, the reward is always worth the risk though.
This is why the question should be asked if Chelsea fans or even Tuchel wants Ziyech to play his usual style, or if they want him to be more possession oriented. If they want the former Ajax man to create a lot of chances, he has to be more involved in the game and take more risks, that’s the best way to maximize his abilities.
All stats are credit to SofaScore.com and many of the cumulative stats are from the last three seasons, excluding current.