If you were to take a general census of Hakim Ziyech’s performance in Leeds-Chelsea game at the weekend, you’d likely get feedback leaning toward “he was not really involved,” “he didn’t impact the game much” or “he didn’t offer much off the ball.” Interestingly you’d get the opposite report if you were to ask about Mason Mount’s performance. Why is that? The eye test—it can be tricky. Add to that the fact a majority of fans may appreciate physical exertion over efficiency. For example, spectators tend to get more excited seeing a player run 10 yards to tackle a player, rather than seeing a tackle from a player who is already well placed, and therefore doesn’t need to run.
This doesn’t mean that those who run a lot more are dumb, it just means that there are many ways to achieve certain goals on the pitch. Further, there are even more ways than that to impact a game. Running around is one way, but finding ways to not run as much while achieving as much, is another. A player who runs a lot is not necessarily more hardworking that a player who doesn’t—that brings us to the case of Ziyech.
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The word lazy has been used to describe Ziyech a lot in recent weeks with some critics even going as far as to say he lacks desire. Interestingly, all of this analysis was “deduced” from a seven-second clip. Top analysis that. However, a closer look at his performance indicates that perhaps he made as big an impact off the ball as he did on it. Viewers are quick to praise the Moroccan’s magical moments when in possession, but a lot of the work Ziyech does goes unnoticed.
Ziyech applied the second most pressures for Chelsea (17) against Leeds, succeeding in eight (47 percent). This ranked only behind Mount (18) who succeeded in the same number (eight; 44 percent), yet Ziyech played 10 fewer minutes than the Englishman. He also ranked second in pressures amongst attackers that started in that game, ahead of Havertz (nine) and Christian Pulisic (11). Against Atletico Madrid, he also applied the second most pressures (17), behind only Mateo Kovacic (27). Of those pressures, Ziyech was successful in nine (53 percent), while Kovacic was successful in 11 of his 27 (41 percent). Ziyech also played 14 fewer minutes than Kovacic. The only player who had a higher success rate in pressures was Cesar Azpilicueta, who completed five out of nine (56 percent) against the Spanish side.
Considering that pressing is something Tuchel requires from all Chelsea players—including attackers—Ziyech delivered on that front. Furthermore, the 27-year-old applied the most pressures in the attacking third (11), four more than the next best (seven) at Elland Road. He applied the most pressures in the final third (nine) against Atletico, as well. This will only surprise those who bought into the narrative that Ziyech is just a lazy player who lacks desire to succeed in a tougher league. Ziyech played in a press-heavy side at Ajax for four years, so it should come as no surprise that he’s used to applying pressure in the offensive third.
The aforementioned statistics suddenly reveal that Ziyech was doing a lot more than he seemed to be. These numbers reveal things you may not necessarily have noticed just by watching him. In terms of defending from the front, Ziyech was the most effective—also making the most tackles in the final third (two) against Leeds—with Mount, Antonio Rudiger, Ben Chilwell and N’Golo Kante the only other players making tackles in the offensive end of the pitch at one each. Every other player mentioned in that list, to the casual observer, seemed to do a lot more work on the pitch, yet the numbers show something else. This is not to say that pressing and tackling in the final third are the only ways to impact the game off the ball.
Ziyech has gradually become a scapegoat in the Chelsea fanbase, much like Willian and Marcos Alonso were. He has a slight frame, isn’t bulky or tall, and relies on positioning and intelligence to get around the pitch. As such, he’s not appreciated for the work he actually does off the ball. Football has always been a game of narratives, and while some players’ images benefit from these narratives, others suffer. Mount runs a lot, but the Leeds game showed that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he does more work than Ziyech, who doesn’t seem to run as much. Keyword being “seem to”, because Ziyech does his fair share of running, you don’t put up pressing numbers like this if you don’t run.
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, Ziyech seems to be ignored by his teammates, and therefore he has a lot less to work with in terms of chance creation. This was common against Leeds too, but not as much against Atletico, as Ziyech attempted the least amount of passes (24) among Chelsea players who started the game. Yes, including the goalkeeper. This number increased significantly to 53 against Atletico. Despite this, Ziyech completed the highest proportion of progressive passes, with 18.8 percent of his completed passes being progressive. Against Atletico, he also made highest proportion of progressive passes (16 percent). Against Leeds, he recorded the joint highest shot-creating actions (six) tied with Kante, as well as recording the joint highest key passes (three)—also tied with Kante. Against Atletico, he made the most shot-creating actions (seven) and recorded the joint most key passes (three) tied with Reece James.
Why then is the lazy label placed on Ziyech? Why is his off-the-ball work scoffed at? Why is that of his teammates more appreciated? Well, the eye test.
The subconscious bias of apparent work over efficient work, which may sound harsh to players like Mount that run a lot more. If this sounds like a knock on Mount, it isn’t, it’s just meant to highlight that players who run so much aren’t necessarily doing more work than players who don’t. Likewise, players who don’t seem to be exerting themselves aren’t necessarily lazy or lacking desire, they just have learnt how to pick the right moments to apply themselves to get equal or more work done.
Ziyech will be 28 soon, six years older than Mount, so it’s not surprising that Ziyech has learnt to do as much work without applying as much energy. Another indication that running doesn’t equate to work done, is that the player that applied the most pressure for Leeds (Ezgjan Alioski, 27) applied 10 more pressures than Ziyech, but the player that had the most successful pressures for Leeds (Kalvin Phillips, seven) completed one less than Ziyech (eight). So, Ziyech completed more pressures than any Leeds player. As you may have guessed, Ziyech also had more successful pressures (nine) than any Atletico Madrid player (Marcos Llorente, eight). Not bad for lazy player, eh?
Note: Pressures refer to applied or attempted pressures (different from successful or completed pressures). All statistics are from fbref.com.