“I know that our players are very popular with the big clubs in Europe. That is just great. I have known for a long time what Hakim wants. He has a picture in mind. He knows exactly which clubs he finds interesting and which not. Chelsea is a fantastic club. I am very happy for Hakim, and I am very proud of it.”
While the Premier League winter break has prompted gnashing and wailing of teeth about the state of the modern game, Ajax boss Erik ten Hag smiles and accepts his club’s position in the food chain, genuinely happy that a player bought for relative peanuts (£10m) has joined a bigger club for what is seen in England as relative peanuts (£33.3m) but actually represents a hefty profit on an excellent player who has helped deliver the Eredivisie title and an unforgettable Champions League run. This is life at Ajax and they are bloody good at it, quietly taking the hyphen out of super-club season after season.
Edwin van der Sar spoke eloquently about this subject in May, saying: “Marc (Overmars) and myself have been players. We have flown the nest at a certain point to find another challenge and we know that is going to happen.
“That’s not a problem as long as they give two, three, four good years of service to the club, win the league, play amazing football. Then you can go. Also, for the young players from the academy to have a path to the first team we need to open up spaces. If you have no spaces then talent underneath is suffocated.”
When Hakim Ziyech leaves for Chelsea this summer, he will have ticked all those boxes – four good years of service, the league title, amazing football. He leaves just as he reaches his peak as a footballer and his peak as an asset to Ajax, who will welcome Brazilian winger David Neres back from injury before he too is metaphorically fattened for the market. When you do not have a Premier League cash cow (their revenue puts them 23rd and below Leicester on the Deloitte list), you need to be resourceful in other, more imaginative ways. Offering short-term silverware, high-calibre coaching and a shop window to young footballers has proved an excellent plan. Accepting and encouraging reasonable bids is part of that plan.
In Amsterdam they are happy and in London they are ecstatic. While Manchester United let it be known that they will spend £120m on Jadon Sancho and figures close to £100m are mentioned for Jack Grealish and James Maddison, Chelsea have bought Ziyech – a player with double figures for Eredivisie assists in each of his last six seasons – for barely more than an Ayoze Perez. Even factoring in the relative quality of the Dutch league, his record is phenomenal. He creates 4.2 chances per 90 minutes; that’s double the output of Callum Hudson-Odoi and more than double that of Mason Mount or Christian Pulisic. The numbers drop a little in the Champions League but Ziyech has scored or assisted goals against Real Madrid, Spurs and Chelsea themselves over the last two seasons; he is no Afonso Alves.
The fee is so reasonable that it is confusing. Interviews reveal a slightly prickly character and that may have contributed to the perception that he is difficult. There might also be some distrust born from a career spent solely in the Eredivisie, as if there ‘must be something wrong with him’. Even Ten Hag said he “actually already expected this one or two years earlier”. But for Chelsea, the timing could only have been better if they had persuaded Ajax to sell in January. Just when fans are starting to wobble after a barren window, Ziyech represents the hope of a brighter future. At 26, he is old enough to have a substantial body of evidence but young enough to further improve.
This is that transfer rarity: a deal that truly suits all parties. As Ten Haag said, that is just great.