Hakim Ziyech could be a world-class playmaker available at a bargain price
Imagine that your club is looking to sign a creative midfielder in January. How would you react if someone told you that a young star, who is directly responsible for 83 percent of his team's goals this season, is available on the market at a very reasonable price? Doesn't that sound like science fiction?
This is a figure that neither Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez nor Riyad Mahrez and Odion Ighalo could even dream of. And yet it is true: Hakim Ziyech, 22, has scored 10 times and provided five assists for Twente, who only have 18 goals in Eredivisie play this season. They can do virtually nothing without him.
It must be said that Twente are in a very deep crisis from every possible angle. These past 12 months have been phenomenal for Ziyech, but disastrous for the proud club from Enschede, who are on the verge of financial collapse. Chairman Aldo van der Laan was forced to resign last month over an illegal agreement with Malta-based company Doyen Sports.
Most of their leading players were sold in the summer, including young Mexican prodigy Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, who signed for Porto; prolific striker Luc Castaignos, who moved to Eintracht Frankfurt; and Danish captain Andreas Bjelland, whose career at Brentford hasn't started yet following a serious knee injury.
Ziyech was also supposed to be on his way out, but he decided to stay, was given an armband and proved to be a true leader. His contribution in such difficult circumstances is incredible, and fans can hardly imagine the team without him.
Twente are next to bottom nevertheless, with just 13 points from 17 games in the first half of the season. Relegation is not the greatest threat the club is facing nowadays, and they have no choice but to sell their biggest asset in January, not only because they are hoping to get about €10 million for him, but also because they can hardly afford his wages anymore.
Ziyech earns €800,000 annually, and that is one of the reasons he signed for Twente in the summer of 2014. Feyenoord were also interested in his services, following his brilliant breakthrough season at Heerenveen, but Twente offered far superior financial terms and also looked a more interesting option from the professional point of view.
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Serbian playmaker Dusan Tadic had just been sold to Southampton, and Ziyech was promised to be his heir in the starting lineup. Coach Alfred Schreuder personally persuaded the youngster to choose his team, and the duo immediately felt on the same wavelength.
It looked like a very lucrative project at an ambitious club, who were champions as recently as 2010 under Steve McClaren. Things started positively indeed, and Twente were fighting at the top at the winter break a year ago, but then everything swiftly fell apart. However, even though results suffered, Ziyech continued to perform superbly on a weekly basis.
Tadic, who had such a great debut season at St Mary's Stadium, moved to England after topping the Eredivisie charts in 2013-14 with 13 assists. His direct replacement bettered that record, finishing last season with 16, and added 11 goals as well. Overall, Ziyech contributed to roughly half of Twente's 56 goals last term, proving to be more influential than the Serbian star.
Few were surprised to see him flourish. After all, Ziyech had never disappointed at his previous club. He burst on the scene in his first full season at Heerenveen, netted nine times, provided nine assists, helped Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason to finish as the top scorer and was voted player of the year by the fans.
"At first, people were not sure about Hakim's temper, and he used to get very angry when fouled, but he learned to behave and became a star," Klaas Jan van der Veen of SoccerNews.nl told ESPN FC. "Ziyech is a true No. 10 who likes to take a lot of risks with his passes and always thinks forward."
That is exactly what Ziyech continued to do at Twente. Lightning fast and agile, he is left-footed, but possesses a decent right foot, as well. His dribbling skills are exquisite, his vision is supreme, and he is never afraid to try ambitious passes, which result in a somewhat low completion rate. Add a very keen eye for goal and the fact that he is a great dead-ball specialist, and you get a potentially world-class playmaker.
The only problem is Ziyech's rather slight build, but he is improving physically.
"At Heerenveen, it was difficult for me to finish the whole 90 minutes, but now I can easily play three times a week," he told ELF magazine. "I am doing extra fitness exercices, and get to work in the weight room."
The current season started terribly for Twente's new captain, when his beloved coach Schreuder, who convinced him to stay at the club, was controversially fired in August. However, even that didn't influence Ziyech's form, and he seems to be getting better and better, contributing to 15 goals in 17 games just as everything else around him at the club is going wrong. Such mental strength is not to be taken lightly. It could be a sign of greatness.
Ziyech's performances make the whole country very disappointed with his choice to represent Morocco rather than Holland. He felt underrated when he wasn't given space to prove himself in the under-21 team, and he had to wait way too long before Guus Hiddink called him up for the Oranje in May 2015. Injury prevented Ziyech from making his debut for the Dutch that time, and then Hiddink was fired, with Danny Blind taking his place. The new coach failed to name Ziyech in his squad in September, and that was one blow too many for Ziyech. He opted to represent the homeland of his late father.
"That disappointment was the final straw. My family told me to make the decision with my heart, and that has always been Morocco," Ziyech told ELF. "As a boy, I watched all the games of the Atlas Lions with my father, and he would have been delighted at my decision. This choice is for him."
"It is painful for the Dutch that Hakim won't play for us," ELF magazine's Martijn Mooiweer tells ESPN FC. "He could have been the man to fill the shoes of Wesley Sneijder, and Blind is criticized for ruining that chance for us."
A tendency to follow his heart means that Ziyech would dearly love to play for Barcelona and Arsenal, the two clubs who he has supported all his life. However, he is naturally open to more logical and realistic options, as well.
His time at Twente is up, and he wants to help his club to get a decent fee while making a big step forward in his career on the way to superstardom. If Southampton paid around £11m for Tadic, signing his younger, better successor for a lower fee must surely be considered a great bargain.
Ziyech's adventurous style could probably suit a coach who likes quick, passionate football with swift transition from defence to attack and is not addicted to ball possession. Jurgen Klopp comes to mind in that respect, and the Moroccan would be an interesting option to replace Philippe Coutinho, if the Brazilian's days at Anfield are indeed numbered. This is just one of the alternatives for the multi-talented star, who should be one of the hottest names in the news during the coming transfer window. Watch this space.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin