Can Ziyech Help Chelsea Close Gap to Liverpool?
While defensive issues remain a bugbear, players like the Morocco star could let Frank Lampard go toe-to-toe with the champions next season
Minutes before Liverpool scored their fifth goal through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the final 10 minutes against Chelsea on Wednesday, cameras caught Frank Lampard smiling at the thrilling nature of the contest at Anfield.
On the night of the Reds’ coronation, the encounter on Merseyside was undoubtedly a fitting spectacle, ending 5-3 to Jurgen Klopp’s men. On the face of it, any observer would say the newly crowned champions deserved the three points, and maybe they did but the Chelsea perspective to events at Anfield may be somewhat conflicting.
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Lampard’s side found themselves 3-0 down and 4-1 down at different points vs the world champions in a game where they could probably feel hard done by with the final result, given the balance of play.
Indeed, especially in the opening half, where Chelsea more or less matched the home side, very little separated the pair early on, so the visitors were unfortunate to somehow find themselves three goals down after 43 minutes.
It may be disingenuous to say individual brilliance was the difference between the teams, but attacking excellence certainly did play its part for the hosts. Their first was a stunning Naby Keita strike, who continued his encouraging performances post-lockdown to score his first Premier League goal since December, while the second was a brilliant free-kick from Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The full-back then picked out Roberto Firmino with a pin-point cross for the 2019 Champions League winners’ fourth.
Contrast this with Lampard’s men, who were dominant in the opening exchanges and got into promising positions only to be let down by poor finishing, their decision-making or failure to execute the final ball.
This was evident as Mason Mount missed a presentable opportunity in the eighth minute, or when Willian failed to control a lobbed Marcos Alonso through-ball which would have put him in on goal. Later in the half, the former then failed to pick out Olivier Giroud with a cross from the left flank thus failing to set up a clear-cut chance on a plate for his frontman like TAA did for Firmino in the second-half.
According to Understat, the Expected Goals stat at the end of the game read 1.45 to 2.38, yet, somehow, Liverpool scored five times due to their ruthless efficiency along with defensive howlers from the visitors.
Indeed, this was the theme in all but one of the four encounters between both sides this season. Klopp’s team won three of the fixtures but never truly outplayed the West London side who matched them over the meetings, only to be done by the superior technical quality of the six-time European champions as well as their defensive frailties.
Individual brilliance largely settled nearly all the battles, and while Lampard may be yet to address the structural issues in his side’s defensive third, the signings of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner means they potentially have attackers who can produce moments of ingenuity.
The signing of the playmaker from Ajax has seemingly opened up new possibilities for a Chelsea side who have intermittently lacked the cutting edge in the final third this season.
Ziyech not only has an eye to spot the final ball but his execution is mostly on the money as well, which bodes well for the 2019 Europa League winners.
Despite primarily being a creator, the Morocco star scores blinders from range or acute angles, evidenced by this season’s brilliant strikes in the Champions League against Valencia and a free-kick against the club he’s now joined which went in off Kepa Arrizabalaga in a rip-roaring 4-4 draw.
The midfield playmaker’s tendency for turning up in big moments was also noteworthy in last year’s UCL run against Real Madrid as well as Juventus, before suffering elimination at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur.
He contributed three goals and two assists in those ties, with two strikes coming in the hugely impressive success over Los Blancos, an assist against the Old Lady and a goal and assist in the semi-final defeat by Spurs.
It’s been a while since the Stamford Bridge outfit signed a classy creator capable of unpicking the opposition while hitting the back of the net from time to time.
An argument can be made that Juan Mata’s signing from Valencia in 2011 was the last time the three-time Premier League champions brought in someone capable of producing moments of inventiveness in the final third consistently.
The arrival of the talented Christian Pulisic, who was outstanding in his half-hour appearance on Wednesday, has been promising for Lampard’s men this year and the prospect of striking up a partnership with the club’s new buys is certainly mouthwatering.
While issues at the back persist, the presence of a midfield maverick like Ziyech, capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat, and established goalscorer like Werner suggests the Blues could at least be more confident if they plan to stay adventurous against the champions when they go head to head next season.
Whether those two signings alone will bring the Blues closer to the undisputed champions in the table or even see them usurp Klopp’s charges, though, remains up for debate.