Signed fresh for 2020/21, Hakim Ziyech’s special skills have already been clear to see, not that Chelsea followers weren’t aware of them already following his man-of-the-match showing against us last season when at Ajax.
The 27-year-old has had an interrupted start to his time at Stamford Bridge but he is back fit and available now. In this exclusive interview, the latest in our 10 Questions with… feature, he tells us about joining a new club in a pandemic but we also delve back in time to learn more about how ‘the Wizard’ developed his magical soccer spells. Let the questions begin…
Just like Chelsea’s most famous Dutchman, Ruud Gullit, you grew up playing street football and you also went through the professional youth development system in the Netherlands which is famous for producing skilful, technical players. How did those two aspects of your upbringing make you the player you are?
Street football is always different from professional football. What you take from the street is this mentality, for me I always played against bigger guys because I was always the youngest, but I could play well at the time and the bigger guys played the game hard.
So you get that kind of mentality, you get used to it, but then when you start to think about professional football it is totally different but the mentality that you learned from that street football, you take it with you on the pitch.
With professional football always you have to improve other stuff. You have to be strong because professional football is nice but it takes also a lot of things. Sometimes you have to suffer because when I was young I had to leave my house when I was 13 or 14 and you are still in that child period, when you have to live and enjoy your life just being a child, but at some moments I couldn’t because you have to suffer because you always have to think that everything is football, football, football.
In the Dutch academies they are always busy with you to teach you new stuff but they also let you do everything on instinct. Do things you think are best and keep improving that. You have your responsibility when you don’t have the ball but when we as a team have the ball, you can be free, and that is one of the biggest things you learn in Holland. Just be free and play and enjoy playing.
What was the earliest coaching you had?
In the beginning when I started football when I was five, it was just like having fun. Saturday morning and afternoon, you are in a team but after the game you are still playing football with your friends. When I was 10 or 11 I started going to a professional academy but before that it was just enjoying it, playing everywhere, next to the house or school. Everywhere where it is possible to play football, I played football.
Explain how you developed into being a left-footed player who plays more on the right than the left.
In the academy I always played in midfield and when I started going to the first team, I was still in the no.10 position, and then four or five years ago I started going more to the wide because the coach told me you have more freedom to do what you want to do on the ball. You could bring your creativity from the wide more to have a free role, where you think you can find your space even if it is on the right or on the left or in the middle. Just be free and use your creativity as much as you can.
We’ve recently seen you playing more as an inside-forward.
It is a position where I love to play, without the ball having your responsibility but with the ball being free and trying to find space and trying to play football. That is what I like the most. Get between the lines, find space, between the lines with the one or two touches. Especially in that position you have a lot of options because is the defender coming out, yes or no? If he is not coming you can turn around and find the striker or the left winger or the right winger in space. You have a lot of options.
Which skills did you have to work on the most when young and developing?
Especially my strength because I was not the big guy, I was a skinny guy, and I always had a question mark over whether I was going to make it because of my body. That is the most I had to work on but of course you are learning every day, even in training, even on the good points you have you are still learning stuff for it. And you are playing every couple of days and you try to maintain and improve and it doesn’t matter if it is the good points or the bad points, you are always improving.
I think my passing skills came naturally because I always like to play what I see. Even when people don’t see the space they always try to find that space. Even when people are thinking that is not possible, it is always possible. So that is something I was always working on, even if it is something where sometimes it doesn’t go like you want it to go. I am always the type who keeps trying and keeps trying and in the end it will work.
Football is about details and there is just one moment you need to win the game, even when you have tried it six or seven times and it didn’t work. It may be the eighth time it works and you can win the game. I am always thinking that if you don’t try, you don’t have possibilities. You always have to try to create options.
How did you come to have ‘the Wizard’ nickname?
I played one game in Ajax and I played a good game and after the game, the day after, one of guys from the social media of Ajax posted something with that name and from that moment, people started calling me like that. Even now, I remember when I left Ajax and I came here but I was a couple of times back in Holland, I was walking on the street and people called me the wizard. And people always use that 🧙♂️ emoji on social media.
You learned the game mostly in Europe but is your play influenced by north African in any way?
When I was young I want to Morocco a lot but after a while I was not there so often. I will say yes and no. When I was young you always play on the streets or wherever, and you don’t have the things that you have in Europe because you play on sand, you play on the street but on the street you see everywhere broken things. That kind of thing makes it harder because when you fall you never know what is on the ground. I have had crazy things on the ground and cut myself open.
In one of your early interviews after joining Chelsea you said your aim was to play in the same style in Premier League as you had done at Ajax. Have you found that possible?
I think I have been able to do that. Of course, the last six months did not go exactly how I wanted to think it would but it is what it is and you still need to keep improving. I had that bad luck with my injury when I came in but still there is time. I know for sure I believe in myself that I can do it and I can reach the same level as I used to have at Ajax here at Chelsea.
Did you know London before your transfer?
I had been here twice. Last season with the game against Chelsea and the season before when we played Tottenham, but otherwise I had never been to London before.
It is difficult to find out things about it because of the time that we live in right now, but hopefully better times will come and I will see more of the city.
Despite having a couple of injuries and the problems caused by a global pandemic, do you feel fully settled at Chelsea now?
Yes, of course. I am now six or seven months here and I have started to adapt to things more and more. At the beginning everything is new and it is nice but I really also love to be around my family and my mother and my brothers and friends, but at this time it is not possible. So after a while it was a little bit difficult but you start to get used to it.
I have not met the fans properly yet. The fans had a game when they could come to watch and then I got injured after 25 minutes against Leeds! Hopefully better times will come and everybody will be able to come to the stadium.