The captain of Ajax is a Golden Boy. Its goalkeeper, right back, left winger and two-thirds of its starting midfield aren’t old enough to rent a car without a surcharge in the United States. Ajax has won four European Cups in its history, but as teams in England, Germany, Italy and Spain have all risen into a new economic bracket, the Amsterdam club has been forced to focus on youth — coaching them up and then selling their rights for profit. Last summer, it was 19-year-old Justin Kluivert to Roma for $19.67 million. This summer, it will be 21-year-old midfielder Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona for a club-record $85.5 million.
The current iteration of the club has been called a “talent factory” — and it is — but you need more than just youthful exuberance to play in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, as Ajax does Wednesday. Ajax’s most important player isn’t a kid; he’s 26 years old. He was born in the Netherlands but represents Morocco on the international stage. He’s a ball hog who didn’t join the club until he was 23. Ajax’s hopes of overcoming Juventus in the Champions League rest on the shoulders Hakim Ziyech, European soccer’s version of JR Smith.
In soccer, it’s really hard to be the kind of unrepentant gunner, chucker or volume shooter (or whatever other euphemism for inefficiency you may prefer) we see in a sport like basketball. In basketball, the best-case scenario for an off-balance, midrange jumper is only 2 points, and those 2 points don’t have much value. (NBA teams are averaging more than 111 points per game this season.) But the upside of taking a shot in soccer is quite different, since every shot has a chance of becoming a goal, and goals are very valuable. According to a study done by the authors of the book “The Numbers Game,” a goal is worth about 1 point, or one-third of a win.
Soccer’s structural limitations seem to have emboldened Ziyech. The only way the attacking midfielder can be mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is by firing off shots. Among players in Europe’s top five leagues1 plus the Dutch Eredivisie, only Ronaldo has taken more shots per 90 minutes than Ziyech, while Messi sits third. But unlike those two legends, Ziyech isn’t taking good shots. According to expected-goals data provided by Opta Sports, Ronaldo’s average attempt has a 10 percent chance of finding the back of the net, while Messi produces 12 percenters on average (though he typically converts his chances at a much higher rate than the models suggest). Meanwhile, Ziyech’s chances average out at just 7 percent. In fact, among all players who average at least 3.5 shots per 90, almost no one takes worse shots than Ziyech. In other words, he is the most inefficient volume shooter in the highest levels of the soccer world.
Ziyech makes up for this inefficiency by doing everything, and doing it all the time. Despite a lanky 5-foot-11 frame, he eats up space with the choppier steps of a much smaller player. In Ajax’s 4-1 victory on the road in the Champions League Round of 16 against Real Madrid, no player took more shots, played more crosses or attempted more combined tackles and interceptions.
Ajax’s leaders in three major offensive statistics, 2018-19 season
In the Eredivisie this season, Ziyech leads Ajax in three major attacking statistics — by a wide margin. Here, again, you can see Ziyech’s inefficiency. Despite attempting more than twice as many shots as any of his teammates, Ziyech is second on the team in goals (15, to Dusan Tadic’s 20). But his passing is what makes all of the bad shots worth it. Just look at this thing:
While calculating a player’s expected goals does a pretty good job of determining just how good of a goal scorer he is, it’s harder to measure the effectiveness of most passing stats. Things like pass-completion percentage, chances created and assists lack the necessary context to show how much they contribute to winning.
But some analysts are trying to change that. The newest issue of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports includes a paper from a group of Dutch researchers who used machine learning to create a model that determines how much value is gained or lost by every pass a player does and does not complete. Using more than 9,000 matches in seven leagues2 from 2014-15 through 2017-18, they measured the quality of a player’s passes by looking at the pass’s location, type, timing and success or failure. According to their analysis of the 2017-18 season, Ziyech was the eighth-most-effective passer last year. (Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil was first, Manchester City’s David Silva second and Messi third.) In volume and variance, Ziyech’s passing is a lot like his shooting — it’s just much more effective.
“Hakim Ziyech was the most influential passer in the 2017/2018 Eredivisie season,” Lotte Bransen and Jan Van Haaren, two of the paper’s authors, told me via email. “We found that Ziyech creates a lot of value by completing successful passes. However, at the same time, he also tends to take risks and thus loses quite some value by performing unsuccessful passes.”
There are plenty of promising passing prospects in this current Ajax team, too. De Jong and Brazilian attacker David Neres rank third and fifth, respectively, in the study among all players under the age 23.
Ajax’s young stars are the headliners. After all, the team captain, defender Matthijs de Ligt, is just 19 years old. But the prospects are buttressed by the contributions of veterans like Ziyech, plus 30-year-old Tadic and 29-year-old Daley Blind, who both joined from Premier League clubs over the summer. Each of them cost more than $12 million to acquire.
Behind that mix of young and old, Ajax heads into the quarters with a 44 percent chance of advancing to the semis, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections. Whether it does will partly depend on how many of Ziyech’s shots, passes and dribbles end up working out.
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