Hakim Ziyech did not spend the summer checking his phone for updates on his club future. He was too busy representing his country at the Africa Cup of Nations, his focus unwavering.
The Moroccan international was one of the stars of Ajax’s unlikely run to the semi-finals of the Champions League. And yet, despite some of his younger colleagues getting moves he remains in the Eredivisie.
There was an expectation that this exciting Ajax side would be quickly dismantled, much like the AS Monaco team that reached the semi-finals in 2017. The trickle of outgoing transfers started long before the Dutch club crashed out of the competition in heartbreaking fashion to Tottenham Hotspur.
Frenkie de Jong, a complete midfielder, had agreed to a move to Barcelona in January. There was intense speculation surrounding the equally precocious Mathijs De Lijt before he eventually joined Juventus.
In the end, seven of the starting XI from that Spurs game remained at the club, including Ziyech.
While there was a debate about how much the likes of David Neres, Andre Onana, and Donny van de Beek would cost there was no such need for speculation with Ziyech. The 26-year-old had a £25million release clause in his contract that should have made him appealing to clubs across Europe.
A report in Dutch paper Telegraaf revealed that Ajax have since taken out the clause to avoid the risk of them losing him cheaply.
Given Ziyech finished the season with 21 goals and 24 assists in 49 games his price will no doubt have doubled by now.
For regular observers of the Eredivisie Ziyech’s form is no surprise. When he first came to prominence at Heerenveen Dutch publication, Voetbal International described him as a “classical ‘number ten’ with a golden left foot”.
Those traits have been mostly consistent throughout his career with Heerenveen, FC Twente, and Ajax. While positionally he has now gravitated out wide with the aim of driving inside, he remains a creative force in the final third.
Last season, he came up big during Ajax’s Champions League run, scoring in and providing an assist in Turin against Juventus.
Just like his teammates, he was subject to transfer rumours in the summer and talk of interest from Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and Sevilla, but nothing that proved concrete.
“A transfer was never the holy grail for me,” Ziyech told Goal. “If the right club doesn’t come along, so be it. I signed a new deal and will definitely remain at Ajax this season. We have a nice team, the atmosphere is great, and I am keen to prove that last season’s success wasn’t a fluke.”
To their credit, Ajax’s ability to maintain most of their side was no fluke.
Those in charge were aware that a certain degree of change was inevitable, and as such their task was to try and minimize that, in part by offering the likes of Ziyech a new deal (one that reportedly made him the best-paid player in the league). It was that reward, along with a sense of being wanted, that made it easier for the player to stay.
“I really enjoy playing for Ajax,” he said. It feels good [to be entering my fourth season here]. I am sure Sevilla is a nice club, but I have always said that everything needed to be just right if I were to make a move. Sevilla didn’t give me that feeling, so I would rather stay at Ajax. I could have waited for Bayern Munich, yeah. But it felt like the right moment to clarify my situation, both for Ajax and myself. If a club wanted me, they could have made their move. I think everybody’s seen what we did with Ajax and what my role was in that success.”
When it emerged a few weeks ago that Ajax had removed the release clause, a slew of stories followed about how teams had missed out on a bargain.
If anyone was in doubt about that claim, the midfielder fired off a sensational effort from distance against Valencia in the Champions League. It helped the Dutch giants to a 3-0 victory, with the hope being they can once again defy expectations with a deep run in the Champions League.
The next step of that journey is on Wednesday against Chelsea, when perhaps Ziyech can provide a shock off the pitch instead of in the gossip columns.