How Morocco Has Taken The World By Storm

The World Cup is often the home to many random moments, shocking games, and excellent performances, but the longer we go without seeing something on our bingo cards, the harder it becomes to believe it’ll occur. Among these things was seeing an African side in the semi-finals of the tournament.

Ghana’s heartbreaking exit to Uruguay in 2010 seemed to be the closest we’d get, but now in Qatar, Morocco has taken that dream and made it a reality in the most dominant way possible. A team whose best players retired due to an erratic head coach, only spent 81 days with their new one before the World Cup, and weren’t even predicted to make it beyond the group stages is in the final four, but how did they do it?

Morocco’s Defensive Labyrinth

Among the many things the Moroccans have done brilliantly, the defense that has been on display is one of the strongest we’ve seen in past World Cups. Despite bringing in Walid Regragui only months before Qatar, Morocco has only conceded ONE goal since then: an own goal versus Canada. Belgium, Croatia, Spain, and Portugal have all been shut out but what has led to this?

For one, the team sets up in a very compact 4-1-4-1. If you note the width of the fullbacks and wingers, they’re about at the width of the penalty area only slightly wider when triggering coverage on the other team’s wingers and fullbacks. The general shape and depth of the block they enforce is mostly discipline, and a slip-up from any player can lead to catastrophe.

Now, the roles each player plays in the coverage of the other team are a lot more intricate and by now well-documented, but the interesting point is the number of triggers and insurance this system allows itself. As Tifo IRL has pointed out, each side is in constant work with the other. For example on the right, due to a deep block, Achraf Hakimi is allowed to double the opposing wide player with Hakim Ziyech.

The idea is to always create an overload for the attacking player and if the opposing side sees Ziyech fall back, the logical thing would be to push up into space. This somewhat works as a trap for the opposition, however. Once Ziyech falls into coverage with Hakimi, the right-center midfielder, often Azzedine Ounahi, has already shifted over into Ziyech’s previous space. Think of it as a rotating gear that drops in an object to clog space whenever it is available.

Crucial to this machine is holding midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who has become one of the stars of the tournament through his role in this system. He essentially acts as the insurance and green light for the entire defending side to commit to their task. Ziyech can drop, Ounahi can cover for the dropping winger, and now Amrabat can step up into the space circled in case the left-side midfielder steps into central areas.

Things are constantly happening and players are being used at all times and even when they don’t cover a space, the slight hesitation in thought that their absence can cause for an opposing player can be crucial.

This was seen versus Spain where as shown previously, you’d think the constant rotation to cover the wings would create space; but it never did. Pedri, Spain’s left-sided midfielder would often be stuck in Morocco’s rotation while Gavi, Spain’s right-sided midfielder, was trapped in the central space between Amrabat, Selim Amallah, and the two center-backs.

Once again, everyone is involved at all times and is tasked with adapting to the other team’s style and finding ways of not only countering, but preventing actions.

Sticking with the Spain match, there was an interesting pressing development with Youssef En-Nesyri that proves they don’t live and die by putting 11 men behind the ball and clearing all game. More or less, En-Nesyri triggered a very soft press which in reality was simply covering distribution from and to Sergio Busquets.

A lot of Spanish transition moves through Busquets and using En-Nesyri as the “Busquets Stopper” was clever from Regragui. Rather than pressing the ball to prevent distribution, they prevented who it was supposed to go to, a tactic applied to Luka Modric and Kevin De Bruyne earlier in the tournament. It takes the opposing playmaker out of the game and prevents constant pressure to defend against.

Going broader than the gear analogy, it all works like a code. One thing triggers another, if another thing is called into action then something else occurs, once that occurs you have another action ready while things in the background are programmed to deal with more actions when called upon. It constantly moves and thinks, fueled by the highest level of concentration making its only counter a mental lapse from Morocco, which is out of the opposing team’s control.

Quiet Attacking Organization

Now, despite the inherent “underdog” qualities Morocco’s defensive setup entails, the Atlas Lions actually play a very calm and long style of build-up rather than clearing whenever they win the ball and the transition is almost always set up by how their defense was set up.

Just like their defensive plan, the attack has many triggers. It didn’t result in a goal, but in their match versus Belgium, there was an instance early in the second half that perfectly lays out their positional setup. Ziyech comes in deep once the ball is recovered, giving Hakimi full license to bomb forward. Note that once everyone else pushes forward, there is an extreme focus on Ziyech which Amallah makes good use of by making an angled run to drag the Belgian right-back.

As mentioned before, Morocco defends with an overload meaning that their doubling of every opposing player on one side causes more opposing players to come over and support, leaving the opposite side with space and a single player. In this case, left-winger Sofiane Boufal is the lone man whom Ziyech switches the ball to.

Boufal ends up cutting in and takes the shot for himself but if you pause right when he does, Morocco now has five men in the box, including Boufal, Noussair Mazraoui trailing him, and Ziyech right at the edge of the box. In any other instance, this attack ends in a cross on En-Nesyri’s head just as it did against Portugal in the round of 16, though the build-up to that goal was slightly more improvised. Nonetheless, Regragui knows what he has the squad doing and has created history through some of the most clever tactical tweaks we have seen at the tournament in a while.

Morocco has no doubt created a wonderful story with talented players and an excellent manager but their run is much deeper than a feel-good Cinderella story. Make no mistake, despite the injuries, the quality they play against, and the energy they exert game after game, the Atlas Lions absolutely have what it takes to win the whole thing, changing the sport forever.

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