How Morocco can pull off historic shock against holders France in World Cup semi-final but they have one major weakness
EVERYONE loves an underdog and football fans have been treated to one of the greatest Cinderella stories in World Cup history.
Morocco flew under the radar during the group phase.
GettyMorocco fans have been the loudest at the World Cup[/caption]
GettyMorocco’s stars celebrate beating Portugal[/caption]
In a four-team tussle which included Canada, Croatia and Belgium, Walid Regragui’s men finished top with seven points from nine.
It’s no coincidence that Morocco are doing well either.
The African giants have conceded just one goal at the entire tournament, which was an own goal against Canada in a 2-1 win.
The Atlas Lions have already put Belgium, Spain, and Portugal to the sword and became the first team from the continent to reach the World Cup semi-finals, a truly remarkable feat.
Morocco are just one more victory away from booking their place in the final and the possibilty of winning the whole thing.
However, a colossal obstacle stands in the way in the reigning World Cup champions France.
Les Bleus are aiming to become only the third team to win the tournament back-to-back, while Didier Deschamps can cement himself as one of just two managers to win multiple World Cup titles.
Here are three key tactical areas where this clash between France and Morocco can be won and lost.
France are the team to beat in Qatar
Morocco are the surprise package of the World Cup
Morocco’s unbreakable block
Morocco boast the best defence at the World Cup in 2022 but it’s not a coincidence that the side are so resilient at the back.
The team’s superb defensive record is even more impressive as Regragui himself took over at the helm just four months before the tournament began.
Morocco have some wonderful attacking players in their ranks including Chelsea playmaker Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla centre-forward Youssef En-Nesyri.
However, with such little time to integrate his philosophy on the team, Regragui was forced to lean on the strong defensive core within the squad.
Players such as Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich fullbacks Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui have been sensational alongside Nayef Aguerd from West Ham United and Wolves defender Romain Saiss.
Nevertheless, the entire side helps out when Morocco lose the ball, forming an incredibly secure defensive block in front of the goalkeeper.
Regragui lines his players out in a 4-3-3 which becomes a highly compact 4-5-1 when the team settles into a low defensive block.
Morocco are sitting in their typical 4-5-1 low block. The space between the lines is really compact, making it difficult for opponents to play through.
Morocco defended very deep against Portugal in the quarter-final
Very little high pressing occurs out of possession by Morocco.
As soon as they have lost the ball, the plan is to structure themselves in a low block state as quickly as possible.
There are some interesting individual roles in this set-up.
The centre-forward is tasked with sitting on the opponent’s deepest midfielder to stifle this player’s ability to dictate the tempo of the game.
En-Nesyri did this extremely well against Spain’s single pivot Sergio Busquets in the Last-16.
The Barcelona stalwart was unable to control the game as he so often does which slowed down Spain’s play as the team were forced to find alternatives to playing through Busquets.
Meanwhile, it would be almost offensive not to mention the importance of Sofyan Amrabat to the side defensively.
The Fiorentina man sits as Morocco’s No6 and has been handed the responsibility of marking any player that comes into the pockets of space in front of the backline.
Often, this requires picking up two players at once, meaning Amrabat must always be switched on and possess a high level of positional and tactical awareness, which he certainly does.
As Morocco are sitting in their compact 4-5-1 block, Amrabat is positioned between two Spanish players, ready to pounce on either in his zone if they receive the ball.
Antoine Griezmann has become France’s playmaker
It is Amrabat’s domain where France’s main creator Antoine Griezmann operates and so, should the Moroccan keep the French playmaker quiet, the Atlas Lions may be able to stifle their opponent’s ability to create meaningful chances.
Regragui will be fine with allowing Didier Deschamps’ men to have the lion’s share of possession.
The highest possession percentage held by Morocco at the World Cup this year is 41 per cent against Canada.
In their quarter-final triumph over Portugal, Regragui’s men registered merely 26 per cent of the ball.
With this in mind, it is highly likely that Les Bleus will dominate proceedings in this semi-final tie. But the French must be patient.
Morocco average just 32 per cent possession at the World Cup
They will not be able to create a plethora of chances due to Morocco’s incredibly resilient defensive block, and resorting to nothing but crosses like Portugal did will be too predictable for the African side.
France must use their individual quality and intelligence to find gaps inside Morocco’s block rather than meaninglessly whipping balls into Olivier Giroud.
The champions’ last-16 victory over Poland provides Deschamps with the perfect outline for how to break down a rigid defensive block.
Poland were defending in a really conservative 6-3-1 low block for large parts of the match, with the wingers dropping into the backline.
The Polish were able to cover the full length of the pitch while still maintaining compactness between the lines. It looked as though there was no space for France to play into. Yet, they still found it.
After a long period of possession, Kylian Mbappe received the ball between the Polish lines. The Poland centre-back stepped out of position to close him down which left space for Giroud to run into and eventually score after Mbappe slipped his striker in on goal.
Using quality and quick passing, France were able to drag Poland’s backline out of position and create space for runners in behind.
However, this wasn’t rushed.
Against Morocco, Portugal began rushing their play, especially after En-Nesyri opened the scoring, and so there was a lot of wasted possession from the European side.
France didn’t rush into things despite not bagging the first goal until just before half-time, although this was helped by the fact that Poland hadn’t scored either.
Nonetheless, Deschamps’ title holders waited for the right opportunities to up the tempo and drag certain defenders out of position to create clear-cut opportunities.
It is this same patience that will be necessary if France are to break down the best defence in Qatar.
Even if Morocco score first, Les Bleus must remain calm and try to patiently provoke space in their opponent’s block before capitalising.
Morocco counterattacks and weakness
Morocco don’t care for having long spells of possession and prefer to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
One method of doing this is through counterattacking. The Atlas Lions are truly predatory on the break and combine pace, power, precision and unpredictability to allow them to terrorise defences.
The wingers, Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, are experts at carrying the ball and bare the brunt of the load during counter-attacking situations, but Hakimi also supports from right-back.
The former Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund defender has a wealth of experience as a winger and so is a useful tool for Regragui in the final third.
Ziyech, En-Nesyri, Boufal and Hakimi are all attacking an exposed Portuguese defence and came close to doubling the team’s lead.
When Morocco are in full flight during attacking transitions, it is very difficult to stop them.
France will need to be careful that not too many players commit themselves going forward as it can leave them susceptible to being taken advantage of from counterattacks.
This is particularly dangerous down France’s left side as left-back Theo Hernandez loves to bomb forward and link-up with Mbappe on the flanks, leaving the nearest centre-back in danger.
Hakimi is caught out of position and Spain create a decent opportunity down this side after breaking from deep.
However, Morocco also have a tendency to put themselves in danger when Hakimi breaks forward.
The Spanish-born full-back is very keen to get involved in the attack, but this leaves the space down Aguerd’s right vacant and exposable.
As Mbappe likes to lurk on the left flank, France may be able to take advantage of the Moroccan full-back’s adventurous nature by catching him with transitions of their own.
So what does this all mean?
Before the tournament commenced, predicting a semi-final of France and Morocco would have been met with plenty of scoffs.
But now, this is the reality of this rather peculiar winter World Cup.
Both Morocco and France can make history in their own respect by making it to the final and winning the competition, but getting past one another to reach the last hurdle will be tricky.
The two sides are quite well-matched tactically and so this is unlikely to be a thriller but will certainly appeal to analytical nerds like us.