Eyebrows were raised in August when the Royal Moroccan Football Federation made the decision to sack manager Vahid Halilhodžić just 3 months before the start of the 2022 World Cup, but that risk has paid dividends during the tournament thus far. The Bosnian saw his tenure end due in part to the disappointing Quarterfinal defeat to Egypt during the 2022 African Cup of Nations as well as the controversy surrounding his fallout with and subsequent exclusion of Hakim Ziyech.
His successor, former Moroccan international Walid Regragui, has already defied all expectations as the new Morocco manager, taking the nation to their first-ever World Cup Quarterfinal after defeating Spain in penalty kicks on Tuesday. Let’s take a look at how Regragui has transformed the team in such a small amount of time.
During AFCON 2022, Halilhodžić had been setting up the Moroccans in a 4-4-2, occasionally pivoting to a 4-1-4-1 against tougher opposition, such as Egypt. Due to their personal dispute, Hakim Ziyech did not play in the tournament, and Morocco’s other star player, Achraf Hakimi, was not being used to his full potential as a result of the more conservative system being employed.
Upon taking over, Regragui has stuck faithfully to the 4-3-3, re-instating Ziyech in his preferred position of right-wing, with Hakimi behind him at right back. However, in the new system, Hakimi has much more freedom to bomb forward and overlap Ziyech, who opens up space by often cutting inside on his favored left foot. The PSG fullback has been sensational defensively as well and has led Morocco’s squad in match rating according to FotMob with an average of 7.60 during the World Cup this far.
During his Man of the Match performance in the Moroccans’ opener against Croatia, Hakimi registered 3 interceptions, 7 recoveries, and 3 tackles with a 100% tackle success rate, while also winning 4 fouls. Hakim Ziyech also thrived during the Group Stage upon his re-introduction to the team, leading the team in goal contributions after his assist against Belgium and goal against Canada.
Although it was always clear that Regragui would need his two-star men to deliver in order to get out of what was a difficult group on paper, the unexpected excellence of the surrounding pieces took Morocco from being favorites for elimination to winners of Group F.
The chief example is Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who has been arguably the Moroccans’ most consistent player. Heading into the Quarterfinals, he is the only player in the World Cup to have registered over 5 tackles, over 5 interceptions, over 5 clearances, and over 5 fouls won.
Before the Round of 16 match-up against Spain, he was unsure if he’d even be fit due to a back injury, but he ended up playing the full 120 minutes and covered seemingly every blade of grass in the process. “I’ll tell you that yesterday until 3am I stayed up with the physiotherapist trying to do the impossible. Today I played with injections, but I couldn’t leave my teammates and a whole country. I’m really happy and proud.”
His midfield partners Azzedine Ounahi and Selim Amallah also deserve a lot of credit for their performances in the center of the pitch thus far, but Amrabat has been the standout and deserves the plaudits that have come his way over the past few weeks. However, the solidity of the Moroccan backline has been the real key to the team’s sustained success.
Through over 390 minutes of football, they have conceded just once through an extremely unfortunate own goal by Nayef Aguerd of West Ham United in the 2-1 victory over Canada. Starting goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and his deputy Munir have only had to make a combined 4 saves thus far, not including the penalty shoot-out against Spain.
Despite having so little to do thanks to his defenders’ heroism, Bounou’s performance in said spot-kicks was nothing short of remarkable, as he saved both Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets’ penalties to help Morocco run away as 3-0 winners.
Former Wolves center-back Roman Saiss was instrumental in forcing that game to penalties in the first place. His 10 clearances and 11 recoveries were crucial for “The Atlas Lions”, as they were able to limit the Spaniards to just 1 shot on target despite conceding 77% of possession to the now resigned Luis Enrique’s side. If that doesn’t demonstrate how impressive that defensive performance truly was, I’m not sure what will.
Now, the Moroccans will look to continue their fairytale against an in-form Portugal on Friday. In the Round of 16, the Swiss felt the full might of the Portuguese after manager Fernando Santos made the bold call to drop Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench. That decision was more than justified when replacement striker Gonçalo Ramos netted a hat-trick en route to a 6-1 battering of Granit Xhaka and co.
Despite the incredible defensive feats already under the belt of the Moroccan defense, keeping this ultra-talented Portugal side at bay is a tall order. However, having already taken down their Iberian neighbors, Walid Regragui and his squad will be eager to go and make even more history. Either way, the Moroccans have cemented themselves as the biggest overachievers in the 2022 World Cup, and have brought immense pride to their nation and the whole of Africa.
By: Garrett Post / @ParrettGost
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus – Getty Images