President of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation Fouzi Lekjaa said: “The development of football in Morocco should be based on a three-pronged approach focusing on facilities, talent and well-qualified staff. My Federation colleagues and I are certain that these three things must be in place to ensure proper development.” This dedication to improving the footballing climate in the country is paying off at all levels, across the men’s and women’s games as well as futsal and all the youth levels.
Coming into the tournament, Morocco would have picked themselves against anybody even though many others may not have. They ran through qualifying, destroying anyone that got in their way. 6 wins out of 6, scoring 20 goals and conceding just 1. The Atlas Lions were ready to surprise the world and they have done just that so far.
Led by Moroccan coach Walid Regragui, Morocco became the first African team ever to qualify from the group stages with 7 points, topping what many assumed would be this tournament’s ‘group of death’. A group that had the 2018 runners-up Croatia and third place team Belgium and a Canadian side who were one of the most impressive teams in qualifying.
Morocco were very comfortable throughout their 3 group games. A cagey 0-0 against Croatia to start was expected, teams often don’t take many risks to open a tournament. But in their next two games, Morocco really showed their attacking quality while remaining one of the best teams defensively in this competition. Morocco are yet to concede a goal at the hands of an opponent. The only goal they conceded was an unfortunate own goal scored by centre back Nayef Aguerd.
The key to Morocco’s success has been their defensive structure and the willingness of their forward players to come back and help. But coaching and structure alone doesn’t take you to the quarter-finals of a World Cup, you need good players and Morocco have those in abundance.
The Atlas Lions boast the best fullback pairing in the tournament with Achraf Hakimi and Nousair Mazraoui who have been unbelievable both in supporting the attack and defending tirelessly. But Morocco’s stability and success is a credit to 3 players at the heart of that team. The centre back pairing of captain Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd with Sofyan Ambrabat just in front of them have been unbelievable.
Aguerd was a big-money signing for West Ham in the summer, unfortunately, he’s been battling injury throughout the season and had only played in one game. However, he’s been healthy during this tournament and has been arguably the best defender in the competition.
Partnered by the experienced Romain Saiss, nothing gets passed them. They are incredible in the air, both play well with their feet and have great positioning. Flanked by Hakimi and Mazraoui and Yassine Buonou in goal it’s easy to see why they rarely concede. But the biggest key for that team and their success is midfielder Sofyan Amrabat. The Fiorentina midfielder has been outstanding and is at the heart of everything they do. Amrabat has very few weaknesses in his game if any.
He breaks up play extremely well, drives with the ball when he wins it back putting his team on the front foot, incredible passes between the lines again putting his team on the attack. He has been incredible. At times when Morocco do have the ball and they want to keep possession, he is the one controlling the game. After his performances at this world cup, a big move is on the brink and it should not come as a surprise to anyone.
New coach Walid Regragui recalled Ziyech and Mazraoui who hadn’t featured for their country in over a year due to conflict with the previous coach. Regragui is reaping the rewards of this decision to recall 2 players of this stature. Ziyech has been thriving and as creative and dangerous as ever, and Mazraoui has been just as good as Hakimi even though he is playing on the left as opposed to his preferred position at right back.
Regragui has displayed incredible leadership and his players appear in awe of him. He is very well-spoken but aside from his likeable personality, he is a very good coach. Not many coaches can say they went toe to toe with Spain’s Luis Enrique in a tactical and come out on top. His team’s stubborn defence and ability to close down space is astonishing but the most impressive thing about the way they play is their ability to break in numbers and at speed. As soon as they win the ball back, 4 or 5 players are sprinting to provide an option with the man carrying the ball.
Their way of defending is fundamental to their success but having players like Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal leading the attack cannot be understated. 2 very exciting wingers that beat opponents with relative ease and create chances. The balance of Morocco is what separates them from other teams.
This defensive structure and ability to break in numbers make them a problem for anyone they come against. Morocco plays against Portugal in the quarter-finals with the chance to become the first African team ever to reach the semi-final of the World Cup. Morocco are one win away from making history, but if you are a Moroccan player, you must be believing you can beat anyone.
By: Mohamed Salad / @SaladNFL
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images