Before Morocco’s semi-final with France, Walid Regragui made a surprise decision. Having guided Morocco further than any other African side in World Cup history with a 4-5-1 formation, he decided to start the contest with a 5-4-1.
It owes much to the fitness problems of his defenders. Nayef Aguerd pulled off shortly before kick-off, Romain Saiss lasted 20 minutes and Noussair Mazraoui missed the second half. With concerns about the mobility of the defenders and against the speedy wingers of France, Regragui decided to load on another defender. On paper, it made sense.
On the field, however, Morocco seemed uncomfortable in their new system, with and without the ball.
Here are a couple of examples of the early stages. As Morocco build up play on the far side, central midfielder Azedine Ounahi drops back very deep, almost on top of left-sided centre-back Jawad El Yamiq. The defender responds by beckoning for him to push forward.
Soon after, the opposite happens – Ounahi tells El Yamiq to drop deeper. These are only small incidents but they indicate some level of positional confusion.
In terms of pressing too, Morocco looked a little disorganized. In the previous games, Morocco’s structure was clear, here the right-winger Hakim Ziyech sprinted all the way across the field to close down the French right-back Jules Konde, who easily got out of danger with a pass in midfield.
He turns around and gestures for his colleagues to push themselves. France, meanwhile, move the ball out to the court where Zeich should have been.
But the most frustrating thing from a Moroccan perspective was their concession from the opener.
Here is a situation from the opening stages of their 1-0 win over Portugal, which demonstrates the main feature of Morocco’s defensive form – the willingness of their central midfielders to close down high up the pitch.
When Portugal’s right-sided centre-back Pepe has the ball, Ounahi sprints forward, almost level with Morocco’s striker, to close Pepe’s space. Pepe’s forward pass hits Ounahi and rebounds back to him. This is an example of how Morocco managed to prevent teams from advancing the ball.
But here is the situation against France in a 5-4-1.
Raphael Varane advances with the ball – previously, a midfielder would push to confront him, but here, no one is able to do so. The responsibility falls to striker Youssef En-Nesyri, who presses from the side, and therefore Varane’s ability to play a forward pass is not affected.
The France defender passes the ball to Antoine Griezmann, who benefits from a mistake by El Yamiq, who is trying to get too tight. Eventually, left-back Theo Hernandez finished at the far post.
After 20 minutes, Morocco centre-back Saiss limped off injured and Regragui took the opportunity to change shape, bringing on Selim Amallah and reverting to 4-5-1.
And here’s what happened the next time Varane got possession: Ounahi pushed forward aggressively, forcing Varane to turn and play a backpass to Hugo Lloris. Morocco know the correct movements to make when they play 4-5-1.
It is not unfair to suspect that, with Morocco’s usual form, Varane would not have been able to pass to Griezmann in the move that led to France taking the lead.
After the change, Morocco were the better side, continuing their main tactic from the opening 20 minutes of pushing their full-backs inside.
Here, before the change of shape and with the ball on the far side, right-back Achraf Hakimi and left-back Mazraoui are effectively in central midfield positions, with Zeich and Sofiane Boufal remaining on the flanks.
This movement was another good example of their rotation. Ounahi, the number 8, moves left to play the ball inside to full-back Mazraoui, who pushes inside. He then plays a forward pass to Sofyan Amrabat, the holding midfielder, who pushes forward in an attacking midfield role. Then, after Morocco switch the ball to the far side, Zeich stays wide and lets Hekimi inside for a shot.
And for long periods, Morocco played good football. Having primarily played on the counter attack throughout the tournament, their early concession forced them to come out and play. While they failed to create serious goalscoring chances against France, Regragui demonstrated that he is capable of coaching his side well in possession – as well as in the defensive phase.
But ultimately, Morocco lost the game in the opening period before they changed form. Regragui, to his credit, accepted that it might be a factor.
“I thought it was best to play with three at the back to not give them space to run in – also, we have good full-backs – and try to force their wingers, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe, back to defend,” he said afterwards . “But then we made a lot of mistakes. Romain Saiss had to leave, so we went to a four-man defense and we actually played better.
“I have no regrets about this decision. Nayef Agerd’s departure was difficult and despite Dori having to come in, all these things meant that we had a bad start.
“But you learn from your mistakes and I do. I have no regrets. Roman had to leave and it was difficult – we started with five, so Roman didn’t have much to run.
It was an understandable decision but, in the end, perhaps Regragui should have had more faith in his regular system. The nature of his side’s performance here suggested that Morocco’s form – more than their individuals – was the key to their historic run.