Before Morocco’s semi-final with France, Walid Regragui made a surprising decision. Morocco, having played with a 4-5-1 formation further than any other African side in World history, decided to start this match with a 5-4-1.
The fitness of the defenders was largely due to the problems. Nayef Aguerd pulled off just before the kick-off, Romain Saiss lasted twenty minutes, and Noussair Mazraoui did not make it to half-time. Concerned about the mobility of the defenders, and against the swift flanks of France, Regragui chose to charge another defender. On paper it made sense.
On the pitch, however, Morocco seemed uncomfortable in a new way, without the ball.
Here are two examples from the first season. As Morocco built the story in the further part, the center of the midfield Azzedine Ounahi sent back very deep, almost at the top of the center back Jawad El Yamiq left. The defender answers that he will bring the signs.
A little later, the opposite happened – Ounahi tells El Yamiq to fall deeper. These are only small things, but they hint at some level of positional confusion.
In even urgent terms, Morocco looked a bit disorganized. Whereas in previous games, Morocco’s structure was clear, here right winger Hakim Ziyech scampered all the way across the pitch to close down France right-back Jules Kounde, who easily takes a pass from danger into midfield.
Ziyech turned and gestured to his teammates to cheer him on. France, meanwhile, had to move the ball to the area where Ziyech was.
But the most frustrating thing is that it was revealed from the perspective of the Moroccans.
This is the place from their opening 1-0 win over Portugal, which shows the main characteristic of the Moroccan defense – the readiness of their midfield to close down high on the pitch.
When Portugal’s right wing center back Pepe has the ball, Ounahi leaps forward, almost level with the Moroccan striker, to close Pepe’s space. Pepe forward passes Ounahi’s hit and rebounds to him. This is an example of how Morocco managed to prevent the group from advancing.
But here things are against France in 5-4-1.
Raphael Varane advances with the ball – previously the midfield would have been forced to meet him, but here, no one is in that position. That responsibility falls to the striker Youssef En-Nesyri, who presses from the side, and therefore does not affect Varane’s ability to play the pass forward.
The France defender passes the ball to Antoine Griezmann, who benefits from a mistake by El Yamiq, who leans too tight. Finally, he left behind Theo Hernandez, finishing far behind.
After 20 minutes, Morocco centre-back Saiss limped off injured and Regragui took the opportunity to change the formation, bringing on Selim Amallah and making it 4-5-1.
And here it happened that at that time Varane took the possession: Ounahi pushed furiously, forcing Varane to turn and turn to Hugo Lloris. Morocco know the right moves to make when they play 4-5-1.
It is not unfair to suspect that, with the usual Moroccan figure, Varane could not pass for Griezmann in the move that led to France.
After this change, Morocco were the better side, continuing the main strategy from the opening 20 minutes by pushing the full backs inside.
Here, before the change of shape and the ball on the further side, left-back Achraf Hakimi and Mazraoui are effectively in a central midfield position, with Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal remaining on the flanks.
This disadvantage was another good example of his conversions. Ounahi, at No 8, stepped out to play the ball inside to the full back of Mazraoui, who pushed inside. He then makes a pass to Sofyan Amrabat, the holding midfielder, who runs forward into the attacking midfield. Then, after Morocco deflects the ball in the far direction, Ziyech stays wide and Hakimi inside for a shot.
Morocco is good at free football and from time to time. Throughout this tournament I played with the first attack, the first concession forced them to come out and play. While they were unable to create serious chances against France, Regragui showed that his side can be good in possession, as well as in the defensive season.
Finally, Morocco lost this game in the opening period before changing the shape. I fell back, he took to his credit as a factor.
“I think it’s best to play with three at the back so that they don’t give space to attack – also, with good full-backs – and try to force their wings, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe, to defend,” he said later. “But then we made a lot of mistakes. Romain Saiss had to go, so we went to a four-man defense and actually played better.
“I don’t regret the decision. Nayef Aguerd’s absence was difficult and Achraf Dari had to come in.
“But you learn from your mistakes and you do. I don’t mind. Romain had to go and that was difficult – we started with five so Romain didn’t do much racing.
It was an understandable decision, but in the end, maybe Regragui should have had more faith in his regular system. The quality of his side effects here suggests that the figure of Morocco – more than any individual – has been key to the historical course.