GENERAL NEWS

Morocco’s tactical masterplan ignites unlikely World Cup run

Dec 11, 2022, 3:27 PM
Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by players after the World Cup quarterfina...

Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by players after the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou leant back in his chair, shook his head and said: “Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”

Yes, Morocco really is in the World Cup semifinals.

Before arriving in Qatar, the north African nation had only ever won two of its previous 16 matches at the World Cup. The team’s coach had been in position for just four months. Its players were talented but battling a culture of underachievement by the country at major soccer tournaments.

So, how has Morocco managed to top a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 finalist Croatia and then eliminate Spain and Portugal — two of Europe’s soccer powerhouses — to become Africa’s first World Cup semifinalist and the pride of the Arab world?

The answer lies in a bold decision by its soccer federation and recently installed coach Walid Regragui’s unwavering belief in a game plan that’s being followed to the letter by a selfless and gifted group of players.

No team has been able to crack the code. Can France in the semifinals?

COACHING CHANGE

The foundation to this unlikely underdog story was built in August when Vahid Halilhodzic — an experienced Bosnian coach who guided Morocco serenely through African qualifying — was fired by the federation essentially because of his refusal to select Hakim Ziyech, one of the country’s best players. The federation cited “divergent visions” as the reason for firing Halilhodzic and replaced him with Regragui, a former Morocco international who had just led Wydad Casablanca to the African Champions League title. Regragui was about to inherit the most talented Morocco squad in a generation.

SQUAD DEPTH

The team has never had so many players from top European clubs. The two full backs, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui, are starters for Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, respectively; winger Ziyech plays for Chelsea, albeit not so regularly; goalkeeper Bounou and striker Youssef En-Nesyri are at Sevilla in Spain; Sofyan Amrabat is the defensive midfielder at Fiorentina in Italy; center backs Nayef Aguerd is at West Ham in the Premier League, where captain Romain Saiss was recently playing for Wolverhampton. Regragui’s task was two-fold: to get his players functioning in a system that could get results at the World Cup and to get them believing they could shock the world. “I told them, ‘You don’t come to the World Cup only to play three games,” he said. He has created a masterpiece.

TACTICS

Regragui sets his team up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the defense typically in a deep, low block and Amrabat sitting directly in front, never venturing forward. Against the supposedly bigger teams this World Cup, the four-man midfield line also has dropped further back to create another defensive shield, leaving En-Nesyri as the lone striker. When the opponent loses possession, Regragui has drilled his players to break forward on the counterattack at pace, using the energy of full backs Hakimi and Mazraoui to complement the mercurial skills of Ziyech and fellow winger Sofiane Boufal. From being isolated, En-Nesyri suddenly finds five or six teammates with him. The approach requires discipline and high levels of mental concentration. “We have a clear game plan — everyone has to work,” Regragui. “We are showing the world you can succeed even if you don’t have as much talent and money.”

THE NUMBERS

The statistics behind Morocco’s run are extraordinary. The team has only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal by Aguerd against Canada — meaning Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal have failed to break down Morocco. They have only allowed 10 shots on target in five games. They are averaging less than three shots on goal and surviving on an average possession of just 29.8% per game. Against Spain, Morocco had 343 passes and its opponent had 1,041. “I don’t think they have ever run as much in their lives,” Regragui said. “When you put in so much heart, you give yourselves a chance.”

FANS

Helping Morocco’s players is the backing they are getting at each game from fans who are streaming into Qatar to watch the historic run of the team nicknamed the Atlas Lions. Every match has felt like a home game for Morocco, whose passionate supporters greeted all the spells of possession by Spain and Portugal with ear-piercing whistles and jeers. The supporters have been ubiquitous in Doha, proudly carrying around the Morocco flag and wearing the team’s red jerseys. Their national’s team’s only major title was at the African Cup of Nations in 1976. Morocco is two wins away from dwarfing that and becoming the most unlikely World Cup champion.

General News

JANUARY 29: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass against the Cincinnati Beng...
Associated Press

Chiefs’ Mahomes expects to practice fully ahead of Super Bowl despite ankle injury

Patrick Mahomes strolled through Arrowhead Stadium without any issues with his injured right ankle on Thursday.
4 days ago
Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus reacts after defeating Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the women's singl...
Associated Press

Aryna Sabalenka wins 1st Grand Slam title at Australian Open

Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open women’s final.
11 days ago
Offensive Coordinator Mike LaFleur speaks after training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Cent...
Associated Press

Reports: Sean McVay, Rams hiring former Jets OC Mike LaFleur

The Los Angeles Rams are hiring former New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, according to multiple reports.
12 days ago
Jon Rahm of Spain celebrates with the trophy after winning during the final round of The American E...
Associated Press

ASU golf alumnus Jon Rahm wins AmEx tournament by 1 stroke

ASU golf alumnus Jon Rahm won The American Express tournament by one stroke on Sunday, his second PGA Tour win in as many starts this year.
17 days ago
Damar Hamlin #3 of the Buffalo Bills reacts after a tackle for a loss against the Pittsburgh Steele...
Associated Press

Bills safety Damar Hamlin attends 1st game since cardiac arrest

Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest during a game three weeks ago, attended Buffalo’s AFC divisional round playoff game.
17 days ago
Frankie Muniz, an actor, musician and writer, walks on the red carpet at the River Centre in St. Pa...
Associated Press

Valley native Frankie Muniz begins career as NASCAR driver

There might be a reboot on the horizon for actor Frankie Muniz, one aptly titled “Malcolm in the Middle of a Pileup.”
25 days ago
Morocco’s tactical masterplan ignites unlikely World Cup run