Morocco average just 32% possession in this year’s World Cup, the second lowest of any side. Yet they are on the cusp of history.
From Hakim Ziyech’s return, to a team built on the back of a stalwart defence, and why coach Walid Regragui is heralded as the Moroccan Guardiola, this is the story of Morocco’s emergence after 36 years in the dark.
A wall of hands clapped in rhythm from the stands of the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Tuesday as Morocco and Spain played out the final minutes of extra time. A large drum from the Morocco end conducted the clapping choir, uniting them in their pursuit to help their team stay in the game. Morocco needed their support because they had covered close to 148km, 5km more than their European counterparts.
In the end, they did more than just stay in the game, overcoming a ball-dominant Spain side in a penalty shootout. For a second, it felt like Morocco were the hosts of the World Cup, as Spanish players were met with deafening jeers before each penalty. Luis Enrique gave his players homework before the tie, tasking them to take 1,000 penalties. But what they didn’t anticipate was the atmosphere. Spain went on to miss their opening three penalties and Morocco advanced to the last eight for their first time in their history.
To many Moroccans, this incredible feat may feel long overdue as the Atlas Lions became the first African side to reach the round of 16 of the World Cup back in 1986. They achieved that in some style, becoming the first African side to top a World Cup group. But after roaring their way into the knockout rounds, the Atlas Lions would barely muster a whimper for decades to come.
36 Years in the Dark
After their impressive outing in the Mexico 1986 World Cup, Morocco limped to fourth place in the next two Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournaments. Time seemed to be running out for a Moroccan golden generation who only qualified to the AFCON three times between 1990 and 2000, with their best finish a quarter-final run in 1998. On the global stage, Morocco still had enough to make it to the World Cup but couldn’t replicate their heroics from 1986. They crashed out of the group stages in 1994 and 1998.
1998 would remain the last time the North African side would qualify for the Mundial till 2018. On the continent, they vastly improved on a group stage finish in 2002 to reach the final two years later, only to lose 2-1 to arch-rivals Tunisia. Morocco failed to capitalise and couldn’t go beyond the group stages in four out of the next six AFCONS. The other two editions saw Morocco fail to qualify for the continental showpiece, although they were expelled in 2015 after refusing to host the competition due to fears over the spread of Ebola.
In 2016, Hervé Renard helped the Lions sharpen their claws. Morocco reached the quarter-finals of the AFCON and qualified for the 2018 World Cup – their first in 20 years. Renard and Morocco won the hearts of many with their courageous football, although they failed to make it out of a group with Spain, Portugal and Iran. The Frenchman continued to streamline the team and by 2019 the Lions were again favourites for the AFCON. However, they crashed out on penalties to Benin in the round of 16.
Enter veteran coach Vahid Halilhodžić who froze out team talisman Hakim Ziyech due to what he often described as “disciplinary issues”. After an almost flawless performance in the World Cup qualifiers, the Franco-Bosnian coach was sacked after the Moroccan FA accused him of alienating players from the national team. It was the third time Halilhodžić had been shown the door just a few months before a World Cup. He lost his job as Ivory Coast coach four months before the 2010 edition and left his post as Japan coach two months before the 2018 tournament in Russia.
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Halilhodžić told So Foot: “I felt that with the Moroccan team that I had built, we could do something at the World Cup”.
And that’s exactly what new head coach Walid Regragui is doing in Qatar.
Walid Regragui – Morocco’s Guardiola
In September 2012, Regragui started working as an assistant coach for Morocco’s national team after he retired as a player. Just a year later, Rachid Taoussi was fired as head coach and Regragui’s contract was also terminated.
Almost a decade later, the 47-year-old returned in a much bigger capacity, this time as head coach with just over two months to the World Cup. His appointment was historic for the continent as it meant that for the first time in World Cup history, all African teams would have native coaches. It comes as no surprise that the man who completed Africa’s jigsaw is currently leading the continent’s charge in Qatar.
Back home, Regragui is referred to as the Moroccan Guardiola. The nickname started to make rounds after he masterminded Wydad AC’s CAF Champions League triumph a few months ago. His bald head, fashion sense, animated expressions on the touchline, and ability to read in-game situations have further popularised his nickname during this World Cup.
What most people don’t know is that although Regragui idolises Pep Guardiola, he also deeply admires Diego Simeone and Carlo Ancelotti – two coaches who do whatever it takes to win, albeit with different styles.
Perhaps in their victory against Spain Regragui channelled more of Simeone than Guardiola, as his Moroccan side overcame Spain with just 23% of possession.
The North African side completed 229 passes, less than a quarter of Spain’s tally (967). Spain’s dominance meant Morocco had the majority of their players in their own half for most of the match.
Regragui revealed after the game that his side worked on their game plan for four days. The intention was to let Spain have the ball and stifle their progress by congesting the middle of the park. That was evident in Morocco’s approach, as they applied 573 defensive pressures – their highest in the tournament.
It was a risky gambit, but Regragui had a secret weapon – Yassine Bounou, also known as Bono. The Sevilla goalkeeper has saved over a quarter of the penalties that he’s faced at the Spanish club in all competitions (5/19, excluding shootouts). At 21, Bono moved to Spain and has since featured for four Spanish clubs, so if there was anyone who knew this Spanish side, it had to be him.
The former Wydad AC coach has built this Moroccan team on the foundation of defensive solidity. This focus comes as no surprise because the team Regragui inherited from Halilhodžić had conceded 12 goals in their last 10 games. Since taking over in August, Morocco have conceded just once in seven games, and that was an own goal in the game against Canada. Coincidentally, in 1998 Youssef Chippo of Morocco became the first African to score an own goal at the World Cup, so they have an odd history of finding the back of their own net on the global stage.
Aside from the own goal, which is the only blip in their impenetrable defence at the tournament, Regragui’s men have been amongst the best defensive teams at the tournament. The Atlas Lions have faced just 0.89 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes, which is the ninth best so far. Out of the eight teams remaining, Morocco rank fourth for non-penalty shots faced per 90, conceding just 7.6 at the World Cup.
Atlas Lions Are Roaring in Qatar
It hasn’t been just about defence for Morocco at this year’s World Cup. Prior to becoming the first African coach to reach the quarter-finals, Regragui oversaw his side finish top of Group F – becoming the first African country to amass seven points at the group stage.
Regragui’s coaching principles were birthed from a mixed approach. His style sees him switch things up to bring the best out of the players he has available. An underlying strength of his team is their pace and directness.
With players like Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat, Sofiane Boufal, and Achraf Hakimi, Morocco can quickly move from one end of the pitch to the other through quick passes or effective carries. This is evident in the team styles graphic below, which demonstrates that Morocco – who are in the bottom left quadrant – don’t need many passes to move up on the pitch.
The 1976 AFCON winners aren’t ponderous on the ball, especially in the final third. Morocco’s field tilt – a measure of territorial dominance – has been just 28.7% so far at Qatar, the third lowest at the tournament. Despite this, in the group stages the Atlas Lions outshot all three opponents despite having significantly less possession in all games.
Regragui’s team currently have an average possession of 32.3% – the second lowest rate at the World Cup – but they’ve shown a sense of directness, drive and aggression with how quickly they transition after turnovers.
The tendency to move the ball quickly on transitions means that they have fewer bodies forward, often leaving them outnumbered in attack. As a result, Morocco’s 78.5 successful passes in the opposition’s half per 90 is the lowest at the World Cup.
Regardless, they’ve still been effective going forwards and have accumulated an expected goals (xG) tally of 3.1 from 30 shots so far.
Morocco’s attack perhaps hasn’t sparkled as much as their defence. A non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.71 is the fifth lowest at the competition, which means that the North African giants aren’t creating many high-quality chances. This is almost entirely down to their lack of shot volume, as they rank fourth lowest in terms of non-penalty shots per 90 with 6.9.
But in an attack feeding on scraps, one man is the catalyst.
Hakim Ziyech the X-Factor
The first thing Regragui did when he was appointed as Moroccan coach? Re-call Hakim Ziyech.
The Chelsea winger had fallen out with previous coach Halilhodžić, who accused the 29-year-old of a bad attitude and feigning an injury. Ziyech missed the 2021 AFCON and the World Cup qualifiers as a consequence.
He finally made his international return after a 17-month absence and showed Morocco exactly what they missed, scoring an audacious chip from his own half in a pre-World Cup friendly against Georgia.
Ziyech has already played more minutes for Morocco at this World Cup (376) than at Chelsea (277) this season. He has looked like a different player in Qatar and has attempted the most shots (6) and created the most chances (4) for the Atlas Lions to date.
Ziyech also seems to have rediscovered his ability to beat opponents as he has made seven successful take-ons and created an expected assist (xA) of 0.21 from those dribbles.
His well-taken goal against Canada proved to be the difference between the two sides, while his late assist against Belgium gave the North Africans a cushion in their second group game.
For a player whose attitude has often been questioned, Ziyech looks like he is ready to leave it all on the field each game.
And it’s not just going forward. Defensively, the former Ajax man has also put in a shift, making eight tackles and five interceptions. Against Spain, he played as an auxiliary right wing-back to help nullify the attacking threat of Jordi Alba.
A Portugal Test Awaits
Morocco have the weight of Africa on their shoulders and will look to make history by going one step further. In September, Boufal said that if Morocco could get out of the group stage they would reach the quarter-finals like Ghana did in 2010.
Out of the previous three African countries to reach the last eight – Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana – it was Ghana who came closest to breaking the semi-final jinx. But standing in the way of Morocco and history is a Portugal side on a journey of self-discovery.
The European side are trying to move on from the ever-present Cristiano Ronaldo who has been the centre of news since the start of the tournament. His heir apparent Gonçalo Ramos scored a hat-trick after replacing the 37-year-old in the round of 16 game against Switzerland.
Portugal are still chasing their first triumph, having fallen at the semi-finals of the World Cup twice – in 1996 and 2006. The Euro 2016 winners have their work cut out for them, as they have only gone past the World Cup round of 16 stage once in their last five attempts.
Fernando Santos’ men will pose a different threat to Morocco on Saturday. They have scored more than twice the number of goals Morocco have scored in this World Cup and are averaging 13 non-penalty shots per 90 which is the sixth-highest in the competition.
Nevertheless, there are at least 15,000 Moroccans in Qatar, and thousands more from all over the world have converged for the global event, creating an atmosphere in stadiums that the Atlas Lions could only have dreamed of.
Regragui admitted that without the large Moroccan support, there is no way the team could have achieved this piece of history. While the fans are playing their cards right, the Moroccan Football Federation is making every effort to give the players a sense of comfort. Family members of the squad have access to the team’s camp, creating a homely atmosphere in Qatar.
It’s not the first time the Federation is going out of its way to make players feel at home. During the 2021 AFCON, they reportedly took a five-tonne cargo plane with personal cooks, food preparation equipment, independent water supply, security detail and mattresses. They even replaced the hotel employees who worked closely with the players with their own staff.
Every World Cup has an underdog story, and it feels like all the pieces are falling into place. The stars are aligning and the Green Star of Morocco lies right in their centre. This could finally be their year.