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Fußball WM Katar | Kanada v Marokko
Morocco coach Walid Regragui is thrown into the air by his players after beating Canada.Image: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP
SportsMorocco

World Cup 2022: Morocco's tactical brilliance explained

Mark Meadows in Doha
December 7, 2022

Morocco's sensational run in Qatar is based on an impregnable defense, pace on the counterattack and a goalkeeper who's no stranger to heroics. And head coach Walid Regragui has only been in charge for three months.

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Morocco's tactical discipline in defense, speed on the counterattack and a dash of goalkeeping flair have been the keys to their success at the Qatar World Cup. It is a blueprint that similar nations have struggled to replicate.

But what makes Morocco's achievement in becoming the first Arab team to reach the quarter-finals all the more amazing is the fact their coach only took over at the end of August.

Walid Regragui, who himself coached in Qatar for a short spell in 2020, winning the league with Al-Duhail, has quickly molded a scattered diaspora into a cohesive unit who are playing for each other, something that has not always been the case for the Atlas Lions.

Morocco: the only team to score against Morocco

Strictly speaking, Morocco have not conceded a single goal by an opposition player in the seven matches since Regragui took over.

After beating Chile 2-0, drawing 0-0 with Paraguay and beating Georgia 3-0 in warm-ups, Morocco opened their Qatar World Cup campaign with another impressive defensive performance in the 0-0 draw with Croatia, before stunning Belgium 2-0 and then edging Canada 2-1 – only letting in an own goal.

The 0-0 stalemate with Spain which preceeded the sensational penalty shootout in the last-16 was also the result of careful preparation.

"I'm not a magician," Regragui told reporters after eliminating La Roja, who registered 768 passes in the first 90 minutes alone. "We accepted we wouldn't have a lot of possession."

But Luis Enrique's side could not get through, with Morocco using their back four and midfield three as two suffocating blankets which gave the Spanish no space to create big chances, often leaving them looking like a handball team passing the ball back and forth around the edge of the box.

Midfielder Azzedine Ounahi was picked out for special praise by Enrique, who said he was totally "surprised" by such an all-action display, but the Moroccans have all put their bodies on the line in every game. Injuries have piled up but sheer desire has taken hold, leading to almost the same XI each time despite the knocks.

FIFA Fußball WM 2022 in Katar | Marokko - Spanien
Achraf Hakimi shows there is more to his game than just attacking full-back play.Image: Robert Michael/dpa/picture alliance

Hakimi, Ziyech & En-Nesyri on the break

Morocco aren't the only team to defend deep at this World Cup, but they do offer a threat on the break which other "smaller" teams don't, not least through Achraf Hakimi.

For several years now, with Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and now Paris Saint-Germain, the 24-year-old has been raiding up and down the wing with abandon, and he's been one of the most dynamic full-backs in Qatar.

He has had to be more discerning at the World Cup, surging forward only at the right moments, but when he has done so, he's been accompanied by forwards Hakim Ziyech, Sofiane Boufal and Youssef En-Nesyri, who have provided him with options.

"We were playing against Spain, Belgium and Croatia and we knew that, if we could cut out their passes, we would have opportunities [to break]," explained coach Regragui. "Playing at such a pace isn't easy so I take my hat off to them."

Both Chelsea's Ziyech and Sevilla's En-Neysri have endured difficult starts to the season for their respective clubs, but have delivered when it's mattered for Morocco in Qatar, where both were on the scoresheet against Canada.

Katar WM FIFA 2022 Achtelfinale Marokko vs Spanien Elfmeterschießen
Yassine Bounou saves Carlos Soler's penalty in the last 26 win over Spain.Image: Nick Potts/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Regragui: 'Every Moroccan is a Moroccan'

Perhaps Regragui's biggest achievement has been ending the rows between his Moroccan-born players and those from the wider diaspora.

"Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems with the guys born in Europe and the guys born in Morocco," he admitted. "But today I think it shows to the world that every Moroccan is a Moroccan."

Hakimi, for example, was born in Madrid, while Ziyech, born in the Netherlands like Bayern Munich's Noussair Mazraoui, fell out with the previous coach but has been welcomed back with open arms under the new regime. 

Rather than treat diaspora players as somehow "less Moroccan," Regragui, himself born just outside Paris to Moroccan parents, has used their experiences in top European leagues to huge advantage. Morocco's players have starred in big Champions League clashes, and they know what is at stake better than rival nations who lack that know-how.

The scale of the Moroccan diaspora has been on show off the pitch too in Qatar, where around 15,000 Moroccans are resident. Around 20,000 fans roared them on inside the Education City Stadium against Spain, with thousands more watching on mobile phones outside.

There may have been violence in Brussels as fans celebrated Morocco's win over Belgium in the group stage, but the victory over Spain was met by scenes of pure jubiliation from Frankfurt, to London, to Manchester – and as far as Montreal, Canada, birthplace of Morocco's penalty shootout hero against Spain, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

Bono's beautiful day

"We knew we would go to penalties with one of the best goalkeepers in the world so we had better chances of advancing," said Regragui, after Bounou, known as Bono, had saved two penalties.

But it wasn't the first time the 31-year-old had pulled off footballing heroics; in March 2021, he became the first goalkeeper to score a goal in Spain's La Liga when he equalized for Sevilla against Valladolid.

"When you are part of the story, you don't grasp what is happening very quickly," he said modestly after the Spain game.

"We feel the support of our Morocco fans in the stadiums and at home and other countries. That is what drives us and motivates us to do what we do. "Everything's good, we'll stay focused."

Edited by: Matt Ford

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