Morocco coach Walid Regragui entered this World Cup as both the least-prepared and best-prepared coach.
Previous Atlas Lions manager Vahid Halilhodžić was removed from his post earlier this year following a fractious relationship with some of his squad, including star player Hakim Ziyech. The Chelsea forward chose not to travel for January’s African Cup of Nations as a result where Morocco underwhelmed, only making the quarter-finals. Regragui was only appointed in August and had just six games in charge before the penalty triumph over Spain in the last 16.
After three friendlies which saw wins over Chile and Georgia plus a draw with Paraguay before a famous victory over Belgium (2-0), a 0-0 draw with Croatia (Regragui’s first competitive game as coach) and a 2-1 defeat of Canada saw Morocco top Group F in Qatar, Morocco are undefeated under Regragui. They’ve only conceded one goal in that time – centre-back Nayef Aguerd’s own goal against Canada.
Despite minimal time with his players before the tournament, Regragui’s team shows his nuanced understanding of international football which has been crucial to their progress. Morocco are an unashamedly pragmatic and astutely steadfast side that maximises its resources via a 4-3-3 carrying three defensively-minded midfielders.
Unlike the style-over-substance approach of Belgium’s Roberto Martinez, for example, Regragui knows complicated attacking patterns are difficult to instill in international football, simply due to the minimal time a coach gets with his players and the lack of familiarity within the squad. Instead, success in major tournaments is based on fiercely organised defensive units, far easier to build in a short space of time, and individual attacking quality.
France coach Didier Deschamps based his 2018 title-winning side on the same idea and it’s one England’s Gareth Southgate has directly copied. A few typical sorties from PSG full-back Achraf Hakimi aside, Morocco’s back seven are compact, defend with ferocity and work neatly as a whole. All are confident and precise in possession, allowing Morocco to keep the ball when needed and play their way out of trouble, rather than simply parking the bus and trying to endure repeated waves of pressure.
Ziyech and fellow wide man Sofiane Boufal might not fit Europe’s elite club squads but both boast high-level individual quality – see Boufal’s Premier League goal of the season for Southampton for confirmation. Youssef En-Nesyri, meanwhile, is a reliable La Liga number nine. Regragui relies on that quality to engineer chances while working from a solid base. Morocco, however, don’t just defend, they maximise their openings and move the ball quickly and directly when given the opportunity.
Egged on by a partisan crowd in Qatar, Regragui’s pragmatic yet bold-when-needed system maximises Morocco’s considerable talent and is perfectly suited for international football. Finding a way to beat the Atlas Lions, or even score against them, might be the trickiest assignment at this World Cup.