Morocco coach Walid Regragui has taken his team to a World Cup semi-final, a first for an African nation, without conceding a goal to an opposition player despite zero competitive games before travelling to Qatar. It’s feat of supreme coaching excellence from a manager who, crucially, understands international football better than any of his peers at the tournament.
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 didn’t 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.
Despite minimal time with his players via a trio of friendlies before the tournament, Regragui’s team shows his nuanced understanding of the international game 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 with 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 between squad members. 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 to 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. Youssef En-Nesyri, meanwhile, is a reliable La Liga number nine. Regragui relies on that quality to engineer chances while working from his solid base as an insurance policy. Morocco, however, don’t just defend, they maximise their openings and move the ball quickly and directly when given the opportunity.
Supported passionately 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. As Portugal discovered in their quarter-final defeat, finding a way to beat the Atlas Lions, or even score against them, might be the trickiest assignment of this World Cup.