Not many chinks in Moroccan armour
Not just Spain, though. It’s been one of the main themes of the tournament: a stingy Moroccan defence that has repelled just about anything that has been thrown at them.
Published: 08th December 2022 07:58 AM | Last Updated: 08th December 2022 07:58 AM | A+A A-
CHENNAI: In the third and final minute of extra-time 123rd of an extraordinary match a heroic Moroccan defense allowed Pablo Sarabia a shot on goal. Sarabia, who had come in for the express purpose of taking one of the five penalties for Spain, volleyed a thunderous drive from a very acute angle. It struck the post. A final chance had gone. It wasn’t a clear cut chance but Spain, for all their passing, were finding chances as rare as water in a desert.
Not just Spain, though. It’s been one of the main themes of the tournament: a stingy Moroccan defence that has repelled just about anything that has been thrown at them. Out of the 32 sides, they are one of only three sides yet to trail (England and Netherlands being the others). In fact, the opposition is yet to score past them. The one goal they conceded was an own goal.
When former coach Vahid Halihodzic made way for Walid Regragui a few months before the World Cup, not a lot was expected. If anything, Regragui was ridiculed as he was called ‘Avacado Head’. Yet, the 47-year-old has already scripted a mini-miracle. Apart from recalling Hakim Ziyech, Regragui has focussed on the defensive aspects. It’s paid off. In the seven matches he has been in charge of since September, an opposition player is yet to score.
So why are they so difficult to score against? It’s partly thanks to the shift put in by Achraf Hakimi (right-back) and Noussair Mazraoui (left-back). If a World Cup XI were to be compiled before the quarterfinals, these two would be the full-backs of the team. Teams have had no joy against these two as both of them have been terrific in one-on-one situations as well as tackles won.
Nobody has made more than the 17 tackles by Hakimi (won 11, joint top). At third is Mazraoui with 13 (won eight). Eighteen of the 19 tackles that the pair have have come in Morocco’s third of the pitch. That’s before you add the presence of midfield lynchpin Sofyan Amrabat who has been the perfect screen ahead of the defence. He has been the glue that has enabled the Moroccan defence to function properly.
They are also a very organised side whose flair players do not mind doing the dirty off the ball work that is vital to limit chances for the opposition. It may not be champagne football but it need not be champagne football in a tournament where the only currency is results.
Nowhere was this more evident than in their match against Spain who made over a 1000 passes. In the four matches, Spain had taken 4300. Morocco? 1994. Only 40 of those 1994 touches have come in the opposition box. Of the sides remaining in the tournament, Morocco have the lowest possession (33.8%), fewest touches (1994), fewest touches in the opposition penalty area (40) and most touches in their own penalty area (289).
They have also eschewed the modern football trait of playing it out from the back. The two Moroccan keepers, between them, have attempted 36 goal kicks. Possession sides like Germany (14), Argentina (15) and Spain (22) are in the opposite end of the spectrum. Out of the 32, the Morocco rank No. 5 in attempting the most long-range passes (40 yards) by a keeper. In short, it’s a system that’s geared towards minimising any risk in their own penalty box. It’s almost like they are the 2004 Greece version but for the Tik Tok generation.
It shows. If you look at the post shot Expected Goals (PSxG) a metric based on how likely the keeper is expected to save the shot Morocco have the best numbers. Across the four games, it’s 1.0, 0.3 above the next best side England. It’s a metric that says whether the shots on goal attempted against the team are easier to save or harder to save.
Most of the shots against Morocco have been relatively easy ones for the goalkeeper to save because of its position on the pitch. Like the one Sarabia attempted on Tuesday night. Yassine Bounou didn’t save it but he didn’t have to. Because it was from such an acute angle, it was off target.
Scoring a goal is all about getting the margins and the angles right. Right now, Morocco are winning both the margins as well as the angles. Not by chance but by design. If Portugal want to advance to a first semi-final in 16 years, their task is to find those margins.