In 1986, Morocco became the first African nation to top their group at the World Cup. Thirty-six years later, only two other nations from the continent have replicated that — Cameroon in 1990 and Nigeria in 1994 and 1998.
Now, more history is within their reach as they prepare to face Portugal in the quarter-finals on Saturday. Their penalty shootout win against Spain in the round of 16 means that they now join Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 as the only African nations to reach the last eight of the World Cup; none of that trio made it any further.
This has been a tournament in which Morocco have surpassed all expectations, including their own. They emerged unbeaten from that group, containing Canada, Belgium and Croatia, and were worthy of their penalty win over Luis Enrique’s Spain.
So, how did they do it?
For all the big names in this Morocco squad, it’s their organisation off the ball in open play that makes them so hard to beat and painful to play against. Players like Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal are known for flair and ability on the ball, but in Morocco’s four unbeaten games so far they also showed their defensive contributions.
Croatia, Belgium, Canada and Spain had trouble breaking down this Moroccan side and in each game the defensive approach was different.
Against Croatia, Morocco focused on nullifying Croatia’s midfield trio of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. Shaping up in their regular 4-3-3, Youssef En-Nesyri regularly adjusted his positioning to block the passing lane into Brozovic. Behind him, Azzedine Ounahi and Selim Amallah were marking Modric and Kovacic. That left Sofyan Amrabat in a free role to sweep behind the front five.
Croatia couldn’t access their midfield trio freely and the result was that Modric had to drop deeper into a right-back position to receive the ball in space.
Even when Andrej Kramaric tried to drop from his centre-forward position to provide a passing option, he was easily covered by Amrabat. By using En-Nesyri to mark Brozovic or block the passing lane into the Inter Milan midfielder, Amrabat was free to pick up any player moving into his zone.
And when Morocco wanted to be more aggressive and press Croatia, the shifting of markers was smooth as they already had a free player in Amrabat. In this example, En-Nesyri is blocking the passing lane into Brozovic while Ounahi and Amallah are marking Kovacic and Modric respectively.
When Ounahi moves up to press Josko Gvardiol, Amrabat drops onto Kovacic and with En-Nesyri glued to Brozovic, Gvardiol has to play the pass backwards.
This continued throughout the game…
… and despite Zlatko Dalic’s introduction of Mario Pasalic to play as a right winger moving inside to overload the midfield, Croatia failed to penetrate Morocco’s block. That’s simply because when Amallah was dragged out towards Modric, Amrabat was always ready to shift to cover his position.
Here, Modric is in a right-back position to escape the marking. As Amallah moves up to press, En-Nesyri drops to block the passing lane into Brozovic, but Modric finds the pass in between them. Before Modric plays the pass though, Amrabat (yellow) is anticipating the situation and is ready to move across if the pass goes through…
… so when it does, he is in a good position to pounce. Ounahi marking Kovacic on the other side also allows Amrabat to be as aggressive as he wants…
… and the Fiorentina midfielder manages to intercept Brozovic’s pass into Pasalic.
In their second game, Morocco tweaked their defensive shape to accommodate Belgium’s 3-2-4-1.
The adjustment was to push Noussair Mazraoui forward, closer to Kevin De Bruyne, to prevent him from being a free option and to match the four midfielders from Belgium.
This way, Morocco had De Bruyne and Eden Hazard covered, with Mazraoui pushing to mark the Manchester City player and Amrabat free to shift to the right to mark Hazard.
Belgium’s solution was to use their wing-backs to free De Bruyne, but Morocco had this covered. When Thomas Meunier pushed forward, Mazraoui had to move away from De Bruyne, and with Amrabat closer to Hazard…
… it was Boufal who dropped to mark De Bruyne, allowing Mazraoui to move out wide to press Meunier…
… while keeping Amrabat in his place, screening the defensive line and being close to Hazard.
Boufal and Mazraoui helped Amrabat massively, allowing him to focus on Hazard and not get dragged all over the midfield. When Amrabat was far, Boufal knew when to tuck inside to block the passing lane into De Bruyne…
… and Mazraoui knew when to push forward to mark De Bruyne.
Then after Morocco scored their first goal of the game, Regragui introduced the defender Jawad El Yamiq, which meant moving to a 5-4-1.
The defensive tweaks against Belgium quietened the threat of De Bruyne and Hazard throughout the game — the second game in a row when Morocco’s organisation without the ball limited their opponents’ most impactful players.
The standings of the group after the second round meant that Morocco only needed a draw against Canada to qualify, and on evidence of previous games, it was highly probable. In that game, Morocco showed they can attack through the wide areas.
Defensively, Canada’s 4-2-3-1 in possession played into Morocco’s hands. Amrabat only had Junior Hoilett to mark, while Ounahi and Abdelhamid Sabiri were on Mark-Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio.
John Herdman’s switch midway through the first half to a back three in possession provided a different problem for Morocco. But their awareness and ability in terms of shifting markers from one player to another stopped Canada from creating any clear-cut chances.
Then later on in the game, Regragui moved to a 5-4-1 as he did against Belgium to seal the win.
That win resulted in Morocco topping the group and due to the results in Group E, pitted them against Spain.
This was a far greater test than anything Morocco had faced before, but once again it was incredible defensive organisation that got them through.
Similar to the Croatia game, En-Nesyri focused his movement entirely on blocking the passing lane into Sergio Busquets. Behind him, Amrabat was providing cover which meant that they pincered the Barcelona midfielder: one in front to block the passing lane, and one behind in case anything passed through.
Busquets couldn’t receive the ball easily between En-Nesyri and Amrabat. On the few occasions he did, both were ready to pounce as in this example in the second half.
Here, Rodri finds Busquets…
…and immediately Amrabat presses him…
…before En-Nesyri wins the ball back.
The next phase in stopping Spain was neutralizing Gavi and Pedri. Achieving this meant stopping Spain’s right side and left side.
When it came to Gavi, Amallah religiously dropped to block the passing lane into the young midfielder.
The fact that Marcos Llorente, Spain’s right-back on the day, had zero passes towards Gavi is the best evidence of Amallah’s great defensive work. That pass just was not on because of his positioning and, when it was, he managed to intercept it.
On the other side, Morocco had a plan to stop Spain’s left-side rotations. As Pedri dropped to the left-back position, it wasn’t Ziyech who moved up to face him. The Chelsea player dropped deeper to support Hakimi against Jordi Alba and Dani Olmo.
Instead, Ounahi moved up to face Pedri. This tweak meant that Ziyech and Hakimi could aggressively mark Alba and Olmo without worrying about a passing combination that could break through the Moroccan block.
Ziyech and Hakimi’s communication was perfect, and they could be seen regularly signalling to each other to indicate who should mark Alba and Olmo.
The result was that when Pedri had the ball, the combination pass that Spain love to play on that side simply was not available.
Here, after Ziyech signals to Hakimi to pick up Alba, the right winger drops to mark Olmo and once more Pedri’s option are taken out.
All of the above can be seen in this example as Spain are trying to penetrate the Moroccan defensive block. Starting from the right side, Amallah rushes to deny the progressive pass from Llorente into Gavi…
… then, after Spain circulate the ball and it comes back to Llorente, he doesn’t play the pass into Busquets because En-Nesyri is dropping onto the midfielder.
Failing to progress through the right side, Spain move the ball to the left. Pedri drops to start the passing sequence, but Ziyech is already signalling to Hakimi to leave Olmo and pick up Alba…
… this frees Hakimi to press the Spanish left-back as he knows that Ziyech is covering for him. So, when Pedri plays the pass…
… Alba doesn’t have time on the ball because Hakimi is all over him.
It is interesting to stop and check Alba’s passing options: Busquets is marked by En-Nesyri in the centre of the pitch and Ziyech is dropping with Olmo to deny that trademark Spanish left-side combination. The result is that Alba goes back again to Pedri…
…and Hakimi drops to his position, which is the signal for Ziyech to move towards Alba and switch markers. Towards the centre, En-Nesyri is still marking Busquets (yellow) and as explained above in the Croatia game, this defensive scheme also provides a free role for Amrabat to screen his defensive line.
This aspect helps here when Pedri plays the ball into Alba…
… and Alba plays a one-touch pass into Olmo. Amrabat, free of marking duties, pounces and wins the ball back for Morocco.
Without a solution to break this defensive block, Enrique’s reaction was to change Spain’s dynamics by switching the positions of Pedri and Gavi. Now with Gavi on the left side, Spain had a player more willing to attack the space there and on the right it was more about Pedri’s control, with Llorente pushing forward to a space between the lines.
The switch caused problems for Morocco, but they adjusted as well. With Alba dropping to his normal left-back position, Ziyech (yellow) was more concerned with helping Ounahi (red) against Gavi.
Ziyech abandoned his previous deep wide role and moved inside to be closer to Gavi, and defend the combination passes behind Ounahi.
In this example in the second half, Ziyech is moving inside before Aymeric Laporte plays the pass into Busquets…
…and this stops Gavi from comfortably receiving the pass, forcing him to play the ball to Olmo…
… who suddenly finds himself against the one-man defensive unit that is Amrabat.
Morocco’s flexibility off the ball meant that when Enrique substituted Gavi and brought Pedri to the left side again, they reverted to the original approach.
Extra-time proved difficult for Morocco, as their energy levels began to sag, but they held on and showed far more composure in the penalty shootout. Yassine Bounou’s saves made the impossible possible, and for the first time in their history Morocco found themselves in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Regardless of the upcoming results, this Morocco side have written their names in the history books by becoming the only Arab nation to reach this far in the competition.
If 1986 was a glorious fantasy, 2022 might yet eclipse it.