Morocco mired in upheaval, but will they be a surprise package?

Despite a solid performance at Russia 2018, the African team failed to get out of their group. Now, they are desperate to make amends.

Morocco are gearing up for what will be their sixth FIFA World Cup™. With the appointment of Walid Regragui as the Atlas Lions’ new coach less than three months before the start of the tournament, a lot of questions remain unanswered. Despite all the upheaval, there is a palpable sense of excitement around the new coach. So, what should we expect from him?

It would be amiss, however, not to mention the efforts of his predecessor, Vahid Halilhodzic, who guided the Atlas Lions to Qatar with the best qualifying record of any African team.

Morocco were the only team with a perfect record during the second round of qualifying, winning all six of their matches against Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan. In the third round, they faced Congo DR, whom they swept aside with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate win.

While those victories suggested to outside observers that all was well, the reality was not so rosy. A tense atmosphere surrounded the team, and public discontent boiled over when Halilhodzic alienated some of the nation’s top stars such as Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui. Disgruntled fans also took issue with the Bosnian’s playing style, which some viewed as too dull and predictable.

All that public pressure, coupled with intense media scrutiny, spelt the end for Halilhodzic, who parted company with the Royal Moroccan Football Federation in August. It was an all too familiar experience for the Bosnian, who had previously been let go by Côte d’Ivoire and Japan, despite guiding both nations to the World Cup.

If there is a silver lining in all this, then it is the return of optimism and positivity amongst the players just a few weeks before Qatar gets underway. The fans have also welcomed Regragui with open arms. He joins the Atlas Lions on the back of recent success with Wydad, during which he guided them to the Botola Pro 1 and CAF Champions League titles in the same season.

But the questions on everyone’s lips are: which Moroccan side will turn up at Qatar under the leadership of Regragui, what style will he adopt, and which players will he rely on to kick on in Group F?

Walid Regragui’s approach and tactics

Regragui has shown throughout his coaching career that he can be flexible with his tactics and footballing philosophy. During his most recent stint with Wydad, however, he came across as a relatively conservative coach who placed greater emphasis on results than performances. Of course, this has not impeded him from delivering on the biggest of occasions, as his side showed during the Africa Champions League final against Al Ahly last May.

Given Regragui’s constantly evolving coaching style, we could see the Atlas Lions line up in a myriad of different ways this World Cup depending on the opponent’s playing style. One thing is for sure, the coach has the appropriate tools at his disposal to set up his team as he pleases, whether defensively or offensively.

In his first two games in charge, against Chile and Paraguay, Regragui adopted an attacking 4-3-3 formation. He encouraged his team to play with a high line, press in the opponents’ half (relying heavily on full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Mazraoui), work as a collective in the midfield as well as close down as soon as possession is lost.

Against Chile, Morocco played on the front foot, with the coach refusing to adjust to his opponent’s playing style as the Atlas Lions set out to assert their dominance through technically gifted players such as Ziyech, Azzedine Ounahi, Sofiane Boufal and Selim Amallah in both midfield and attack.

The two biggest challenges facing the coach, however, are the lack of ruthlessness in front of goal as well as key defenders being out through injury. The North African side have been struggling for quite some time to find a clinical finisher – Youssef En Nesyri is enduring a tricky patch and has not proved the solution to the Atlas Lions’ woes in front of goal.

Hakimi has played a pivotal role for Morocco over the past few years and is one of the first names on the team sheet. His performances in the last Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup qualifiers highlight the integral role that the Paris Saint-Germain star fulfils.

The player, who will turn 24 on the eve of the tournament, has a lot of international experience to his name, including Russia 2018. He is now relied upon to be the game-changer, whether it be utilising his lightning-quick pace on the right flank or with his set-piece mastery.

One to watch: Sofiane Boufal

If Hakimi is the most renowned Moroccan star, then Boufal is considered the most skilful. He is capable of producing moments of magic in the final third, is a one-on-one specialist and adds a sparkle to his team’s performance.

The current Angers star was Morocco’s top scorer in the last Africa Cup of Nations, netting three times at the tournament. As of late, he has played an increasingly important role and Regragui is unlikely to drop him as he recognises he is a player who can create something out of nothing.

A pacey, skilled and intelligent operator, Boufal would be the perfect attacking partner for any striker, whether it be En Nesryi, Ayoub El Kaabi, Walid Cheddira or Abderrazak Hamdallah.

Morocco’s World Cup history

This will be Morocco’s sixth World Cup. Their first came back in 1970, when they only managed to pick up one point from three matches. They lost to both Peru and West Germany but managed to salvage a draw against Bulgaria.

Their second appearance was the most memorable of the lot. In 1986, Abdelkrim Merry, Aziz Bouderbala and Co managed to beat Portugal after drawing against Poland and England to get out of their group, only to fall narrowly short against West Germany in the round of 16.

The 1994, 1998 and 2018 World Cups all ended in the same fate, with Morocco exiting at the group stage. At France 1998, they were particularly unlucky not to progress after beating Scotland by three goals and drawing 2-2 with Norway. They also gave a good account of themselves at Russia 2018, despite only picking up one point against Spain.

Source: Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF)