By Theo Sakyi
Morocco hold an unbeaten record in qualifying coming into the tournament. They won their opening two games of the campaign; home and away against Libya and Sao Tome & Principe, respectively, under the stewardship of Badou Ezzaki.
Then, in February 2016, two-time AFCON-winning coach Herve Renard was hired as a replacement. From then onwards, the Atlas Lions only dropped two points “away” to Libya in Tunisia, as a result of a last minute equaliser from a set piece.
Because he came in mid-campaign, Renard has chopped and chopped and changed systems and personnel during the qualifiers, since the level of quality between Morocco and their opponents has given him leeway to do so. He could afford to because they have a vast array of talented players who are at very similar levels of quality, especially in midfield.
Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa have played most of the recent AFCON and World Cup qualifiers in midfield, but the likes of Mounir Obbadi and Younès Belhanda also stepped up to the plate, with Wolves’ Roman Saiss also coming in occasionally to play a holding midfield role, though he has mostly played at centre-back for Morocco.
Throw in the experimentation during recent friendlies against Canada and Togo and you get a sense that Renard isn’t quite settled on a starting XI, making the side difficult to scout and plan for, though there is a fairly settled structure tactics wise.
After setting up in a 3-4-2-1 in his first game in charge against Cape Verde during the qualifiers, Renard has settled on a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system. Munir Mohamedi of Numancia is the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper. Medhi Benatia, Morocco’s best defender, is likely to be partnered with Manuel Da Costa at the heart of the defence.
During the qualifiers, Karim El Ahmadi sat in front of the back four, with the energetic Mbark Boussoufa stationed slightly ahead of him while Belhanda played as a roaming number 10. As Belhanda is ruled out with a toe injury, Boussoufa may well replace him in that position, leaving Mounir Obbadi to slot in alongside El Ahmadi. The situation on the wings is now unclear as well, since Sofiane Boufal is out with injury Mehdi Carcela and Nabil Dirar will have to provide attacking impetus.
Youssef El-Arabi will play upfront, running the channels and holding up the ball onrushing players behind him to join in attacks. Morocco look to play a patient possession game and leave very little space between lines in defence with a medium block. As mentioned before, the sheer amount of players who can step into the midfield and attacking positions makes them an unpredictable team.
Versatility – Morocco are a versatile side who possess technically good, versatile players. In midfield they can adapt to their opponents. Against stronger teams or when trying to hold a lead, they could put together a robust pairing of Youssef Ait Bennasser and Karim El Ahmadi with Mbark Boussoufa just ahead of them to shut down the opposition. Against weaker teams, a more forward-thinking player like Obbadi can come in for Bennasser, resulting in a more fluid attack. They should be prepared for all game states.
Unsettled first XI – Renard still hasn’t got a settled first XI. The Frenchman has only been at the helm for a year and has chopped and changed at every position except for centre-back and centre-forward. The team are well organised, so this may not matter as much at the back, but they may look blunt up front as there will be a lack of familiarity to put together slick attacking moves.
Mbark Boussoufa – The Al Jazira midfielder is a key player in this side. He can play deeper in midfield or as more of an attacking midfielder. He’s diligent defensively, has bundles of energy and is technically very sound. He allows Renard to switch systems at the drop of a hat.
The Hipster’s Choice
Nabil Dirar – Morocco’s best attacking players Hakim Ziyech (unfancied by Renard) and the injured Boufal will be absent. This leaves Dirar as the most battle-ready attacking player in the band of three behind El Arabi.
Herve Renard – Has an unremarkable record as a club coach, but his two AFCON successes as head coach of Zambia and Ivory Coast clearly aren’t just down to luck. He sets his teams out to be compact as possible but still plays to the strengths of his players, whether that be employing a 4-2-2-2 with Zambia or the 3-5-2 with the Ivory Coast, his sides are defensively solid, leaving attacking players freedom to express themselves.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Since August 2013, a run of 23 matches, Morocco has just 3 defeats against African competition.
- In 2016, Morocco went undefeated in 10 matches, conceding just 2 goals.
- Morocco is one of 3 CAF teams in the WGF top 50. Unfortunately one of the other two is fellow Group C member Ivory Coast.
- What’s most impressive about Morocco’s run of form is the quality of opposition. They’ve played just 3 opponents outside of the Top 100 in their last 14, which is very unusual for African sides.
- Morocco is largely flying under the radar. Due to dropping out as hosts of AFCON 2015 and not participating in qualifying, their FIFA ranking is artificially low. Among participants, only Cameroon has a greater discrepancy between their FIFA ranking and WGF ranking.
- Due to the tough group, Morocco has a 63% chance of advancing, with an average projection of 4.82 points.
- The Atlas Lions have a 10.72% chance of winning the tournament, which is 4th highest among all teams.
Group Stage exit– Morocco look likely to finish third in the group – they have far more quality than Togo, but they don’t have the attacking verve DR Congo and Ivory Coast possess, especially with the likes of Boufal and Belhanda out.