For the best part of a decade Morocco had become one of Africa’s most underachieving sides, if not the the South Africa of North Africa. To address that, in February 2016 the Moroccan Football Federation did a very sensible thing: they paid through the roof to hire miracle man Herve Renard.
And he has been worth every penny so far. Since he took over Morocco have undergone an epic transformation, psychologically and tactically. The players have consumed Renard’s doctrine slowly but surely, developing a doggedness, intensity and, eventually, style that not many would associate with recent Moroccan sides, or a side coached by Renard.
With it, the mood of the nation has changed. Moroccans have fallen in love with their national team again after being charmed by pluperfect performances like the 6-0 thumping of Mali. Commitment – and style – on the pitch by the players has, in turn, brought commitment from the supporters. The sold-out qualifiers against Mali and Gabon in Rabat and Casablanca, respectively, lit the fuse for something special, of a nation that expected.
And those expectations came to fruition in their dog-eat-dog decider away to Ivory Coast. Facing Marc Wilmots’ ill-prepared side, from the outset Morocco never looked like losing other than through a freakish result. In a game where they needed just a draw, they won 2-0 to complete the final round of qualification without having conceded a goal
Their series of warm-up friendlies couldn’t have gone much better with two wins and a draw giving their coach several selection dilemmas. Friendlies are friendlies but Morocco are the only African team that is performing at the consistent level in every game, whether it’s a friendly or competitive outing.
The Atlas Lions will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with players capable of playing multiple positions throughout the team, giving their coach the flexibility to change systems in-game. The veteran midfield pair of Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa are both disciplined and comfortable on the ball.
Boussoufa has the freedom to go forward and presses higher up the pitch with Morocco’s more advanced players when they can sense they can recover a ball. Another player integral to the system is Hakim Ziyech, who has an unerring ability to cut open defences with his range of passing. The cadre of attacking midfielders at their disposal can see Morocco play very intricate football in the final third with Ziyech or Boussoufa usually at the heart of it.
Versatility of players – Various players in the Morocco team can play multiple positions. Saiss plays in central midfield at club level for Wolves but centre back for the national team, whereas Mbark Boussoufa has retreated from the No.10 role to dictate play from deep. Nordin Amrabat is a winger but with fitness doubts over Nabil Dirar he could start at right-back. The versatility of the players gives Renard options in terms of tactics – a 3-5-2 system has been tested – and selections.
Striking issues – No striker in the team has nailed down the forward position in the starting XI. Aziz Bouhaddouz unconvinced at the last AFCON but he is still around. It had looked like Khaled Boutaib had made the position his but his poor movement and all-round play can leave Renard exasperated.
Ayoub El Kaabi has staked a claim to start with some sharp outings, also providing good all-round play, during the recent friendlies. Renard was so concerned about the position that he added more firepower in the squad by omitting centre back Badr Banoun, who had originally been named as part of the 23-man squad, for forward Youssef En-Nesyri, who was originally on stand-by.
Mehdi Benatia – ‘Moroccan Maldini’ is the captain of the team and leads by example with his reading of the game and tough tackling. Benatia is known for his classy style of defending but he, and Saiss alongside him, have a no-nonsense style under Renard with the number of clearances usually high.
The Hipster’s Choice
Mbark Boussoufa – Formerly on Chelsea’s books, the 33-year-old has incredibly never played in Europe’s five major leagues. That’s fine by us because that genuinely means he is The Hipster’s Choice. He’s a key player in his own right in this Moroccan team with no like-for-like replacement for what he provides: relentless energy and supreme regality with the ball at his feet. Without Boussoufa Morocco would be a very different team. And we don’t mean that in a good way.
Herve Renard – His stock couldn’t be higher after having overseen another miracle for an underperforming nation. Renard values the physical preparation of his players, likes them to be versatile, and discipline is paramount. As ever, he will be donning what is now probably a stinky white shirt as a lucky charm.
Second round – Morocco’s World Cup preparations have been perfect, It won’t be easy to progress from this group but SFG believe the Atlas Lions are more than capable.