The stage is set for Morocco. The key players are in exceptional form, serial-winner Hervé Renard is at the wheel., and the tournament has moved from Sub-Sahara to a more familiar climate. Could this be the time where Morocco finally lift their second ever Africa Cup of Nations trophy?
Let there be no doubt: only winning will be good enough this time around. That has been the primary target for FRMF President, Fouzi Lekjaa, for a long time now. The 2017 quarter-final exit to current hosts Egypt was a disappointment, but it still left people optimistic for what was to come.
This year there will be no excuses. Renard will most likely leave his position after the tournament, regardless of the final outcome and would want to go out on another high, like he did with Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire.
Qualifying went rather smoothly, despite an early loss in the group-stage. The job was done between September and November last year, where the Atlas Lions grabbed ten points from four games, scoring eight goals in the process.
But despite topping the group with eleven points and securing a spot in the final tournament with one game to go, questions were still raised. Draws away to Comoros and Malawi fueled the critics and highlighted how glaringly dependent Morocco are on certain individuals, despite a solid structure defensively.
Without the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Younès Belhanda, the attacking play lacked fluidity and instead they had to rely on the sheer madness of Nordin Amrabat and Khalid Boutaïb with his back to the goal.
Luckily, both Ziyech and Belhanda are not only fit, but in great form going into the tournament. Players like Noussair Mazraoui, Fayçal Fajr and Youssef Aït Bennasser will also be high on confidence following brilliant performances during the last months.
There are still doubts surrounding left-back Achraf Hakimi and whether he’ll be fit in time, as he went through surgery on his foot back in April. He will be a huge loss if he misses out, having dominated for both club and country, especially during the fall.
A personal favorite in Raja Casablanca’s Abdelilah Hafidi will miss the tournament through injury, as well as Anuar Tuhami of Real Valladolid, but apart from that, most of the players seem ready for an exciting summer.
The system of Hervé Renard is pretty straight forward, but highly effective. He usually sets up in a 4-2-3-1, with two deep-lying midfielders who should see a lot of the ball and dictate the play. It also gives opportunities for the full-backs to burst forward, knowing that the midfielders will provide cover.
He has usually gone with the same offensive troika behind the striker, where Ziyech and Belhanda operate as offensive playmakers while Amrabat occupies the role as more of a classic winger, tasked with more defensive duties.
Up top there will be a target-man who can hold up the ball and link up with the more technically gifted players around him. Most likely young prodigy, Youssef En-Nesyri, or the seasoned Khalid Boutaïb. Defensively, Renard always wants his team to apply high-intensity pressure from the get-go, stressing the opponent and force them to either make mistakes or play the ball long, so that Morocco can retain possession as quickly as possible.
But we’ve also seen that the Frenchman can be tactically flexible. In the last edition of Africa Cup of Nations, he went with a five-at-the-back formation, where youngster Hamza Mendyl and Nabil Dirar figured as wing-backs, while occupying the middle with three dynamic midfielders.
Against Spain in the World Cup, we saw a Morocco side that accepted not having the majority of possession, letting the Spaniards have the ball and punish them on mistakes. The first goal of Boutaïb is a good example, as well as the wonder-strike of Amrabat hitting the post.
On set-pieces, the Atlas Lions are extremely dangerous at the opponent’s end. En-Nesyri is an attack on his own when the ball is lifted into the box, while you also have captain Medhi Benatia always grabbing a couple of goals a season from headers. Fajr, Ziyech and Belhanda provide expertise, both from direct free-kicks and corners.
Continuity – The last few years, it’s been rather easy predicting both the squad and starting line-up of Morocco. Renard has put faith in a core of about fifteen players which he seems to bring in no matter what. Some might disagree with a few of the inclusions, including myself, but the importance of making a team that know each other both on and off the field, can’t be overlooked. They went through the whole last qualifying-stage to the World Cup without conceding a goal and since the loss to Portugal in Moscow, the Atlas Lions have gone unbeaten in six competitive matches.
Constantly chopping and changing the personnel gives you the opportunity to evaluate more players, but it can also disrupt the chemistry in the dressing room and halter the performances on the pitch. So expect to see Saïss, Benatia, Dirar, El Ahmadi, Amrabat, Boutaïb and maybe even Mbark Boussoufa, strap their boots on for yet another tournament. Not necessarily the best players in their position anymore, but trusted servants in a well-organized side.
The Achilles’ Heel
Defending crosses – Morocco have conceded six goals from their last eight competitive games. Five of those have come from crosses into the box. It really became the downfall of their World Cup campaign, with Bouhaddouz’ own goal against Iran, Ronaldo’s early bullet header against Portugal and Iago Aspas’ flick that was eventually given by VAR. One free-kick and two corners, all of them crosses from the same area. Even the two goals conceded away to Comoros were crosses, this time from open play. Renard will have to work on the team’s positioning, awareness and communication inside the box heading into this tournament, to avoid more of the same.
There’s few stars in Africa, let alone in Morocco, bigger than Hakim Ziyech at the moment . The Ajax talisman was the mastermind behind wins against Cameroon and Malawi, and coincidentally did not feature in any of the games where Renard’s men dropped points during qualifiers.
He has been even more impressive for his club side, directly involved in more than 40 goals across all competitions. He has everything Renard looks for in an offensive player: creativity, stamina, great feet and unpredictability. He didn’t live up to the huge expectations in Russia and should be eager to really make a name for himself in an international tournament.
The Hipster’s Choice
He might not be a new name for most, but Youssef Aït Bennasser is still a heavily understated footballer who has taken major steps the last couple of seasons. Despite being one of the few players able to look at himself in the mirror after Monaco’s dreadful autumn of 2018, the 22-year-old was sent out on loan to Saint-Étienne in the january transfer window. Cesc Fabregas had arrived in Monte-Carlo and it was apparently no use for Aït Bennasser the latter part of the season. Instead he was paired up with Yann M’Vila in midfield for the ten-time league winners and formed a fantastic partnership, eventually resulting in Saint-Étienne securing a spot in next season’s Europa League group-stage.
Calm and composed on the ball, Aït Bennasser is statistically one of the best passers in Ligue 1, both in terms of amount and percentage of successful balls. He always makes it seem like he has loads of time and loves switching the play from one side to another. With Boussoufa a free agent for several months, the French-born midfielder excelled when handed the opportunity and was one of Morocco’s most impressive performers in games against Tunisia and Malawi.
Morocco have had talented generations of players before, failing miserably under a lack of good leadership. Uninspiring characters like Eric Gerets and Roger Lemerre, the emotional wreck of Rachid Taoussi, the political feuds under Badou Zaki… Hervé Renard has the charisma, the experience and more importantly, he has the total respect of his players.
When leaving Ziyech out of the last AFCON because of their disagreements, it might have felt like a big mistake at the time. But in the long run, it could have meant more than we understand for the Moroccan national team. Since then, Ziyech has been one of the best international performers in the world, while the relationship between the two seems better than ever.
He knows the African game, knows how to get the best out of his players and doesn’t let people affect his decisions. He will be key if Morocco are to go far in the tournament.
Predicting any sort of outcome is almost impossible at the Africa Cup of Nations, but the expectations set within are clear. Nothing less than lifting the trophy will be accepted in Morocco. Personally I think they should progress from the group-stage without too much hassle and we all know anything can happen from that point. I’ll go for a top-three finish.