Belgium – Morocco: Belgium Have No Answers To Morocco’s Organized Setup (0-2)
Morocco marked a memorable day in their history as they overcame Belgium against the odds. The 2022 World Cup witnessed another upset, and this time Roberto Martínez’s world number two side struggled to create chances against a well-marshaled Moroccan outfit. In the end, goals from Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal piled on Belgium’s misery.
Tactical analysis and match report by Rahul Madhavan.
Belgium are on the back of a hard-fought victory over Canada, but they were largely out of ideas against a youthful and high pressing Canadian side. Moreover, their lack of pace in the backline was severely highlighted as their opponents consistently targeted their wide areas and created several chances. But the game against Morocco offered an opportunity to bounce back from a disappointing performance and put one foot in the knockout stages.
Roberto Martínez surprisingly changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation and made three changes from the last game. Thibaut Courtois continues in goal, with Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Timothy Castagne, and Thomas Meunier as the back four. The midfield pivot included Axel Witsel and Amadou Onana, while Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgan, and Eden Hazard started in front of them. Michy Batshuayi, who netted the winner against Canada, completed the lineup.
Morocco, on the other hand, had their moments but struggled to get going against Croatia, resulting in a stalemate. They were, however, defensively solid, limiting Zlatko Dalić’s side to only two shots on target. Their attack, led by Hakim Ziyech, hoped to deliver this time against a backline that has looked vulnerable in recent games.
Walid Regragui’s team lined up in a 4-3-3 shape with Munir Mohand Mohamedi coming in place of Yassine Bounou in goal. Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Nayef Aguerd, and captain Romain Saïss formed the back four, whilst Azzedine Ounahi, Sofyan Amrabat, and Selim Amallah continued in midfield. Ahead of the midfield, Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal operated as wingers, with Youssef En-Nesyri playing as the number nine.
Morocco’s defensive structure frustrates Belgium
Martínez’s shift to a back four was the talking point, but their shape in possession was certainly very similar to the one he has utilized during his tenure. Castagne moved to the left of a back three, with Thorgan Hazard maintaining the width on the left flank. This meant that his brother Eden was allowed to drift into the half spaces as Belgium formed a box-like shape in midfield. Having said that, they played in a 4-2-3-1 formation out of possession, therefore matching Morocco centrally and in the wide areas.
Belgium dominated the possession stats, but Morocco’s defense was a hard one to break down. Ahead of the game, Regragui’s side had not conceded a goal for nine hours, so Belgium unquestionably had a tough task on their hands. Their 4-3-3 shaped medium block and hybrid pressing structure ensured that there was no central penetration, as their opponents moved side to side without creating dangerous situations.
Morocco’s ball-sided central midfielder was instructed to press the center-back, therefore making it a three-versus-three in the first line. The near-sided winger, meanwhile, moved centrally to cover his midfielder’s position and jumped onto Belgium’s wing-back when he received the ball. Morocco were also quick to close down the wing-backs and did not allow them to turn goal sided, which was crucial as De Bruyne and Eden Hazard found themselves free in the half-spaces.
Minute 9: Morocco’s pressing. Ounahi presses Alderweireld from midfield by using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to Witsel. As he pushes forward, Boufal now moves centrally to cover De Bruyne. The center-back’s only option is to pass it to the wing-back and when he does it, Boufal presses Meunier while Ounahi moves back into his position to screen Witsel and De Bruyne.
Nevertheless, Meunier was able to find De Bruyne on a couple of occasions, courtesy of his intelligent movements into the space behind Morocco’s full-back. Additionally, the Manchester City man vacated the right side to create overloads on the left and link up with the Hazard brothers. But the problem remained the same; Belgium struggled to get the ball to their creative outlets due to Morocco’s organized defensive structure.
Towards the end of the half, Morocco won a free-kick near the corner flag and it presented an opportunity for Hakim Ziyech to deliver his magic. He did exactly that as Courtois was beaten, but ultimately the goal was ruled offside, as Saïss was deemed to be in the goalkeeper’s eyesight. The half ended in a stalemate, with Belgium once again seemingly out of ideas.
A second-half jubilation for Morocco
The second half started almost identically to the first, with Belgium having more of the ball, while Morocco stayed disciplined in their shape and looked to hit their opponents on the break. When Morocco had the ball, Amrabat usually dropped to the backline, which in turn allowed Hakimi and Mazraoui to advance up the pitch. There were also positional rotations between Ziyech and Amallah on the right, as the former came deep in search of the ball to switch the play to Boufal on the other side.
Onana and Witsel looked to find space and receive the ball, but there was no option around as Belgium were quite static in possession. As a result, Martínez once again turned to his substitutes, this time introducing Dries Mertens for Eden Hazard. This allowed De Bruyne to move to the left half-space, while Mertens occupied a central position behind Batshuayi. However, as the game got stretched, Boufal started getting more of the ball and caused Meunier enormous problems in one-versus-one situations.
The pitch plot showcases Belgium’s struggles in open play with their best chances of scoring arriving only during set pieces. This was also down to Morocco’s excellent out of possession structure, which restricted Belgium’s creative players to display their ability.
Morocco brought on fresh legs with Abdelhamid Sabiri replacing Amallah, and Zakaria Aboukhlal coming in place of En-Nesyri. It was significantly a game changer as they looked threatening on the break. They ultimately found joy in the last quarter of the game as Sabiri’s inswinging free-kick found its way past Courtois, who misread the flight of the ball. After the goal, Regragui immediately shifted to a back five as Morocco sat deep and defended their box extremely well.
Nervousness still prevailed among the thousands of traveling Moroccan supporters, but that soon changed to euphoria as substitute Aboukhlal put the ball into the net via Ziyech’s cutback in the penalty area in stoppage time. Martínez’s side, on the other hand, had yet another day to forget, with his key players failing to step up to the task.
Belgium’s Golden Generation clearly looks out of sorts as an era that was filled with footballing stars is coming to an end. For the second game running, they had no answers to their opponents’ approach and lacked creativity on the pitch. As a result of this defeat, Belgium now face a do-or-die tie against the last World Cup’s runner-up – Croatia. There are several problems in this squad, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Martínez decides to start the youngsters in their upcoming game to expect a reaction.
For Morocco, though, the victory will taste sweet and their supporters will go back in delight. This historic win marks a journey of a fresh rise under manager Walid Regragui as they tactically outclassed the World number two side on the biggest of stages. A draw against Canada could ensure just their second appearance in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Moreover, they haven’t conceded a goal in over ten hours of play, which is unquestionably something to be proud of. This team certainly has the potential to go deep in the tournament, provided they advance to the round of sixteen.
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