Morocco – Portugal: Another Masterclass In Defense From The Moroccans (1-0)
Though Portugal were the heavy favorites coming into the game, they were no match for the Moroccans’ perfect defensive setup. They completely restricted Portugal’s final third play and even nicked an early goal on the counterattack, which gave them the freedom to sit in and place all of their focus on defending their lead.
Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley
After their dominant performance against Switzerland, where they scored as many goals as they had in the entirety of their group stage matches, Portugal had bounds of momentum going into the game against Morocco. Fernando Santos made the decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo against the Swiss, the main factor that contributed to the attacking onslaught by the Portuguese. Santos and his side would be facing a much more defensively sound team in Morocco, and Santos elected to once again start the former Manchester United man on the bench.
Having found a lineup that he likes, Santos made only one change from the starting eleven that beat Switzerland with Ruben Neves returning to the lineup in place of William Carvalho. Diogo Costa got his fifth consecutive start in goal, with Diogo Dalot, Pepe, Rúben Dias, and Raphaël Guerreiro making up the back four. Bernardo Silva, Neves, and Otávio acted as the midfield trio, with Bruno Fernandes, Gonçalo Ramos, and João Félix making up the forward line.
Walid Regragui and his Morocco team have had the best defensive record of all of the sides in Qatar, having only conceded one goal through their first four matches. After their monumental win against Luis Enrique’s Spain that went through extra time and a shootout, Morocco had physically exerted themselves much more than Portugal had in their prior match. Regragui’s side were forced to weather the possession storm that Spain brought to them, with the 2010 World Cup winners completing over one thousand passes and registering 77% possession over the course of the match. It would be a much different approach in possession from Portugal, forcing Regragui’s side to defend against a more direct and quick team in attack.
Regragui made only two changes to the side that held off Spain, both of which were due to injuries in the back line. Yassine Bounou started in goal, with Jawad El Yamiq and Yahia Attiyat Allah joining Achraf Hakimi and Roman Saïss to form Morocco’s deepest line of defense. Azzedine Ounahi, Sofyan Amrabat, and Selim Amallah once again formed the midfield trio, whilst Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Sofiane Boufal made up the attacking front for Morocco.
Morocco pick up where they left off
Regragui’s side had no trouble transitioning from the match against Spain to their tie with Portugal, and they immediately sat in to defend in a similar manner in the quarterfinals. It was the same narrow mid block that Morocco had used throughout the World Cup, and it caused a number of problems for the Portuguese early on. Sofyan Amrabat and the other Moroccan midfielders played tight to their defensive line, greatly restricting how often Portugal’s more advanced central players could receive the ball between the lines. The only space that Portugal could exploit was in behind the Moroccan defense or on the wings, both of which were quick to be covered whenever Portugal targeted them. In the opening moments Portugal repeatedly tried to play long passes over the top of the Moroccan back line to Gonçalo Ramos, but he was tightly marked by both Roman Saïss and Jawad El Yamiq which kept him from having much of an impact from these areas.
12th minute. Portugal try to break down Morocco’s mid block by playing through the wings.
After their attempts to bypass the Moroccan defense with long balls and diagonal switches, Portugal attempted to use the wings to progress the ball into the final third. However, the Moroccan’s also had these avenues covered. Though it was not difficult for Portuguese players to receive the ball in wide areas, they were not given the time or space to do anything with the ball after they got onto it. The Moroccan system allowed for their wingers to essentially man-mark the Portuguese fullbacks, as it was the job of the advanced Moroccan central midfielders to step out of their system to press Portugal’s back line when necessary. The Moroccans closed off any potential passing lanes that would be used to move the ball in dangerous areas, forcing the Portuguese to either give up the ball attempting a risky forward pass or recycle possession by returning it to their deeper players. This resulted in extended periods where Portugal found themselves passing around the back aimlessly looking for an opening in their opponents’ defense.
In an effort to try and break down the Moroccans Bernardo Silva, Ruben Neves, and Bruno Fernandes would all drop deeper than Morocco’s most advanced players to try and play distributor. This was the only area any of the three could get on the ball securely, and they tried to use long diagonals and shifting runs to try and get past Morocco’s mid block.
Morocco were again effective on the counterattack, as their high initial line of defense put them in a good starting position to attack in transition moments. Whenever they intercepted a Portuguese pass or brought down a failed long ball, they would put numbers forward quickly to try and catch out the vulnerable Portuguese. The Moroccans tended to rely on individual skill to beat Portugal’s initial press and win one versus one duels, using the tricky moves of their fullbacks and wingers to get past defenders and into space where they could run with the ball. Though Morocco’s counter attacks were their only chances of scoring, it also became Portugal’s best route to goal at the other end, since they could break down the transitioning Morocco defense much easier than in its set, deeper form.
With three minutes left in the first half, Morocco found the goal that would end up being the winner. After Morocco had won the ball back in their own territory, they went forward with pace and numbers, with Yahia Attiyat Allah picking up the ball on the left wing just outside the Portugal penalty area. Attiyat Allah put a cross in towards Youssef En-Nesyri, which the Sevilla man was able to flick over the outcoming Diogo Costa to give Morocco their precious lead. With a lead already secured, all Morocco had to do was hold their defense for another forty-five minutes.
Santos switches up the system, becomes more aggressive
After half-time Santos decided to bring on Cristiano Ronaldo and João Cancelo for Neves and Raphaël Guerreiro, switching his side’s formation to something like a 4-4-2. Bruno Fernandes and João Felix played in the “wide midfielder” positions, but their roles were those of inverted wingers with the fullbacks taking up residence high upfield on the wings. Ramos played just off Ronaldo as a second striker, dropping into the midfield during the buildup phase to give his teammates another option between the lines.
61st minute. Portugal break into Morocco’s defensive third, with Félix and Fernandes taking up central roles as Portugal searches for a goal.
Near the sixtieth minute Roman Saïss was forced to leave the game due to injury, which pushed Regragui to move his side to a five-man defense to provide the most security at the back. With his two best center-backs off injured (as well as Noussair Mazraoui), it was a back line made up of mostly second-choice players to finish the match for Morocco. Still, Regragui’s side did not budge, continuing from the first half with Ziyech and Boufal tasked with marking Portugal’s fullbacks whilst Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi were forced to control the midfield just as a partnership.
Portugal had the ball in Morocco’s defensive third more in the second half than they had in the first mainly due to their more aggressive approach. They would try a risky ball deep into Morocco’s territory to kickstart an attack, and either get possession in a dangerous area or desperately press the Moroccans to win the ball back or force a clearance which they could then recover.
Late on, Portugal would pin Morocco into their own penalty area, trying to get balls into the box as often as they could. However, Morocco would fill their area with as many numbers as they could, leaving just one player out of the box to act as a target outlet. Though Portugal created a few substantial chances, most of their efforts were well-defended by the Moroccans or handled with ease by Bono. Even after substitute Walid Cheddira was sent off after a second yellow card three minutes into stoppage time Portugal still failed to capitalize for their few remaining minutes. They were unable to break down the stubborn and steadfast Morocco defense, and their lack of creativity and finishing touch sending them home from Qatar.
After such a free-flowing attacking performance against Switzerland, it was difficult to see Portugal not putting at least one shot into the back of the net against Morocco. However, Portugal were frustrated by the Moroccan system, and they were not given the attacking liberties gifted to them by the Swiss. They struggled to break into the final third throughout the first half, and even when they were able to in the second they were not able to get through the red wall in Morocco’s penalty area.
This will likely be the last World Cup for a number of the players on Portugal’s roster, with both Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo surely not to be in the squad for the 2026 tournament. Though Pepe performed admirably at the back whilst deputizing for the injured Danilo Pereira, Ronaldo’s campaign was a completely different story. The Portugal team will most likely be better off without this version of Ronaldo, and it is time for them to rebuild towards their post-Ronaldo era.
Morocco were brilliant once again in this match. They have now only conceded one goal in five matches in Qatar, an unbelievable record for Walid Regragui’s side. Their defensive structure is by far the best system at the tournament, and it has helped them win games against better sides (on paper), with much more individual talent. Now in the semifinals, Morocco will have to face a side unlike any they have faced yet in Qatar: either France or England, both of which are now the favorites to win the tournament after Brazil’s run was ended by Croatia. They have managed to keep clean sheets against Belgium, Croatia, Spain, and Portugal (and only conceded an own goal against Canada), who is to say that they cannot do it against the French or the English?
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