Morocco – Spain: La Roja’s Flame Fizzles Out (0-0, 3-0 After Penalties)
Luis Enrique proudly paraded his tournament record in the prelude to the World Cup. He might want to think twice about such action now, tripping at the same hurdle as Spain did in 2018. In a contest where one outfit was willing and able to suffer in a low block, and the other was neither willing nor able to step up to the plate in the final third, luck was with the outsiders.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Morocco have embraced the perplexity of this World Cup, etching their name into the history books. Their sturdy defense, conceding only an own goal in their three matches, has been the bedrock of their impressive feats. Clean sheets against Croatia and Belgium, whom they beat 2-0, paved the way to the top spot in the group and the first seven point haul for an African nation on the global stage. Another victory, and entry into the last eight of the competition, would be brand new territory for the country.
The Spanish have shown off their whole repertoire in their three fixtures. A rampant rout of the Costa Ricans, in which they found the back of the net seven times, demonstrated how mercilessly they could dominate an opponent. So did their routine escapologist act from the German high press, yet frailties in both boxes contributed to a 1-1 draw. A 2-1 defeat to Japan asserted these weaknesses are not new and continue to chip away at a stable game model. Could the Moroccans exploit their shortcomings?
Spanish manager Luis Enrique started six men in all three group stage games. They kept their spots in the starting eleven while he rotated half his outfield players. Aymeric Laporte was back next to Rodri in central defense, Jordi Alba replaced Álex Balde at left back, and Marcos Llorente came in for César Azpilicueta on the other side of the back four. In attack, Álvaro Morata made way for Marco Asensio, and Nico Williams had dropped to the bench, so Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo were the two wingers.
Moroccan Walid Regragui barely meddled with a working plan. He only brought Selim Amallah in for Abdelhamid Sabiri in the middle of the park. So, Yassine Bounou was between the posts in front of Romain Saïss and Nayef Aguerd. Sofyan Amrabat sat at the base of midfield, shielding the defense. Two talented pairs stood on either side of the pitch: Noussair Mazraoui and Sofiane Boufal on the left; Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech on the right. Ahead of them was the striker Youssef En-Nesyri.
Morocco stand strong in their standard system
Morocco did not fight the Spaniards for the ball high up the pitch. They dropped toward the edge of their penalty area, setting up in a 4-1-4-1 block. The first port of call was the center of the pitch, where the Spanish intended to run the game through their central defenders and Sergio Busquets.
28th minute: defensive sequence from Morocco. Pedri, Alba and Olmo rotate on the left. Ziyech drops off on the right flank to cover the advance of the fullback, while Azzedine Ounahi engages with Pedri. Once Pedri chops back inward and breaks the lines to find the rotating Asensio, Amrabat has shuttled over to harass the central forward. En-Nesyri covers Busquets; Hakimi and Ounahi then press Olmo.
En-Nesyri mainly stayed next to the defensive midfielder, while the central midfielder on the ball near side moved out from the chain of four in the middle of the park to close down the ball-carrying central defender. His teammates secured the room behind him. To this end, Amrabat also made ball-oriented movements to offer deeper defensive cover between the lines. Regragui’s men rarely were too passive in such a deep defense. Their constant aggression in duels, blocks, and pressure on any passes inside the block stood the test of time. The Spaniards had a testing task to pry open this determined group.
Same story for the Spanish
Enrique’s men showed barely any surprises. Their 4-3-3 shape moved into several variants of a 4-1-5 offensive structure. Both fullbacks could stay narrower and inside, while the two wingers were high and wide to their outside. Or rotations between the central midfielders, fullbacks, and wingers created new angles in the same basic arrangement. Pedri was free to drop off, giving Jordi Alba the license to move higher up the flank and Olmo to load the halfspace with Asensio on the left edge of the attack.
A different wrinkle in their work on the ball came to light in this match. On the right edge, Llorente often moved higher into the right halfspace, from where he could launch deep and make underlapping runs to support Torres or offer an option to combine on the flank. However, it made little difference to an offense showing the same old flaws. They rarely flooded the penalty area or threatened to break the lines with riskier passing. Spain stabilized with control of the ball but lacked incision in the final third.
Enrique’s search for a solution is fruitless
Regragui’s men retreated even more into a 4-5-1 low block at the end of the first half. Meanwhile, the Spanish midfielders reconfigured. Gavi moved to the left, staying higher between the lines, and Pedri held back on the right. The rotations on the right began to mess up the cover behind Amallah a little better, but bodies were still absent in the box. So, Enrique duly turned to his bench at the hour mark.
38th minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Rodri dribbles forward, drawing out Amallah, whose body posture blocked the passing lane to Llorente. This manipulation opened up central access to Asensio, whom Amrabat cannot follow too prematurely after the wall pass to Rodri as Busquets is on his right shoulder. The forward receives again, Llorente attacks the defense, and the ball goes wide.
Morata spearheaded the attack, taking the place of Asensio, and Carlos Soler replaced Gavi on the right of the midfield, pushing Pedri back over to his usual slot on the left. Around a quarter of an hour on the clock remained at the point of a third substitution: Torres made way for Williams. His dynamic dribbling forged a new threat on the right flank, and Morata gave more central depth with his runs along the offside line. However, the contest remained goalless. More modifications soon beckoned.
Morocco were holding on but continued to grow weary. Two more pairs of fresh Spanish legs tried to tip the scales in their favor. Both gave forward thrust on the left, but Walid Cheddira ought to have dwarfed their influence. He broke into the penalty area, latching onto an astute pass from Ounahi, but Unai Simón firmly blocked his shot. As the minutes ebbed away, Enrique’s mind began to wander.
All Hail Hakimi!
To the chagrin of Williams, whose sway on the duel on the right flank mimicked that of his displays in the Nations League, Enrique’s final roll of the dice was at his expense. Enrique’s final roll of the dice was at his expense. The manager preempted the prospect of a penalty shootout, putting on Pablo Sarabia in the 118th minute. Indeed, the forward could have swerved such uncertainty if he buried a delivery from Rodri, but his volley struck the post.
Morocco had survived. The tension rolled on over into the shootout. Sarabia stepped forward to the penalty spot but again hit the post, relinquishing the initiative. Enrique’s ploy backfired. And worse was to come. Bounou embodied the role of a national hero, saving two further efforts from Soler and Busquets. The burden lay on the shoulders of Hakimi to seal the victory. He dinked the ball down the middle of the net beyond Simón: an apt final act for a nation that had coolly risen to this occasion.
Spain’s loss to Japan foreshadowed this outcome: they have still failed to win a single knockout fixture at the World Cup since 2010. Even though they also gave up very little at the other end of the pitch, their lack of penetrating power in the final third left the outcome of this contest to chance. Enrique has put together a very different collective from the one that bowed out at this stage four years ago, but the cap on their ceiling has hurt them sooner than even he might have envisaged.
The parallels to the Spanish exit to the 2018 World Cup speak to their opponents’ strength. Morocco accepted their role in this duel, conceding 77% of the possession on the night. Yet, just as Russia did in 2018, they excelled in a low block. Amrabat starred, and he is one of many individuals whose work on and off the pitch indicates the quality that Africa harbors. A revitalized Portugal awaits in the next round, but they will savor the challenge of going where no other country on the continent has gone.
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