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World Cup: Did uncharacteristic choices and errors cost Morocco against France?

10:23 AM GMT 15/12/2022
20221214 Walid Regragui
Jawad El Yamiq’s error led to Les Blues’ early opener but did Walid Regragui get the starting approach wrong in Wednesday’s semi-final?

Morocco were solid defensively in their run to the World Cup semi-finals...until they were not. The Atlas Lions gave away a goal five minutes into their clash with France to throw a spanner in the works.

Walid Regragui’s team had progressed to the last four on the back of their sturdy defensive strength where they had not conceded to an opposition strike (at the World Cup) in five games leading to Wednesday night. You always wondered what the reaction would be when the inevitable happened, and the Atlas Lions let in the opening goal of the game.

Well, it took just five minutes against France at the Al Bayt Stadium, a goal that was very much avoidable.

Jawad El Yamiq’s movement to intercept Raphael Varane’s pass into Antoine Griezmann was unsuccessful, and that gamble cost the North African side. It was panic stations from the point the Atletico Madrid star received the ball in the inside-right channel, with the Africans scrambling across to compensate for El Yamiq’s misjudgement.

Nearly everyone in the penalty area was attracted to Kylian Mbappe, desperate to prevent the Paris Saint-Germain man from having a clear scoring chance. But that left Theo Hernandez free on the edge of the six-yard box.

The AC Milan man did not miss his chance, acrobatically scoring the game’s first goal to make things interesting. Morocco had not been behind at any point under Regragui and needed to do things differently.

Les Blues’ record from winning positions in the World Cup was impressive, especially from half-time onwards, where they had won 25 and drawn one. That record could become 26 wins and a draw.

For Regragui, there had to be a change. The 47-year-old’s strange decision to abandon the 4-1-4-1 approach that made them Africa’s first semi-final representatives raised eyebrows and the scheme was effectively voided after that Hernandez goal.

The Morocco boss had previously moved to the 5-4-1 when seeing out leads. This time, he utilised it from the off, sending the wrong signals. Of course, France’s early strike means we will never know what the plan was with a back five, but it was undoubtedly uncharacteristic.

Africa’s greatest-ever World Cup side were forced to attack more than they probably intended. But it made for a fascinating semi-final. It may have turned out otherwise had France doubled their advantage or even made it 3-0 before half-time, with Olivier Giroud, the hero against England, missing two chances to put Morocco to the sword.

Regragui was forced into abandoning his odd back five anyway, with captain Romain Saiss forced off with a hamstring injury that had troubled him since the Round of 16 success against Spain.

In truth, he never should have featured, a thought summed up by former Manchester United right-back Gary Neville.

“Look, I admire the bravery but he’s an experienced player and you’re not going to recover from a hamstring in a few days,” the retired defender said on ITV as the defender walked off.

Morocco fared better after the formation alteration as the game progressed, notably channelling attacks down their right flank and France’s left, looking to make the most of Mbappe’s disinclination to help out defensively. Without Adrien Rabiot to compensate for the superstar’s free role, it seemed to be a sensible approach.

For large periods after the interlude, the Atlas Lions were undaunted by the fact they were playing the defending world champions who seldom surrendered half-time leads. They lay siege to the European nation’s goal but lacked the killer instinct to put away menacing attacks.

As one promising situation after the other was squandered, you feared it was going to take one moment for Didier Deschamps’ men to double their advantage. And they did, with Randal Kolo Muani scoring from close range only 44 seconds after his introduction.

Going back a few seconds, there must have been disappointment from Morocco’s perspective as to how France’s second came about. Again, it was El Yamiq who played a significant role. A misplaced two-yard pass to Azzedine Ounahi resulted in Les Blues regaining possession in the middle of the park and Deschamps’ crew were scoring seconds after.

In the centre-back’s defence, 19 seconds passed from his loss of possession to the favourites’ second. There was enough time to regain the ball after he gifted it to Aurelien Tchouameni. Game over. Dream over.

Morocco had won hearts in Qatar and showed their ability to play differently against the world champions, albeit owing to conceding early.

“After a game like this, it’s difficult to think (of positives) for the players. When you are so near to the final you want to play the final,” Sofyan Amrabat told Fox after the game.

“Our strength this tournament was scoring first. But they did that tonight. They are strong in defence and attack. We played a good game but it was not enough today.”

Perhaps the game could have turned out differently had the culpable El Yamiq netted an incredible overhead kick just before the break or one of Atlas Lions’ threatening forays ended in the North Africans levelling.

The dream of a World Cup final is over and unexpected mistakes hurt their prospects.

That said, Regragui’s stratagems got the Arab world believing and an entire continent followed suit. That is how we should remember him and his fearless Lions.