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FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

FIFA World Cup 2022: Why a close battle between Morocco and Portugal may come down to the finest margins – tactical preview

After causing a major upset in the round of 16 tie against Spain, Morocco now move into the last 8, to face the neighbours of the team they just defeated, Portugal. Morocco’s victory has already led to the departure of Luis Enrique after an early exit, and they will be hoping to do the same thing to Fernando Santos, Portugal’s head coach. Although the group stage games were full of underdog victories, the knockout stage has proven to be quite predictable, with every pre-match favourite being victorious apart from Spain.

In this tactical analysis, we will preview the meeting between Morocco and Portugal. We delve into the tactics used by each side, going into depth about each team’s strategies to win the game. Whether that is through a pragmatic or free-flowing approach, there is an analysis of what to expect from both sides, in regard to how they build play, create chances, and set up without the ball. We will provide information on how we believe both sides will set up, and where they may be looking to gain the vital edge that will guide them to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.

Team News

Morocco did not have any major injury worries after their beating of Spain after penalties, but a 120-minute gruelling affair may be too soon for some players. We expect the starting lineup to remain the same, but West Ham‘s Nayef Aguerd had to come off late in the game and is a doubt heading into the game. Jawad El Yamiq would be the likely replacement should Aguerd be unavailable. Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat put in an eye catching performance with his defensive display and a calm presence on the ball. However, he had to play on injections and spent long hours at night with his physiotherapist, in order to give him the best chance of being ready for the game.

After being on the pitch for 120 minutes, it is unclear whether Amrabat will be ready for the game, but seeing his dedication to the previous game, he will likely do whatever it takes to play in what will be the biggest game of his career. Every other member of the starting XI is likely to remain in the team as well unless a player has too much fatigue after the hard-earned win on Tuesday.

On the other hand Portugal’s lineup had a number of unexpected changes in their 6-1 victory over Switzerland. Fernando Santos opted for a more attacking approach, getting rid of a holding midfielder like Ruben Neves and instead of playing 2 sitting midfielders, he picked 2 players more comfortable in the 2nd and 3rd phases, to add an attacking threat. Otavio, Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho will form the midfield 3, in a move which will allow the whole team to be much more fluid on the ball. Manchester United’s Diogo Dalot and Borussia Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro will likely be the full-backs, with Joao Cancelo surprisingly being dropped to the bench after playing in every group stage game.

In the front line, Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes will start wide, but likely move into more central areas. Free agent Cristiano Ronaldo was unexpectedly dropped to the bench, but his replacement, Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos, made a debut start to remember, scoring the first hat-trick of the tournament, with an assist on top of that. After such an impressive team performance, it is likely that the starting XI will remain the same for the clash with Morocco.

How Portugal can hurt Morocco

In the build-up phase, William Carvalho will drop in between the two central defenders to form a back 3, whilst the two full-backs push higher up the pitch. Morocco are unlikely to press high, although may do so from goal kicks or throw-ins in the 1st third. The increased number of technically sound players has allowed Portugal to be very reliable in possession, and difficult to mark due to the frequent rotations.

During these rotations, a player in the line of the midfield four will play the ball forward and make a penetrative run, to stretch the opposition team vertically, while either Bruno Fernandes or Joao Felix, who start either side of Ramos, are comfortable with dropping in deeper into the midfield to overload any potential press from the opposition. As the two players swap positions, it gets harder to figure out who should mark who, and gaps open up for the Portugal players to exploit. Both full backs stay wide, to offer an option of switching play should any press be too aggressive and organised.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Once possession is sustained and Portugal move into the opposition’s half, this is where we can see the majority of the match playing out in. Portugal will set up in a 3-2-5 shape, with both fullbacks staying high and wide, while Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes operate in either half space. This setup will offer a solid base from which Portugal can retain the ball with technically outstanding players, whilst having dangerous players across the front line.

As seen in the image below, Otavio and Joao Felix have swapped positions. Having a fluid front line, with technical players all over the squad allows these constant rotations to happen continuously. We can see that both Felix, and Silva who is positioned next to him have adequate amounts of space around them, as the player supposed to be marking Felix had followed Otavio too far. These rotations can give the Portuguese players the one second of time on the ball they need to make a progressive passing option, and break a defensive line.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Morocco will of course look to make this as hard as possible for Portugal, as they had done so against Spain. Morocco set up in a 4-5-1 formation which looks to leave minimal space between the midfield and defensive lines, to prevent opponents from progressing play centrally. During the fixture against Spain, Morocco used both the left and right centre midfielders to press the ball, to prevent Spain from progressing the ball into the midfield line or final third. Pedri was forced to drop next to the defenders to get on the ball, in less favourable areas of the pitch where couldn’t do as much harm.

When in the mid-block, when either midfielder presses the ball, Sofyan Amrabat is aware and quickly moves to cover the space, while the formation moves into a temporary 4-4-2. The player who jumps up to press the ball only does so once the ball is in a wide area, where they can force play to one side and use the sideline to suffocate the play. The image below shows a perfect example of Ounahi stepping up to press, forcing the ball into the wide player. From this position, opposition teams are underloaded on the ball, and more likely to lose possession of the ball through an error on the ball under pressure.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Below is another example of a midfielder stepping up to pressure the ball, although this time it is the wide midfielder. In certain scenarios, the wide player will pressure the ball, to force a pass inside the centre, where they attempt to win the ball back even quicker by intercepting the first pass. Morocco defend in a very narrow and compact shape, so forcing central passes should result in turnovers, making use of Amrabat’s brilliant defensive tracking, awareness, and proactive defending.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

As mentioned earlier, the key to progressing through such a compact block will be through overloading the Moroccan midfield and disrupting the block with rotations of players. Joao Felix will be key to coming in deeper and combining with midfield players to bypass the Moroccan mid-block. Felix will be able to drop deep without being marked, so he will have the time on the ball to turn and progress the ball. The image below shows how Felix was utilised in the same role in the previous fixture, where he picked up the ball in midfield areas 5 times to dribble past the opposition block.

This World Cup has proven that a key way of beating a block, is to force an imbalance in the team by dribbling at players and taking them out of the game. Teams like Spain who make thousands of passes didn’t have the penetration, but any other nation that has done well so far has had a key player who can take on the responsibility of creating chances by carrying the ball past a number of players. Players who operate in the midfield phase, such as Otavio, Felix and B. Silva will be key to making a difference to the game.FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

When Portugal have the ball in and around the opposition box, they throw in high numbers of players into the box to cause a threat from crossing positions. One of the two pivot players, Otavio and Bernardo Silva, will move into the final third to help attack the box, leaving behind a 3-1 rest defence to counter press.

In wide areas, the fullbacks have the option of either combining with the player in the half-space or taking a defender on in a 1v1 from where they can cross the ball. The example below shows how Dalot takes the defender on, before putting a great cross along the floor, across the face of the goal, from where Ramos shows great movement to tap in an easy finish.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Portugal will also be a huge threat in transition. They defend in a 4-4-2, which leaves the two forwards and two wide players high up the pitch to start counterattacks. Should Portugal win the ball back. In these situations, they are at their most threatening moments. Bruno Fernandes has the ball striking and vision to play deadly through balls into the open spaces, whilst also being a goalscoring threat should he be the one in on goal. Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix both have the dribbling ability to carry the ball over long distances and play the killer pass, whilst Goncalo Ramos will is the penetrative threat to run in behind and finish the attack.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Morocco’s attacking possibilities

Although they had limited possession in the previous games, Morocco still managed to show off impressive ways in which they can hurt the opposition both in transition and in settled play.

During the build-up, Morocco will attempt to play out from the back, as they have shown they can do in their recent fixture against Spain. Using a 4-3-3, Morocco make the most of their extremely technical backline to help them to retain the ball and move up the pitch. At the base of the midfield, Amrabat is extremely comfortable on the ball and can turn either way to evade pressure. They will look to attract pressure in central areas, before moving the ball to a fullback who can carry it up the pitch.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Portugal have shown a change to their system, where they opted for a high press against Switzerland, rather than sitting back in a deeper position. This may have been a one off, but based off the success it brought, it can be expected that they will continue with the same approach. They didn’t manage to do so successfully every time, but forcing Switzerland to be more direct allowed Portugal to dominate more off the ball.

As we can see below, Portugal initiate their press when either of the wide central defenders receives the ball, from where it is easier to force play down one side of the pitch. When play becomes more predictable, Portugal press aggressively in their 4-4-2. The wide player inverts to press the ball player, while the striker, Ramos, forces play to one side. Bernardo Silva starts high next to Ramos, and marks the pivot to prevent any passes from being played centrally. Bruno Fernandes and Otavio mark any other central options, while Carvalho gives Portugal a +1 across the back line. Whichever side the ball is on, has the full back step up to mark the opposition full back, which gives other teams no options of passing the ball, forcing them long instead,

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

If Morocco do successfully beat the press and retain possession of the ball, they look to create chances from wide areas. Sofiane Boufal has been one of the standout performers for the African side, who has looked fearless whenever he was put under pressure. Boufal’s dribbling ability has allowed him to make Morocco extremely difficult to defend against, as he can carry his whole team up the pitch to sustain pressure, whilst also being nearly impossible to stop during transitions.

Boufal has an array of skills which he has used to beat his opponents in 1v1 situations, and his display of magic has made him one of the most exciting players to watch in this whole tournament. In the image below, a memorable moment is captured, where Boufal forces his defender to commit to a tackle and become unbalanced through body feints and disguise in his actions. Boufal can beat people with trickery with his feet and body manipulation, which makes him unpredictable for defenders.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Another key to penetrating Portugal’s defence will be the partnership between Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi. Ziyech has the ability to control attacks, by being the creative hub for his side by always demanding the ball and being willing to take risks to play the final pass. As a result, Ziyech attracts players to him, as he is seen as a dangerous player who can’t have time on the ball, which opens space for his teammates to play beside him.

And so, Hakimi will have space on the flanks when Ziyech cuts inside. Hakimi is extremely quick and has brilliant 1v1 abilities as well as the vision and accuracy to deliver deadly balls into the box. The image below will likely show the way in which Morocco create key chances on Saturday, and how they may break down Portugal’s defence.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

When in and around the box, Boufal alone can provide what the pairing of Ziyech and Hakimi provide on the other side. He can create separation for himself through his expert dribbling, whilst he also possesses the crossing ability on either foot to accurately find his teammates. In the image below, we can see Boufal play a great cross towards the back post where two of his teammates are open, although Aguerd misses a headed effort on goal.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Azzedine Ounahi has also shown that he can create dangerous chances through central areas, also this occurs less frequently than it does in wide areas. Ounahi has demonstrated his defensive intelligence and work rate against Spain, where he ran 14.71km, but he also has the twinkle toes to dribble through tight spaces and has the weight of pass to feed-forward players. He is also yet another technically gifted player in the Moroccan side, although the recognition has not been as common.

In the image below, we can see Ounahi skip past 3 Spanish players, whilst he also has the patience and timing to wait for his teammate to be breaking through the last line before releasing the ball. Players often rush their passes, when they get filled with excitement, but Ounahi has proved his maturity in decision-making to release the ball at the right moment.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Morocco v Portugal - tactical preview

Predicted Outcome

This tactical preview has demonstrated the ways in which both Morocco and Portugal can hurt each other, and also stop one another. Portugal will likely dominate possession due to Morocco’s approach of blocking space in their own half, but that doesn’t mean Morocco won’t see any of the ball. Portugal’s high press will see them have more off the ball, and could lead to creating chances by winning the ball back high up the pitch, but Morocco’s ability on the ball could see them play through the Portuguese press on a number of occasions.

Morocco are a side that should not be underestimated, but Portugal’s deadly front line will likely see them creating more than any other side has created so far against Morocco. When Morocco sit back, Portugal’s attackers will gain the chance to freely move between the lines, and the ease at which they combine with each other could see them slice through the Moroccan defence.

Portugal have so far scored 12 goals and conceded 5, while Morocco have scored 4, but only conceded 1. We can clearly see that one team’s games are full of fireworks, whilst the other has seen a limited number of goals or even chances appear. Having seen the quality of Morocco’s defence, it is unlikely that they concede many, but Portugal’s 6 goal showing and a potential injury to Aguerd could see that trend start to change.

Morocco will be looking to get to the semi-finals for the first time in their history, and this game could be a really tight fixture, one which could be decided by a moment of magic from either side. Both nations have elite difference makers, although Portugal have the advantage of wonderful substitutes such as Rafael Leao who is in high demand, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who has shown again and again, that he lives for the big moments, and rises to the occasion.