Morocco and Ivory Coast came into this game after sealing narrow victories in their opening matches of group D in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Morocco, managed by a famous Hervé Renard, beat Namibia 1-0 while Les Éléphants got the better of South Africa. The North Africans were the ones who showed a bit of flair and offensive fluidity by exploiting Ivory Coast’s weaknesses on the flanks. Hervé Renard’s side sealed another 1-0 victory and secured their place in the last eight with one game to spare.
This tactical analysis will explain why The Elephants struggled to create chances and what was the key to Morocco’s attacking success down the wings.
On paper, Hervé Renard went for a 4-3-3 formation after using 4-2-3-1 in the game against Namibia. Yassine Bounou started in goal with Nabil Dirar, Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia, Ghanem Saiss and Achraf Hakimi forming an unchanged back-line.
The midfield was an area where the only changes occurred. M’Bark Boussoufa was the only survivor in midfield with Karim El-Ahmadi and Younes Belhanda starting the match in place of Mehdi Bourabia and Youssef Ait Bennasser.
The attacking trio was also unchanged and consisted of Ajax’s Hakim Ziyach, Nordin Amrabat and Youssef En-Nesyri.
On the contrary, the Ivorians did not make a single change and fielded an exact same team that beat South Africa using a 4-2-3-1 shape. Sylvain Gbohouo was protected by Tottenham’s right-back Serge Aurier, Ismael Traoré and Serge Kanon who formed a centre-back pair and a left- back Wonlo Coulibaly.
Franck Kessié and Serie Dié were selected as a double pivot with Fulham’s Jean Michael Seri positioned just in front of them in a number ten role. Max-Alain Gradel started on the left wing with Nicolas Pepe on the right. Jonathan Kodjia was Les Éléphants lone striker.
Morocco’s offensive approach against the Ivorians’ defensive structure
There was not much surprise in a way Ivory Coast lined-up without the ball. The Moroccans had a single striker up top, therefore, a back four with two centre-halves seemed to be a wise choice by the Ivorians’ head coach. This allowed having a midfield quartet when out of possession with both wide players tucking inside to follow Morocco’s full-backs. Fulham’s midfielder Seri looked after El-Ahmadi, who acted as a pivot, to prevent Morocco’s build-up from the middle.
Morocco’s intention in the attack was to exploit the areas out wide. Both full-backs pushed high up the pitch with Boussoufa being the furthest out of the three central midfielders. It meant that El-Ahmadi and Belhanda were the two pivots who took up more defensive roles. Boussoufa usually positioned himself close to Amrabat with Hakimi joining the attack through the right wing. These alterations from the original team line-up resulted in a 2-4-3-1 when Hervé Renard’s side had the ball.
Morocco’s defensive structure to nullify Ivory Coast’s attack
Morocco’s defensive shape signalled their eagerness to be in positions to retain ball possession after an aerial duel. A quite narrow 4-1-4-1 set-up without the ball meant that the Moroccans had enough players around in case the first or the second ball was won. El-Ahmadi was usually positioned just in front of the back four to recycle the second balls and provide even more solidity. After winning an aerial duel, enough players would be within close proximity to preserve it and quickly move it out wide. This is how the majority of Morocco’s attacks were developed – through the flanks.
Contrarily, Ivory Coast’s offensive approach was based on playing long balls to the lone striker Kodjia. Both Dié and Kessié acted as a double pivot who together with both centre-halves played the most long balls in a team. Then, a trio comprised of Seri, Gradel and Pepe were aiming to win the second balls after knock-downs from Kodjia. The latter two were positioned closer to the Ivorian striker being the main target for second balls. As such, Les Éléphants opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape when in possession. One of the full-backs would make an overlapping run from time to time altering the formation to 3-2-4-1.
Morocco threatening down the wing
In this game, both teams were equally not impressive when trying to play through the middle. However, Hervé Renard and his team completely outwitted the Ivorians when building-up through the flanks. On numerous occasions throughout the match, Morocco were able to easily progress to the attacking third predominantly through the left flank. In the image below, it can be seen how Amrabat drags Aurier out of his position (orange arrow). The left full-back Hakimi and left midfielder Boussouma then both make forward runs into space to receive a long pass from the centre-back.
It has to be noted how static and switched off Ivory Coast’s midfielders were in this situation. Neither Pepe nor Kessié had any clue where their supposed markers were technically making it a 3 v 1 situation.
Another similar situation on the left wing but this time Morocco played it short. Instead of dragging Aurier out of his position, Amrabat stayed glued to him, thus, creating a massive space to be played into. Morocco’s left centre-half Saiss carried the ball near the touchline, whereas left-back Hakimi positioned himself further up the pitch. It left Ivory Coast’s left winger Pepe confused since he could not choose between the two. Poor marking in midfield meant that Boussouma could easily receive the pass with Seri and Dié both slow to close down. Yet again, it created a 3 v 1 overload on the left flank.
Another situation where Morocco moved up through the left flank. This time Ivory Coast managed to prevent an overload there; however, it did not pay any dividends. In the situation below, the battle between the same three players took place. Amrabat, on the ball, was being closed down by Aurier who left the space behind him. Amrabat played the ball back to Boussouma while Hakimi was already making an overlapping run. Dié failed to spot the danger and cover the space vacated by Aurier. Consequently, Boussouma played a little dinked ball over the top which set Hakimi free on the left wing yet again. It seemed that Ivorians’ greatly lacked game intelligence throughout the whole match.
Another similar situation happened on the opposite wing. This time Gradel (orange arrow) stepped out to prevent a potential pass to Amrabat from Belhanda. As a result, Morocco’s right-back Dirar made a forward run into space where supposedly should have been the Ivorians’ left-back Coulibaly. Another attacking move down the flank by the Moroccans that was not tracked by their opponents.
Ivory Coast’s offensive struggles
In contrast to the opposition, Les Éléphants were not as focused on playing through the flanks. Ibrahima Kamara’s men opted for a more direct approach which meant playing long balls through the middle. There were primarily two reasons why the Ivorians chose this tactic. Firstly, the Moroccans used high press strategy quite effectively at times. Secondly, both centre-halves and both pivots in Dié and Kessié are not the most technically gifted players.
As such, when one of the four, usually it was Dié, was pressurised by the opponents the long ball tactics were deployed. The ball holder would either play a long ball himself towards a lone striker Kodjia or play it back to the goalkeeper who then did the same.
Another important point to make is that Dié would constantly receive the ball while being in wrong body shape. As a result, he was unable to scan the area and see available teammates around him. In the image below, Dié received the ball from the centre-back from the side with his back facing the opposition half. This means he did not want to take a risk to make a half turn, instead he played it safe to the goalkeeper.
Conversely, if he received the ball from the centre-back facing the opposition half with a front side, he could have taken the touch with his left foot and would have been in full view to scan the area for available passing options.
Aerial duels and playing in behind
In general, it was a fairly scrappy game evident by poor passing accuracy. Just over 70 per cent of passes were successful from both sides. The game was full of aerial duels that meant the teams could not preserve the ball for longer periods. Morocco dominated this game aspect by winning 61 per cent of all aerials. Nonetheless, Ivory Coast did manage to win some aerial battles on occasions that turned into something more dangerous. Sadly for the Ivorians, those moments were few as they did not create any real clear cut chances throughout the whole game.
Morocco also managed to successfully play in behind at times using a long ball approach. Again, it highlighted Ivory Coast’s defensive frailties and poor communication between the right-back and right-sided centre-half.
As this analysis outlined, Morocco showed a more astute offensive approach. On the other hand, Ivory Coast lacked game intelligence and failed to stop Morocco’s attacks through the flanks. The only goal of the game was a pure example of how four Ivorians failed to communicate with each other.
Nevertheless, Les Éléphants are still in contention to qualify, whereas Hervé Renard will have his eyes on the third African Cup of Nations trophy as a manager.