A scrappy, last-gasp goal from Mbark Boussoufa enabled Morocco to edge past South Africa in their final game of the group stage. Hervé Renard’s side struggled to create chances for most of the game and Boussoufa’s goal ended what was an impressive defensive effort from South Africa. The result meant that Morocco topped their group in the African Cup of Nations winning all three of their games.
This tactical analysis aims to identify and understand the key aspects of what was otherwise an uneventful game.
Morocco lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Noussair Mazraoui and Achraf Hakimi played at right and left-back respectively on either side of the centre-backs. In midfield, Morocco opted for a double-pivot of Mbark Boussoufa and Karim El-Ahmadi. Boussoufa, however, was given a free role. On the wings, Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat were the starters on the right and left respectively. Younes Belhanda played as the attacking midfielder behind the forward in Youssef En-Nesyri.
South Africa opted for a defensive 4-3-3. Ronwen Williams started in goal behind Buhle Mkhwanazi and Thulani Hlatshwayo, the two centre-backs. In midfield, former Ajax man Thulani Serero played in a more advanced role as compared to his counterparts. Strasbourg striker Lebo Mothiba led the attack with Percy Tau and Themba Zwane on the wings.
Morocco’s lack of creativity
Morocco were the far better side on paper but lacked the creativity or gameplan to assert the same. From kickoff, Morocco’s preferred tactic was a long ball over the South African defence in the hope that the opponents would err with their offside trap leaving En-Nesyri in an onside position. However, the South Africans rose to the occasion and had a spotless game when it came to holding their line and keeping the Moroccan forward offside. As the game went on, Morocco were extremely one-dimensional in hoping to score only through En-Nesyri as they kept fizzing in crosses which were dealt with comfortably. To their credit, Morocco did look cohesive on the left-wing as Amrabat and Hakimi combined on a number of occasions but Renard’s side were let down by a combination of poor crossing as well as a lack of movement or presence in the box.
Both of South Africa’s defenders were strong enough to deal with En-Nesyri who was usually the only Moroccan in the box. This lack of presence, especially from midfield meant that despite the wingers getting into threatening positions, these were ineffective and cleared easily.
South Africa’s defensive tweak
Seeing Amrabat and Hakimi combining so well, South Africa made an interesting tweak to their defensive system. As their full-back struggled to cope with the Moroccan duo, South Africa switched to a 5-4-1 when out of possession. This enabled them to create a numerical advantage and nullify the threat.
Imbalance and lack of cohesion from Morocco
The two main areas where Morocco struggled were on the right wing and in midfield. Transitions in midfield proved to be a major issue for Morocco. At times, El-Ahmadi would drop far too deep, preventing him from linking with Boussoufa in a freer role.
While Boussoufa had an all-action performance, he could have been more active in his efforts to move the ball quickly.
Younes Belhanda also had a quiet game as he was pressed by the South African midfielders and barely given any time on the ball. The biggest issue that Morocco faced was on the right wing as Ziyech and Mazraoui lacked chemistry. Ziyech usually opted to cut inside onto his favoured left foot and look for a through pass behind the gaps in the defence. However, given the lack of movement by the Moroccan midfielders, this ploy did not work and left Ziyech holding onto the ball for too long. Mazraoui did not effectively use the space vacated by Ziyech and was timider in his opportunities to get forward.
South Africa’s efforts
South Africa were excellent defensively and were unlucky to lose thanks to a scramble from a set-piece. The South African tactics were largely based around nullifying Morocco’s strengths and as a result, they did not offer much in the attacking sense. When they shifted to a five-man defence, their wingers were too occupied with their defensive duties to bring anything in attack. Given Morocco’s high defensive line, South Africa ought to have taken a gamble and brought their pacey attack into the game more. Given Morocco’s defensive susceptibility to pace, this could have acted as an important outlet. Nevertheless, the tactical tweaks and intelligent pressing by South Africa was impressive to see.
While Morocco may have won the game, their overall performance was quite poor given the difference in quality between the two sides. Nevertheless, Renard’s side qualified for the next round winning all three of their group stage games. South Africa will feel hard-done by the result given their defensive efforts and how they nearly succeeded in frustrating Morocco. There were many positives for South Africa to take from this game and despite the result, they finish third in the group and have a chance to qualify for the next round.
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