With an accumulation of eight trophies between them, the CAF Champions League quarter-finals match between Raja Casablanca from Morocco and TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was always going to be a good one. Raja Casablanca finished second in their group behind Espérance de Tunis. TP Mazembe ended their group undefeated and topped African giants Zamalek. Both teams have played the FIFA Club World Cup final against Bayern Munich in 2013 and Inter in 2010 respectively.
This tactical analysis will discuss the tactics used in the first leg, played in the Mohammed V Stadium in Morocco in front of more than 50,000 people. Raja’s coach Jamal Sellami was the winner in this tactical battle and the game ended 2-0 for the North Africans. TP Mazembe’s coach Mihayo Zazembe had a lot of work to do before the second leg if they want the chance to play the winner of the UEFA Champions League in December.
Raja Casablanca used a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation for the whole match. They tried to create spaces for their full-backs on the flanks by putting their three attacking midfielders and their target man and striker Malango in central areas.
TP Mazembe used a 4-1-4-1 formation with their wingers having the freedom to change sides and appear throughout the middle. They looked to find them quickly and relied on their individual quality to create danger.
Raja Casablanca’s high pressing and pragmatic possession
Raja Casablanca scored their first goal in the sixth minute and then managed the game and the possession quite easily. The goal scored when former-Mazembe striker Malango gave them the advantage and their confidence grew as they controlled the game. The statistics support this analysis as Raja Casablanca had 60% ball possession and didn’t concede a single shot from inside the box or on target.
The Moroccans tried to build from the back. Arjoune (#16, central midfielder) often joined the centre-backs to form a back three and the full-backs pushed forward. They used a slow tempo and low-risk passing to attract the pressure from TP Mazembe. Once they could attract the pressure, the goalkeeper, the centre-backs and Arjoune had the passing quality to beat lines with their passing.
In the picture below we see how Raja Casablanca attract pressure by passing the ball between their centre-backs and central midfielders near their box. When TP Mazembe’s front four press they leave a lot of space between them and their midfielders for Raja Casablanca’s goalkeeper to play in.
Raja Casablanca attackers often looked to receive between the lines facing their own goal. As soon as the pass was made, the full-backs rushed forward to receive a quick layoff. TP Mazembe’s defending of this kind of situation was very poor as wingers failed to track back and midfielders didn’t press the players who received between the lines.
In the image below we see one of the Raja Casablanca attackers receiving a pass from the centre-back. As soon as the pass is made, the full-back starts to run and receives the quick pass from the attacker. The space between the lines of TP Mazembe and the passivity of their midfield is easily exploited.
Below there’s another example. TP Mazembe fail to cut the passing lines, their winger doesn’t follow the full-back and Raja Casablanca establish themselves in the opposition half with two quick passes.
When the Moroccans reached the middle third they preferred to play backwards or to the sides. They often recycled possession and didn’t take any risks playing through the middle. With only 0.62 xG, they didn’t create a lot and most of their shots came from set-pieces or crosses. In these kinds of plays, they committed a decent number of players forward, enough to create some danger.
In the first picture below we can see how Raja Casablanca doesn’t try to play through the middle. Instead, they prefer to use the wings and the more central players attack the box. In the second picture, we see the play of their second goal. Before crossing, Raja Casablanca puts four players in the box against only two defenders so Benoun (#13, highlighted in blue) scores with a good header.
The other ways in which the North Africans advanced was through their target man Malango. Playing direct balls to his head and pressing the second balls, they reached the final third quickly and effectively. Their dominance in duels and second balls was crucial in their win. This was also used the few times TP Mazembe pressed high, and the good passing technique of the back line allowed them to put their clearances into good areas for second balls to be won. Raja Casablanca won 57% of the duels in the game, including 67% of the defensive duels and 55% of the aerial dues.
In the next two examples, we can see how the striker receives a long ball and before heading it there are already four players of Raja Casablanca ready to get the second ball. We can also appreciate how TP Mazembe is too slow tracking back and leave too much space between the lines.
In defence, Raja Casablanca opted for a high counter-pressing style. All the team moved forward as a block when attacking and they were automatically positioned to recover the ball. The pressing was very aggressive and well organized, making the defenders clear the ball away or play risky passes to the defensive midfielder who was then intensely pressed. The lack of technique and composure from the TP Mazembe defenders and the anticipation of Raja centre-backs made it impossible for the Congolese to take advantage from playing long balls to their striker.
TP Mazembe full of doubts
Registering no shots on target or inside the box and only 0.11 xG speaks a lot of TP Mazembe’s game (see below). They struggle to react after conceding the early goal and their doubts translated into the pitch. Their passing stats show their lack of ideas. Only 78% of their passes were successful and they didn’t complete any smart or through passes in the whole game.
TP Mazembe tried to play from the back but soon they realized the ball-playing quality of their defenders wasn’t good enough to beat the high pressure. After making some mistakes, they changed to a direct style but the Raja Casablanca centre-backs won most of the duels and they couldn’t fight for second balls.
In the example below, we see TP Mazembe trying to build from the back. Raja Casablanca’s high pressure cuts all the passing lines off and they can only clear the ball away.
The few times TP Mazembe beat the pressure, their attackers found themselves isolated and had to rely on their individual skills to generate danger. Their only danger came from their wingers’ ability in one-vs-one situations. However, they failed to register a single shot on target and their crossing was easily handled by the opposition as they didn’t have enough players in the box.
In the play below, TP Mazembe’s winger puts an early cross in the box, but it’s easily defended as Raja Casablanca defenders outnumber the lone striker. This situation was often repeated throughout the match.
In defence, TP Mazembe retreated to their half but the distance between lines was too big. Raja Casablanca’s attackers often found pockets of space where they could receive the ball. When the Moroccans spent a long time passing the ball in their half they tried to press, but once again their pressing wasn’t organized and was easily beaten as we saw before.
In the last 20 minutes, Raja Casablanca couldn’t press as high and TP Mazembe had more possession. Their style didn’t change a lot, still looking to feed the wingers and wait for them to create. Their inability to play through the centre and to commit numbers forward made it easy for the opposition to handle their crosses.
The early goal from Raja Casablanca made it an easy game for them. They controlled the match and took advantage of TP Mazembe as we have seen in this scout report.
But even if it was a well-deserved win for the Moroccan side, they didn’t create a lot. They preferred to play a low-risk style, knowing their technical and tactical superiority in this match. Not conceding from a quick counterattack or a lost ball in central zones was more important for them than having the ball in the final third. Raja Casablanca executed their plan perfectly and Mazembe’s lack of ideas seemed to exasperate them and give even more confidence to the home side.
In the second leg, the Congolese must find new ways to hurt Raja Casablanca. Playing at home should be a key factor and the need to score to stay in the CAF Champions League could play in their favour if it means they will attack with more players and less fear.