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Tactical Preview: Can Morocco continue their magical run against France?

Morocco certainly are the best underdog story at this World Cup and are within touching distance of glory.

In just their second World Cup campaign in the 21st century, they have become the first African nation to make it past the quarter-final stage and now have most of the continent and the Arab world backing them.

The Atlas Lions will need all the support they can get for their semi-final because they will be facing the defending champions France, who have been one of the most dangerous teams throughout the tournament.

Morocco are yet to concede to an opponent at the World Cup, having kept clean sheets in all but one of their matches (the final group game against Canada where Nayef Aguerd scored an own goal), but that record will be under severe threat now.

France are among the top three scorers at the tournament and are also right up there as far as xG is concerned.

Morocco have started each of their matches in a 4-3-3 formation, defending in a very compact 4-1-4-1 block.

Of course, they drop deep whenever necessary but prefer to use a mid-block with a pretty high defensive line. Here is a visualisation of that from their quarter-final match against Portugal:

(Image credit: FIFA)

They did switch to a 5-4-1 for the last half an hour of that match, but that was the only extended period of time that they used a different formation. The reason behind that is pretty clear – they had a one-goal lead which they were looking to hold on to.

So, they should be expected to return to the 4-3-3 for the semi-final. However, some changes will need to be made. Captain Romain Saïss was stretchered off in the quarter-final with a hamstring injury, so he looks set to miss out.

Defensive partner Aguerd is also a major injury doubt, as is left-back Noussair Mazraoui. The Atlas Lions might have to make do without three of their first-choice back-four, so as good as their set-up is, they will need some big performances from those who deputise.

From a tactical point of view, it will be fascinating to see how Morocco’s defence deals with France’s asymmetrical attack.

Regragui’s side have faced extremely symmetrical sides like Spain to slightly more fluid ones like Portugal and Morocco, but none with the degree of asymmetry that France show.

We covered this in our tactical preview of the quarter-finals, but essentially, France’s full-backs have very differing roles in possession.

The right-back stays deep and operates as an auxiliary centre-back, while the left-back pushes forward, accommodated by Kylian Mbappé often tucking inside. The midfield is slightly unbalanced too, as Antoine Griezmann operates higher up on the right than Adrien Rabiot on the left.

Of course, the best way to try and break down a very central and compact defensive block is to stretch it. France have the capability to do so in all direction. Horizontally, Ousmane Dembélé tends to stay close to the touchline on the right, while the overlapping Theo Hernández is a threat on the left.

Vertically, Mbappé will look to use his pace to make out-to-in runs from the left and get in behind, while France could also look to play long balls to Olivier Giroud, who is an archetypical target man.

When you couple France’s multidimensional attacking threat with Morocco’s injury issues, one result seems a lot likelier than the other.

However, it should also be noted that the Atlas Lions have been defying the odds throughout the tournament, so writing them off at this stage would not be wise.

It will still take a brave person to predict that Morocco will emerge from this match without conceding, but they are sure to provide a tough fight till the very end, so we should get a close match.

Stats courtesy Opta via Fbref, FIFA and Vizz App.

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