What if you just Morocco’d Morocco?
That’s the question Didier Deschamps and France asked themselves before and during today’s semifinal. The answer came back, “Advance to the final.”
History will look back on this era of French football as its most successful. Two straight World Cup finals make it so, though the Zidane era had two finals out of three and a European championship in there as well. Whatever, it’s a hell of a nice problem to have, when you’re trying to figure out which monumentally successful and historic team of yours was the better one. But the 35,000-foot view will leave out the peculiarity of it. Everyone will see the roster and conclude, “Oh sure, that’s too good of a team to not be that successful.” Only those of us who were here will remember that mostly, France was boring as shit. But it doesn’t matter, flags fly forever.
In 2018, other than that bonkers game against Argentina that only got that way mostly because that Argentina team was so full of holes, France were just a really hard team to beat that did just enough on the other end to win. And then the final was a lot of fun of course. But mostly Deschamps concentrated his team on defense, which when you have N’Golo Kante in midfield acting like a forcefield, is a pretty good idea. It’s a better one when you have Kylian Mbappe to unleash on the counter.
In the Euros of 2021, Deschamps left behind his natural instincts and tried to weave together a more flowing, attacking side, especially as Karim Benzema was back in the fold. They were wonky as hell and fell at the first knockout stage, bickering at each other in true French style (or at least their moms were).
So you can’t really blame Deschamps for going back to what worked four years ago, especially after he lost Pogba, Benzema, and Christopher Nkunku to injury. France have embodied the “just enough to win” corollary throughout this tournament, which was in clear relief against Morocco.
Getting a goal in the fifth minute helps. What Morocco found is that Portugal or Spain do not have an Antoine Griezmann, nor an Mbappe, and though both of those teams feel like they should have had a Raphael Varane to play a delicious through-ball to him from defense, they never did. Morocco were clearly nervous, because in the quarterfinal they didn’t have anything to lose. But once you get this far, well, you’re only one step away from having a chance at it all, even if you’re not supposed to be here. Which probably helped contribute to Jawad El Yamiq diving a little too far out to stop the pass to Griezmann, causing him to whiff and allow the Frenchman untouched to the box.
It also feels a bit like a goalkeeping error. The bounce hangs in the air for a long time and Bounou comes out at first but stops, and it certainly felt like had he maintained his aggressiveness he just snatches it out of the air before Theo Hernandez can half-volley it home.
This is the last thing you want to do against France. They’re more than happy to drop off, sit back, and dare you to get through them. This is far more than Morocco has ever had the ball in this tournament. Their uneasiness didn’t help, as they gave away the ball or were turned over fairly frequently in the first half. And while they found some space and joy on the flanks, the bet that France makes is that you won’t make them pay before Mbappe gets loose in space behind you. Which he did in the first half, creating a great chance for Giroud, and Giroud also hit the post on the break as well. Even though there were 40 minutes between France scoring and halftime, and Morocco having most of the ball, the two best chances were still France’s. And Morocco’s best chance came off a bicycle kick hail mary.
France’s plan in the first half of both Mbappe and Griezmann trying to pop up on either side of Sofyan Amrabat while their fullbacks provided the width faded in the second half as Morocco had more and more of the ball. Morocco was also indirectly boosted thanks to the enforced change when Saiss had to go off injured and Morocco added a fifth to midfield to replace him. But France wagered that Morocco, though determined, are a limited side. They piled everything toward their right side where Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech live, and where Mbappe wasn’t doing much defensively to help out, but Morocco were really only reduced to some crosses or cutbacks that never found a target. Before an injury-time scramble, Morocco had created only 0.32 xG, and that’s with trailing for all but five minutes. They never found anything through the middle.
Part of that was because Ibrahima Konate, who wouldn’t have started had Dayot Upamecano not gotten sick, turned into The Great Destroyer in France’s defense. The stats say he made four clearances, five interceptions, and four more ball recoveries, and every time Morocco came down France’s left they found him standing in the near-post area. Which meant every Moroccan attack had a definite end-point.
Once Deschamps moved Mbappe to the middle to bring on Marcus Thuram in the 65th minute, who would have the energy to help defend on the left and still get into the attack on the counter, Morocco didn’t manage even a shot attempt until injury time. Their main route down their right had been cut off, and they had no other ideas. As great of a story as they’ve been, as much noise as their fans made at every stadium they took over, the story remained how far Ziyech and Hakimi could take them in the attack. France cut that off and they were out of ideas.
This is what France do, and they were always going to do it more down two starters. As much talent as they have, they’ll sink back to increase the space they can play Mbappe into, or they’ll keep Griezmann floating around when they do have the ball and he’ll eventually get it somewhere you can’t cover, whether it’s in the half-space as it was against Morocco or way out wide as it was against England. And he’ll make it count with the toys he has in the box.
France-Argentina is the more tantalizing final anyway, a true heavyweight clash that we haven’t had at this stage since…1998? 2006? Two powers, each with one of the better versions of their national teams that they’ve had. There’s a disappointing aspect to the idea that this accursed tournament held at the wrong time in the wrong place will get just about as good of a final as it could hope. But we long ago gave up on the idea that good things never happen to bad people, and we also need to get our enjoyment where we can.
Not like there’s much to pick from, so to repeat:
While I think Bounou could have done more, take nothing away from Hernandez who somehow gets over this even though the ball is at shoulder height. And he gets enough on it to keep anyone on the line from being able to adjust.
This World Cup has had just about everything, good and bad, and while it will end with two of the big favorites meeting, Morocco kept the “anything can happen” quotient alive, which doesn’t always happen in these. That will continue to happen, you’d have to think, as the talent and coaching gap between countries continues to close. Maybe talent still wins out at the very end, but hopefully it’s a sign that the wildcard fringe can keep encroaching closer and closer to that end. More and more teams will know that with a good plan that maximizes everyone on the team will make up the little things that close the differences between teams.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Morocco was the reminder of just how much the game means to so many places around the world. I mean, we always know that it is a global game, but sometimes you really need to see it. We don’t see Morocco much, and we don’t see them in a place that either their residents are more eager or more able to travel to or where they already have people living en masse. We’re used to stadiums being taken over by Argentines or Brazilians or the English. We’re constantly reminded how central soccer is to the culture there.
But seeing, and even more so hearing, Moroccans take over stadiums in Qatar and the shots of viewing parties back in the country remind us that it’s pretty central there too. This isn’t some fad that the country gripped onto simply because the team did well. It felt like something that had been pent up, perhaps across Africa or the Arab world or both as well, was being let out.
It’s the biggest cliche about the sport, and yet it’s why the World Cup is what it is. The fact that this sport runs so heavily in the blood of so many different places, not just by distance but by culture. Morocco is a vastly different nation than Argentina or here. And yet it can be brought to a standstill like pretty much every other place in the world by this stupid, random game. There really isn’t anything else that links so many. It’s the rarest phenomenon.