The Atlas Lions have improved significantly under Herve Renard, but have they peaked too soon?
Odds on their success may appear generous, but an argument can certainly be made that Morocco are the best prepared and the best equipped of all of the contenders at the Nations Cup.
They realistically have two options for every position, and even though there’s a drop-off in quality in some areas, they have an admirable strength in depth compared to some of their rivals for the title.
In defence, a trio of centre-backs know each other’s games inside out, boast presence and tenacity, and are comfortable in possession.
At full-back, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui are perhaps the continent’s finest two up-and-coming players in their position, and the underrated Abdelkarim Baadi—an option at left-back—could be one of the revelations of the tournament.
In midfield, Mbark Boussoufa and Karim El-Ahmadi complement each other well, and have developed an understanding over years of playing together, with the former keeping the Atlas Lions ticking over and the latter providing the muscle in the heart of the park.
Their three attacking midfielders represent another area of strength in Renard’s 4-2-3-1 formation; Younes Belhanda and Hakim Ziyech are two of Africa’s finest playmakers, the latter coming off the back of a double-winning season with Ajax.
Indeed, Ziyech could fairly be considered as one of Africa’s best players in the world today; he’s inventive, works hard, and is capable of winning matches single-handedly.
He also has a point to prove, having failed to leave his mark at the World Cup.
Even in attack, which had been a problem area that Renard has struggled to solve, Youssef En-Nesyri appears to have assuaged concerns for now.
Before the Afcon squad was named, En-Nesyri had scored three in his last three starts for Morocco, and four in seven over the last year.
It’s a far cry from the numbers he was producing before and during the last Nations Cup, when he managed just one goal in 15 consecutive appearances.
Perhaps En-Nesyri doesn’t yet have the clout of some of Africa’s other leading strikers, but he still has the qualities to be a threat this summer.
Then there are external factors which appear to be working in Morocco’s favour.
Certainly, as will be the case with fellow contenders Algeria, Tunisia and hosts Egypt, the Atlas Lions will enjoy the ‘familiar’ confines of North Africa, and will require little time or effort to adapt to the conditions.
This wouldn’t have been the case had the tournament been held in sub-Saharan Africa, and may well give the region’s four teams an advantage over their southern rivals.
Secondly, there’s the Renard factor.
No coach has ever won the Nations Cup with two different teams—as the Frenchman has with Zambia and the Ivory Coast—and he deservedly has a reputation as a tournament specialist.
Indeed, the former LOSC Lille coach relishes knockout competition, where his attention to detail and ability to both manage a contest and prepare his team to get the result required, give Morocco advantages far beyond their rivals.
How many other coaches in the tournament can boast of the kind of high-end knockout experience of Renard?
Even fewer have succeeded quite as he has, and have the aura and reputation to match.
Unlike in 2012 and 2015, he’s now managing neither limited underdogs nor flawed/wounded heavyweights, and the Atlas Lions are the perfect embodiment of their coach’s spirit.
This was evident at the last Afcon, when it was clear that Renard had begun to imbue the side with his grit, professionalism and intensity, and at the World Cup.
In Russia, their fluidity, pressing and movement were outstanding, and they were unfortunate to take just one point from their three group-stage matches when they were arguably the better team in all three matches.
However, despite everything that’s going in Renard—and Morocco’s—favour at the moment, there are still some looming concerns which may yet undermine the Lions’ bid for a second continental crown.
Some post-match thoughts on Morocco after their World Cup elimination at the hands of Portugal on Wednesday.
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 21, 2018
First of all, there’s the group stage draw, which has been particularly tricky for the North Africans.
While they’ll be encouraged by the prospect of three teams potentially advancing, and the presence of minnows Namibia, Group D won’t be straightforward at all.
For Morocco and for Maghreb today! Can the Atlas Lions get North Africa’s first World Cup points on the board vs. Portugal? I’m going for a cautious draw, it’s Renard vs. Ronaldo. pic.twitter.com/Hw9glSZYNj
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 20, 2018
The Brave Warriors have proved problematic for bigger teams under Ricardo Mannetti; they recently defeated Ghana and were tough to break down at the African Nations Championship. There will certainly be no lack of motivation here.
Subsequent matches against an Ivory Coast side with a plethora of superb attacking talent, and a South African team who are well drilled and defensively resolute under Stuart Baxter, represent even sterner tests.
Secondly, the beating heat of the Egyptian summer may not play into the Lions’ hands.
Their style involved intense pressing, winning the ball high up the pitch, controlling possession and playing through teams with their technical qualities, passing prowess and movement off the ball.
While Morocco’s possession-based style could tired out opponents who opt to chase and harry the Lions, it remains to be seen whether their own proactive retrieval style will work in searing temperatures—particularly after long, hard seasons.
Similarly, while other teams can adapt to a counter-attacking style, absorbing pressure and conserving energy before launching forward in a combined and concentrated act of exertion, Morocco aren’t particularly geared up to do this.
In contrast to some of the other favourites—Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Cameroon—Morocco haven’t lost any key players to injury, with Hakimi having already returned from the metatarsal break he suffered in March.
However, what may be of concern, is the average age of the squad, where one or two pairs of creaking legs will be tested by the demands of the summer.
The average age of the squad is 28, with just under half of those selected by Renard 30 or above.
There’s no shortage of experience, but many of the likely starters are in the latter stages of their careers.
Morocco’s centre-backs are 29, 31, 32 and 33.
An area of strength or weakness? https://t.co/51eeMzkfJY
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) May 27, 2019
Will Amrabat (32), Faycal Fajr (30), Medhia Benatia (32), Nabil Dirar (33) and Manuel da Costa (33) enjoy the influence they have done in the past when they’re playing their third game in the space of nine days when temperatures are approaching 40 degrees?
Of greatest concern ought to be the midfield duo of Boussoufa and Al Ahmadi.
For so long the fulcrum of this national side, these two seasoned battlers are now both 34, and time may finally catch up with them this summer.
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In principle, Youssef Aït Bennasser and Mehdi Bourabia are able understudies, but with just a handful of caps between them—and having started just one game together—they’ll never match their elder compatriots for synergy.
Despite the negatives, Morocco are still a cut above any of their rivals at this year’s tournament in terms of style, intensity, professionalism and polish, and the external factors appear to be pointing in their favour as the tournament approaches.
However, there are many different reasons why a promising tournament campaign can unravel at the seams, and for the Atlas Lions, one too many of those concerns are lingering a little too close to the surface.