Image for article titled World Cup 2022 Diary: Day 25 - Morocco's historic run comes to an end

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France 2 – 0 Morocco

What if you just became Morocco?

Didier Deschamps and France asked themselves this question before and during today’s semi-final. The answer came back: “Onward to the final.”

History will look back on this era of French football as its most successful. Two consecutive World Cup finals make it so, although the Zidane era included two out of three finals and also a European Championship. Anyway, it’s a damn nice problem trying to figure out which of your monumentally successful and historic teams was the better. But the 35,000-foot view will miss the point of it. Everyone will look at the squad and think, ‘Oh sure, this is too good a team not to be that successful.’ Only those of us who have been here will remember that France are boring as hell most of the time was. But no matter, flags fly forever.

In 2018, apart from that crazy game against Argentina, which ended up being mostly because the Argentine team had so many holes, France were just a really hard team to beat, who at the other end did just enough to win. And then, of course, the finale was a lot of fun. But mostly Deschamps focused his team on defense, which is a pretty good idea when you have N’Golo Kante in midfield acting like a force field. It’s better if you can unleash Kylian Mbappe on the counter.

At Euro 2021, Deschamps left his natural instincts behind and tried to put together a more fluid, attacking side, especially with Karim Benzema back in the squad. They were insanely shaky and fell in the first knockout round, battling each other (or at least their mothers were) in true French style.

So you can’t really fault Deschamps for going back to what worked four years ago, especially after losing Pogba, Benzema and Christopher Nkunku to injury. France embodied the logic of ‘just enough to win’ in this tournament, which was a definite relief against Morocco.

Scoring a goal in the 5th minute helps. Morocco have discovered that Portugal or Spain have neither an Antoine Griezmann nor an Mbappe and while both teams feel they should have had a Raphael Varane to deliver a delicious through ball to him from defence, they never did. Morocco were clearly nervous because they had nothing to lose in the quarter-finals. But once you’ve gotten this far, even if you’re not here, you’re one step away from even having a chance. Which likely helped Jawad El Yamiq dive a little too wide to stop the pass on Griezmann, causing him to huff and leave the Frenchman untouched in the box.

It also feels a bit like a goalkeeper error. The impact hangs in the air for a long time and Bounou comes out first but stops and it certainly felt like he had maintained his aggressiveness as he simply snatched it out of the air before Theo Hernandez could shoot him halfway home.

That’s the last thing you want to do against France. They are more than happy to drop by, sit back and challenge you to get through them. That’s far more than Morocco have ever had the ball in this tournament. Their restlessness didn’t help as they gave away or turned over the ball fairly frequently in the first half. And while they’ve found some space and joy on the flanks, the bet France is making is you don’t make them pay before Mbappe breaks loose in space behind you. Which he did in the first half and created a great chance for Giroud and Giroud hit the post at the break too. Although there were 40 minutes between France’s goal and half-time and Morocco had the most possession, the two best chances were still France’s. And Morocco’s best chance came from an overhead kick.

France’s plan to try both Mbappe and Griezmann in the first half to appear on either side of Sofyan Amrabat while their full-backs provided width faded in the second half as Morocco gained possession. Morocco were also indirectly strengthened by the forced move when Saiss had to go injured and Morocco added a fifth-place midfielder to replace him. But France have bet Morocco, although determined, are a limited team. They stacked everything on their right where Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech live and where Mbappe didn’t do much defensively to help but Morocco was really reduced to a few crosses or returns that never found a target. Before an injury-time tussle, Morocco had managed just 0.32 xG, while within five minutes of the deficit. You never found anything in the middle.

That was partly because Ibrahima Konate, who would not have started had Dayot Upamecano not fallen ill, turned into The Great Destroyer in France’s defence. The stats say he made four clearances, five interceptions and four more recoveries, and every time Morocco came down from France’s left side they found him in the post area. Which meant every Moroccan attack had a specific endpoint.

After Deschamps brought Mbappe in the middle in the 65th minute to bring in Marcus Thuram, who would have the energy to help down the left and still get into attack on the counterattack, Morocco failed to even attempt a shot until injury time . Their main route to their right had been cut off and they had no other idea. As great as their story was, however much noise their fans made in every stadium they took over, the story remained as to how far Ziyech and Hakimi could take them in attack. France cut that off and they ran out of ideas.
That’s what France does and they would always do it more than two starters. As much talent as they have, they’ll retreat to increase the space they can play Mbappe in, or they’ll let Griezmann float around when they have the ball and he’ll eventually get it somewhere you don’t cover it be able. be it in half space like against Morocco or far outside like against England. And he will make it count with the toys he has in the box.

France-Argentina is the more enticing final anyway, a true heavyweight duel that we haven’t had at this point since…1998? 2006? Two forces, each with one of the better versions of their national teams they’ve ever had. There is a disappointing aspect to the idea that this cursed tournament, held at the wrong place at the wrong time, will have as good a final as it could hope for. But we long ago gave up the idea that nothing good ever happens to bad people, and we must also find pleasure where we can.

goal of the day

Not that there’s much to choose from, so to reiterate:

While I think Bounou could have done more, don’t take anything away from Hernandez, who somehow gets over it despite the ball being at shoulder level. And he gets enough of it to prevent anyone on the line from being able to conform.

A eulogy for the deceased

This World Cup has pretty much had it all, good and bad, and while it will end with two of the big favorites clashing, Morocco have kept the ‘anything can happen’ quotient alive, which doesn’t always happen with these. That will continue to happen, one would think, as the talent and coaching gaps between countries continue to narrow. Maybe talent still wins at the very end, but hopefully it’s a sign that the Joker edge can get ever closer to that end. More and more teams will know that having a good plan that maximizes everyone on the team smooths out the little things that close the gaps between teams.

Perhaps what I liked most about Morocco was the reminder of how much the game means to so many places around the world. I mean, we always know it’s the global game, but sometimes you really have to see it. We don’t see Morocco much, and we don’t see them in a place where either their inhabitants are more eager or able to travel, 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 are constantly reminded how central football is to the culture there.

But seeing, and even more hearing, Moroccans taking over stadiums in Qatar, and footage of parties in the country reminding us that it’s pretty central there too. It’s not a fad that the country clings to just because the team was good. It felt like something that might have been pent up across Africa or the Arab world or both was being released.

That’s the biggest cliché about the sport, and yet the World Cup is what it is. The fact that this sport runs in the blood of so many different places, not just because of the distance but because of the culture. Morocco is a very different nation than Argentina or here. And yet, like pretty much every other place in the world, it can be brought to a halt by this stupid game of chance. There is really nothing else that connects so many. It is the rarest phenomenon.