In only the second game to go to penalty shoot-out in the 2022 World Cup, Spain were beaten by Morocco after a disastrous penalty shoot-out saw Luis Enrique’s team fail to convert a single spot-kick in a 3-0 defeat after a 0-0 draw after extra time.
Right from the off, there was a surprise. Throughout this tournament, when we’ve expected Dani Carvajal to start and Marco Asensio to be benched (and vice-versa), the opposite has happened. That was the case again here against Morocco.
While Asensio got the nod over Atlético Madrid’s Álvaro Morata, despite his return of three goals in as many games, Marcos Llorente was preferred to Carvajal or his usual right-back rival César Azpilicueta. It was a gamble, and one which didn’t particularly work.
Where Morocco looked to push forward down the flanks, Spain looked to play through the middle. It limited the impact of either full-back, with Marcos Llorente often drifting in to form a back three unit alongside Rodri and America Laporte.
It was perhaps surprising that Luis Enrique felt that Llorente would be more suited to such a role than Dani Carvajal, but did reflect a versatility to the former Castilla player’s game that has thrived at Atlético Madrid. The issue was that the coach seemed to be reluctant to make the change and correct his gamble as it failed to pay off.
What else we see with each passing game is that Marco Asensio resembles more of a number nine and less of a false nine. We see more and more of him on the last shoulder of the defender, often starting his runs deeper but then looking to break through.
Around 25 minutes in, he timed yet another run through to break away and fire the ball into the side netting. It was Spain’s first breakthrough, measuring up at a respectable 0.23 xG, and Asensio seemed to be the key to unlocking a well-organised Moroccan defence.
It was the first time that either side had found themselves loose in the box. In fact, it was Spain’s only attempt on goal from inside the box in the first 45 minutes, while Morocco only managed one themselves. It also proved to be Asensio’s only real sight of goal, and Spain didn’t have another shot inside the box until 56 minutes later.
This was a tie firmly being defined by a hard-fought midfield battle, where Pedri and Gavi’s energy was being nullified by the physicality of Azzedine Ounahi, Sofyan Amrabat and Selim Amallah.
As the game went on, we saw that Spain looked to bypass the midfield and instead press forward in numbers and look for a more direct approach into the runs of Asensio looking to break through into the final third. Morocco’s line meant that there was space to play balls into, but Asensio struggled to break free.
It was perhaps surprising that Luis Enrique persisted with Asensio for quite so long given this approach. Morata’s profile makes him a better natural fit to such a style, and he has better hold-up play than the Real Madrid man who usually operates in wider areas and cuts inside.
The coach’s gamble on Asensio in this World Cup has been all-in, and here we saw that continue. It wasn’t until 63 minutes that Asensio was withdrawn and Morata finally got his shot, but he found that he had the same limited supply that had caused Asensio issues.
It also reflects that Asensio is yet to complete 90 minutes at this World Cup, despite starting three of Spain’s four games. He has played in various roles and positions, and has rarely been the first name to come up on the fourth official’s board, but Luis Enrique appears to be unconvinced that he has what it takes to do battle for a full 90 minutes. With a number of options to bring off the bench in that final third, he could well be justified for not running the risk and opting for fresh legs.
Asensio’s final heat map for Spain vs Morocco. Source: Sofascore.
With no Real Madrid players on the field, Spain’s play continued to be very similar. Plenty of possession in non-dangerous areas. Dani Olmo’s runs inside, almost acting as a second striker playing off Morata at times, looked to dislocate some Moroccan defenders on occasion but were not enough to threaten Yassine Bounou.
Morocco did begin to tire late on and Spain’s dominance became almost one-way traffic. Chances came, but now from breaking through in behind the full-backs and often with Morata the one to be fizzing balls across the box with no-one there to get on the end of them.
In turn, Morocco turned to fouls to break up Spain’s play and break down any momentum before it could build, with Spain only looking more and more frustrated as the game wore on and relied more on set pieces to test Sevilla’s goalkeeper between the Moroccan sticks.
Extra time posed more of the same for both teams. Spain bombarded Morocco’s box but found that Morocco had the better quality chances as they countered and Spain looked vulnerable, particularly down the left flank of FC Barcelona’s Alejandro Baldé.
Penalties eventually decided the result, with no Real Madrid players involved, with PSG duo Pablo Sarabia and Carlos Soler both failing to score, with Sergio Busquets stepping up as captain to miss a third penalty. Former Real Madrid man Achraf Hakimi was eventually the man to win the tie for Morocco by showing great composure to beat Unai Simón and eliminate Spain.
Next up, Morocco will face either Portugal or Switzerland on Saturday at 16:00 CET as they look to reach the final four.