Morocco celebrates after defeating Spain. Image: Getty Images
Oh, we have stories! New! Old! Weary! Exciting! If you can find better narration than this… fuck it!
Match of the day: Spain 0-0 Morocco (Morocco win 3-0 on penalties)
Not for the actual game, because for the most part it was pretty plump, but for the story. Morocco reach the quarter-finals for the first time, only the fourth African nation to reach this stage. It’s the same story as for Spain four years ago, when they spat against Russia at that very stage in Russia, and also on penalties after failing to break up a parked bus and plane. The way it’s always been, the way it’s always been It’s this story:
We’ve seen it all before. Spain have been without a striker for so long that it has become a running gag and has also marked the memory of trophy-rich Spanish sides. Those Spanish sides weren’t any less fit than this one, but they also had David Villa or Fernando Torres to at least fill the centre-backs and make room for their midfield. It’s not just about creating chances, it’s about the kind of runs a true centre-forward can make. It is these runs that open up other spaces.
You can get away with a false nine, but you must have one or both midfielders or wingers running past that false nine. Otherwise you only condense the midfield more and make it easier to defend.
Spain didn’t face any direct threat until Niko Williams came on in the second half and they looked very different when he came on. But Marco Asensio is a midfielder. Dani Olmo is one of those weirdos who doesn’t really have a position, but he can’t get past a defense either. Ferran Torres doesn’t really do anything (pay attention to every player that Pep Guardiola decides he can’t save him within a season). Spain basically had three players trying to squeeze in between the Moroccan defensive and midfield lines, where Pedri and Gavi were already standing. One or two doing this is good for connecting and providing triangles. All three? Not as much. And Spain didn’t have direct or long ball threat either to try to support Morocco.
Also, never tag a guy just to take a penalty. There are enough penalty kicks without adding the idea that this player’s entire existence depends on him taking one.
For Morocco, it creates an interesting debate for US fans. This should not fool Morocco’s tactics or declare them unworthy of the World Cup quarter-finals. They play what is best for them and what gives them the best odds. They did it masterfully, even if Spain made it terribly easy.
However, Morocco are where the USA would like to be, in the quarterfinals. There was a time when the US had to do the same. Remember they tried against Belgium eight years ago and couldn’t do it nearly as well when they fired a million shots and only Tim Howard, who transformed into Ares, stopped them from feeling embarrassed.
But the fact that the US now has more of a hybrid plan where they can go against England the same way England could go against them and the Dutch didn’t want them to go on the counter, in a way that’s a step ahead of where Morocco is. The US almost certainly has more talent than Morocco which is strange to say but the truth is. But going from a team that just needs to bunker against the big boys to one that tries to play with them isn’t an instant transition. You can’t flip a switch. The US is in the midst of this transition, which means they may not be able to achieve the results they want, or those that a well-trained Moroccan team can achieve.
What would you wish for as a US fan? This US team is in no way designed to play like Morocco does. It doesn’t have those players. But in a vacuum? You got a team in the quarters. The other made the US pretty much keep their distance and go home. In 2026 there could be a game against Brazil or Argentina or some other real heavyweight (disputed if Spain actually is that at the moment). Then what would the US do with everyone in their prime? what would you want
Progress isn’t linear, and trying to develop into a team that can truly play at the highest level can yield less than ideal results along the way. And yet we would all want the joy of going to the Quarters. That day will come. It’s just important to realize what each team is, what they’re trying to be, and how they get there.
Other results: Portugal 6 – 1 Switzerland
There is a lot about this that is easy to achieve. And you know I want that because the main story was one I was craving a while back. I thought Rafael Leao would be the choice to replace Ronaldo in the line-up. Fernando Santos thought it was Goncalo Ramos. A hat-trick later, it’s clear who the functionally alcoholic writer is and who the international manager is (but Leao also scored!).
The lowest branch ever is to say Ramos has scored all the goals which Ronaldo now can’t as he hadn’t stopped at the penalty spot on any of them. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. The first goal feels like the kind of goal Ronaldo used to score fairly regularly, but it’s also hard to imagine this current version being able to overwhelm the defender so quickly and sharply.
Will Ronaldo get Ramos’ second post the same way? It’s the kind of run he’s still on that he’s basically waiting for, so probably. But maybe not? It was quite noticeable that when he came on, Ronaldo got a through ball from Bruno Fernandes that he couldn’t reach, which showed his age. When I saw a tweet, the next time I tried to reach it, it started five yards offside. In other words:
What is undisputed is that Portugal played light years more freely and dynamically than at any point during this tournament. Joao Felix looked like a completely different player who likes to dribble through multiple defenders, press the ball and show up all over the field. He was constantly running or dribbling into the space where Ronaldo would likely be standing while Ramos tried to get behind the defense and make room for Felix. Fernandes played more threads than ever, playing behind two forwards who offered more options than yelling at him or standing right next to him. Everything Portugal did just had more bite.
It’s obvious when Portugal are a better team. The problem is that Ronaldo can’t take the lead either. He is not a player who can play on the counter. Look how much he struggled to get wide today against a Swiss team that had already given up.
But against Morocco next round if the chances don’t fall from the sky that’s probably his place, the game is 0-0 in the 70th minute and Portugal are running out of ideas. The kind of striker you use when you’re pretty sure you’re only firing crosses into the box on replays. But can Ronaldo settle for that without rocking the boat? Even he can’t ignore how they looked without him.
(Of course he can. It’s Ronaldo, and the reality is something he doesn’t have to put up with).
goal of the day
You know I want to bet Leao’s goal Just to blow my own horn here (that rib wasn’t removed for me though) but Ramos’ corner pocket from a tight angle was far more important. That storms the gates:
Did VAR mess something up?
Considering Spain never really got close to Morocco’s back line, there was little chance for VAR to do anything.
Did Qatar or FIFA mess something up?
Not so, although thanks to Cameroonian legend and FA President Samuel Eto’o, this cursed tournament received another highlight that is sure to smack FIFA officials in the face.
Did Alexi Lalas say something stupid?
It’s not entirely up to Lalas, as nearly all of Fox’s in-studio analysis is fairly rudimentary. Which doesn’t come as a shock, since their NFL or MLB coverage rarely, if ever, goes beyond awkward frat laughs or the simplest analysis possible. Before each game, the studio analysts choose a “player to watch,” and almost every time it’s the biggest star of both teams. It’s what anyone on the street would choose. It teaches us nothing. These people are supposed to know and pick things that we lay fans might not know about and tell us things to look for that we hadn’t thought of.
Of course, Lalas picked Ronaldo over Portugal-Switzerland, and he didn’t even fucking play! It’s the simplest possible narrative! That’s all Lalas ever does when he bothers to talk about football. It’s a Fox thing as a whole. Why not pick Ramos as he takes that spot? Probably because Lalas neither knows who Ramos is nor has he ever seen Benfica play.
A eulogy for the deceased
Spain – This is how Spain are likely to be eliminated from any tournament unless they win it. But because we associate it with Spain, we lose sight of the fact that this is a team in transition. Gavi, Pedri, Olmo, Williams, Balde, Fati are all under 25 and all will be the Spanish team’s flex point, perhaps as early as Euro 2024. And they will likely make Spain a serious threat for a trophy in 2024 or likely 2026 (or possibly even back home in 2030, but that’s hard to project).
Spain gets a lot more shit maybe because they fell from there but they don’t really do things differently than Croatia. Croatia controls the ball most of the time through their excellent midfield. Most Croatian games are difficult to watch because they care more about control than aggressiveness. Give them space and they will kill you like Croatia did to Canada or Spain to Costa Rica. Deny them the space and they just keep the ball and make keeping things under wraps their top priority. But Croatia are underdogs and good at penalties and Spain are… well, Spain.
Switzerland – The little player in the storytelling machine that Portugal became just before the game. They were clearly not prepared in every way for a Portuguese attack. And they did what they always do, fill out the second round and then go home when the tournament gets serious. Their irritation of France at the euro remains a rather hilarious anomaly. Look, they had an MLS attacker as the focal point of their attack (Xherdan Shaqiir). And not even a good one compared to last season. You know how to do it, and that’s how it went.