What began as a 4-3-3 vs. 4-3-3 matchup turned into an interesting battle that showed a couple of different modern permutations of a classic formation. While this match ended scoreless, it was more entertaining than the opening match of the group, which ended in the same score but with less value.
Both Angola and Morocco lined up in a 4-3-3 to begin the second match of Group A at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. As the match progressed, the changes in each team's formation reflected where they were and were not having success on the field.
Angola made the first change, withdrawing its wingers and leaving Manucho Gonçalves as the lone striker because the Sable Antelopes couldn't find the ball in the midfield. This left them with a 4-2-3-1 for the rest of the first half.
In the second half, they went back to a straight-up 4-3-3, and they found more success getting the ball wide and running at Morocco's back line.
On the opposite side of the ball, Morocco stuck to its 4-3-3 much longer. When the Atlas Lions stopped finding joy on the wing, they also withdrew their wingers into a 4-1-4-1.
The reason for the difference in formation despite the same tactic was the midfield shape. Angola played with two defensive midfielders, while Morocco had one holding man.
Adil Hermach played that lone holding role, gliding on top of the back four and drifting into seams to find the ball off defenders' feet. Geraldo was the opposing attacking midfielder occupying the same space, which led to a physical battle all game long between the two.
Geraldo could not turn to face Morocco's goal, as Hermach was on his back every time the ball was at his feet. That was the primary reason for Angola's inability to create in the first half; it could never get on the ball while facing the goal.
Mateus and Mingo Bile preferred to check back from their wide positions, and Manucho was often left to chase through balls from the back half of the formation.
Anytime an Angolan found the ball in the middle, Hermach was all over them to win the ball back. Destroyer-style defensive midfielders are high-risk, high-reward, apparent in Hermach's high foul count and 25th-minute yellow card.
Wide Play Without Crosses
Moroccan left winger Oussama Assaidi showed his speed early on and repeatedly, staying high and wide when he didn't have the ball and then running at the heart of the defense at high pace. He got the defenders on their heels and created a couple of dangerous opportunities.
On the other wing, Nordin Amrabat did much the same. However, instead of trying to run past defenders, he tried to thread the ball into the box to striker Mounir El Hamdaoui.
In this match, the wide midfielders primarily provided width, with the outside backs preferring to advance only sporadically. The reasons for this were two-fold: with wingers staying high and wide, fullbacks must be careful about advancing and leaving their team exposed; and the space into which they would have overlapped was already occupied.
Missing Final Product
In the end, the lack of goals in this game was down to a lack of creativity around the penalty area. Both teams moved the ball well in the midfield and to wide areas, but that's as far as it would get before they would run out of ideas.
Several crosses into the box nearly connected, but ball movement on top of the 18-yard box was virtually nonexistent. Add in an over-reliance on set pieces and Mateus' decision to take a terrible dive rather than get the ball into a dangerous area early on, and a scoreless tie is a fair result.
It would have been nice to see some combination play instead of repeated individual action in the attacking third. Long shots and dribbles abounded, but one-twos did not. As a result, nobody scored.