Morocco’s World Cup race – and the Englishman who helped plan it

Last Updated on January 24, 2023 by

“This is the question that everyone always asks!”

But before Harrison Kingston answers, he has a warning.

There is no ‘cheat’ code. Despite the amount of data and brainpower Morocco’s director of performance analysis pours into his laptop, he never spits out a foolproof playbook.

He was unable to unlock a prepared route to goal and success when he worked at Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur or Burnley.

He did not do so on Morocco’s trip to the World Cup semifinals last month.

“If reality worked like that, you would see a lot more happening every weekend on a course that seemed a lot more prescribed,” Kingston tells BBC Sport.

“That I say or show something and then it happens? That’s not really the logic of football.

“Football, in general, is quite chaotic. You’re trying to make sense of that chaos, trying to capture some detail that you can take advantage of.”

But, only sometimes, the 36-year-old can glimpse one of its details among the many moving parts.

Kingston cites an example from his eight years at Liverpool. It was something that one of the players did. Not Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino.

But instead, the lesser known Oakley Cannonier.

Cannonier is now part of Liverpool’s Under-21 team but, on May 7, 2019, when he had just turned 15, he was working as a ball boy.

“We had just lost 3-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final after getting past them for the most part,” recalls Kingston.

“We came away scratching our heads about how we ended up with that score, but seeing it again brought back memories of our round of 16 game against Bayern Munich two months earlier.

“The Munich ball boys were like trained machines, getting the ball back into play so quickly. Speaking to their staff afterwards, we found out this was a deliberate tactic; they wanted a fast pace to prevent us from having a chance to put pressure on them.” .

“In Barcelona it was the opposite, the ball boys were super slow. A goal kick took a minute, a free kick took between 30 and 45 seconds.

“Looking back, we could see that it was deliberate. Barcelona were a team that brought a slower pace to the game, rather than something that fueled the intensity of Jurgen [Klopp].

“So we coaches and analysts took it upon ourselves, with the team administrator who looked after them on match days at Anfield, to show our ball boys a video on how they could help the team.

“We told them they were the 12th man, they weren’t watching the game, they were in the game.”

In the 79th minute, with Liverpool leading 3-0 and equalizing, Cannonier seized the opportunity to play a part.

Trent Alexander-Arnold played the ball into Sergi Roberto’s shins to earn a corner. The ball passed in front of Cannonier, a few meters from where he was stationed in front of the billboards. But he ignored it. Instead, he immediately tossed a spare ball, already in his hands, to Alexander-Arnold for the set piece. Barcelona defenders, used to a slower pace, lost concentration. Divock Origi looked up and made fateful eye contact with his teammate.

A quick center, a skillful shot, madness. And, perhaps, a vindicated theory.

“Ultimately, it’s the players who get all the credit. They make the decision on the field and they take advantage of that moment,” says Kingston.

“If [the goal] would have happened without our intervention, you never know, but you like to think that maybe you planted that seed and played a small part in a historic moment.”

In November of last year, while surveying Belgium’s upcoming opponents in his current role, Kingston thought he could see another detail that could turn out to be something significant.

Fellow Kingston analysts Mousa El Habchi and Nabil Haiz joined him around the screen, along with Morocco goalkeeping coach Omar Harrack.

The four men watched, pointed and discussed what they saw in a combination of French, Spanish, Darija [a Moroccan Arabic dialect] and English.

And finally, they mapped out what they could do in response.

There have been two constants in Kingston’s life: soccer and change.

Born in a British military hospital in Berlin, he hasn’t stopped moving ever since. His father changed stations to Northern Ireland before moving to the North East of England and to a base outside Newcastle.

His family eventually settled in Somerset, before Kingston headed west to study sports coaching and development at Cardiff University.

His student life was supplemented by a semi-pro football career playing for Bridgend, but he was a realist.

His chances of succeeding as a player were slim. Without that experience, a senior coaching position was also unlikely. While wondering which direction to go, luckily another route to the elite opened up.

Cardiff City, in the Championship and managed by Dave Jones, were building up their video analytics department. They asked if any of the local students would take over part of the work. Kingston, in the final year of his studies, volunteered.

His reading of Cardiff’s patterns, strengths and vulnerabilities was keen enough for him to break into a growth industry.

He got an internship with the Bluebirds, but he also kept moving. Kingston went to Tottenham to work with the age-ranked teams. He went to Burnley, working with Eddie Howe as head of analysis. It was only later that he realized that he was the only member of the department he headed.

After just over a year, he was hired by new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, and remained in his place when Rodgers was replaced by Klopp in 2015.

“Both Brendan and Jurgen really embraced analytics,” Kingston says of his time at Liverpool.

“For Brendan it was about conveying his philosophy and my role was to measure the performance of the team against his clear ideas.

“And it was similar with Jurgen at the beginning. We had a very busy schedule when he arrived in October. He is famous for his intensity in training, but there was little time to train.”

“We were in the Europa League, playing that cycle of Thursday and Sunday, traveling and recovering for the first seven months or so.

“That meant a huge, huge amount of video work was done, because there wasn’t time to do things in the field.”

Far from being a stopgap, video analytics is now a permanent fixture in Liverpool, throughout the Premier League and throughout the world of football.

“Both Brendan and Jurgen have an assistant coach on their staff with a background in analytics,” says Kingston. “Brendan has Chris Davies and Jurgen has Peter Krawietz.

“Those connections with the manager show the growth on the pitch. It’s the same at other clubs, like Newcastle, Burnley and Nottingham Forest, to name just a few.

“Analysts are seen more now. They’re just more visible, either as assistant managers or in the dugout alongside the manager who influences the decisions.”

Then came Kingston’s big decision: to leave Liverpool for Morocco.

Alexander-Arnold’s quick corner against Barcelona had been followed by a Champions League final win, European Super Cup and Club World Cup success, as well as a long-coveted Premier League title for the club.

It was a run of success that matched the glory days of decades past.

But after eight successful years at Anfield, Kingston did not want to stagnate.

“Once we achieved what we had achieved, it seemed like the right time to go,” he says.

“What else can we do? You can go again and try to win it over and over again, but it had always been in me to experience working abroad, working internationally, challenging myself in a different way.

“Family is also very important to me. Our daughter Poppy-Rose was two years old at the time and it was the best time to do it, while she is young and adaptable. It meant that I could have that experience and, along with my wife, The Great Leah’s support, we were able to create some fantastic memories as a family.”

By Kingston’s admission, Morocco “wasn’t necessarily the first place on the map I thought of.” He then visited.

They gave him a tour of the Mohammed VI football complex, and he was immediately impressed.

Inaugurated in 2019, it is an emblematic project of King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Kingston.

“It’s like a soccer town, there are eight fields, an indoor stadium, a futsal stadium, hotels, medical centers, gyms, everything is on site.”

The transfer from the airport to the Rabat complex, which serves as the headquarters of all the Moroccan national teams, also left an indelible impression.

“It’s only a few minutes’ drive away, but we must have seen 10 football fields and they were all full,” Kingston recalls.

“The weather helps, you can play soccer all year long, but everyone is crazy about soccer. The games were cage soccer, street soccer, games of five, six, seven, and everyone from eight to 80 years old.

“This is a country that takes football seriously. Thanks to the work of the president of the Moroccan Football Federation and all those who came before me, everything was there for me to realize the magnitude of the opportunity.”

However, three months before last year’s World Cup in Qatar, that potential was in danger of being squandered once again.

Vahid Halilhodzic, who had overseen qualifying, had been sacked, with the Moroccan Football Federation citing their “differences and divergent views” on the build-up to Qatar 2022.

Results from warm-up friendlies had been mixed, including a 3-0 loss to the United States.

A World Cup group made up of Croatia, runners-up in 2018, and Belgium, second in the world, waited and had little hope while, behind the scenes, Osian Roberts, the Welsh manager who had brought Kingston to Morocco, had resigned and returned to the Kingdom. United.

“That coaching change could have gone one way or another,” Kingston admits.

The appointment of Walid Regragui, who represented Morocco in his playing days and who had guided Wydad Casablanca to the African Champions League, was a strong step in the right direction.

Regragui wasted no time. Tactically, Kingston participated in Zoom calls in which the new manager’s vision was explained to different individual parts of the team, long before they arrived at their first training camp.

Collectively, Regragui worked to create a highly organized and compact team without the ball, but with the freedom to display individual quality in possession.

But Kingston also saw Regragui working on something less tangible and perhaps more important.

Fourteen of the 26 Moroccan workforce were born abroad. For Achraf Hakimi, the star winger, it was Spain. For Hakim Ziyech, the midfielder, it was the Netherlands. For Romain Saiss, the team captain, France.

A team representing an already cosmopolitan African nation also had to combine influences and culture from across Europe.

Regragui, who was born in France, played in Spain and trained in the Middle East, was the perfect man to turn a potential problem into a potent weapon.

“Individually, the talent was there and the players are playing at the highest level, but the challenge was bringing it together collectively,” Kingston explains.

“The most important thing the coach did was take advantage of the Moroccan footballer’s spirit.

“He’s in a unique position for that. He understands both sides of the coin: the European way of life and the Moroccan cultural values. He was really smart on the psychological side of the players.”

“Before the match against Belgium, he put up a world map at a team meeting, showing where everyone, both the players and the coaching staff, were from, with arrows going back to Morocco. Walid emphasized that we came together with a Moroccan style and identity. .

“It was something unique, something that we had that other teams didn’t have: being able to take advantage of these different football educations and unite them under the same philosophy.”

Morocco also put emphasis on set pieces. The data showed that they could be decisive in the cautious first games of the tournaments. Morocco did not need the numbers to convince them. Recent history was already painful enough.

Iran scored the only goal of Morocco’s opening match at the 2018 World Cup through a free kick in the 95th minute.

A Cristiano Ronaldo header from a corner in the fourth minute decided his next match of the campaign against Portugal. Two games, two goals from set pieces, two defeats and Morocco was the first team eliminated from the competition.

As Kingston and his team of analysts focused on set pieces for Qatar, they saw something. However, something that could help them on offense, rather than defense.

“Thibaut Courtois is a world-class goalkeeper,” Kingston is quick to say. “I’m not saying there are 100 weaknesses in his game.

“But we look at his positioning. He’s a little bit further back towards his far post, which he does because he’s good at it. He’s a big guy, he wants to come and claim things and be active.”

“As a team, we spoke collectively and decided that there was definitely an opportunity to exploit something.”

The coach agreed. After a general team meeting, Kingston and his team took Morocco’s set-piece specialists aside, unlocked an iPad and showed what they saw.

A couple of days later, the world saw it too.

Twice in the game against Belgium, Courtois was surprised by free kicks from inside that were aimed at his near post.

On the first occasion, Ziyech’s shot from outside found the goal, but the goal was disallowed for marginal offside.

In the second, there was no pardon. Courtois rushed across and gloved Abdelhamid Sabiri’s shot but was unable to prevent it.

It was the first goal in a 2-0 win for the Atlas Lions, putting them on course for the round of 16.

“It felt like a turning point for us in the tournament,” says Kingston.

Morocco celebrated that first goal with a display of their Muslim faith, prostrate bowing (sujud) before their jubilant fans.

As the team’s streak gained further momentum, through victories over Canada, Spain and Portugal, its values, not only as the first African nation to reach the semi-finals, but also as the first Muslim-majority country, rose. made evident.

Passages from the Koran were recited in groups before the shootings, proud mothers danced with their children, Palestinian flags were draped over their shoulders after the games.

“That opportunity was something we used to motivate players,” Kingston adds.

“Sometimes you can be so focused that you don’t see the big picture outside.

“Faith, religion and culture have a huge influence on the whole team, in terms of the belief and the togetherness that it generates.”

Kingston saw it up close, away from the cameras.

The team would arrive at the stadiums two hours before kick-off, well before their opponents, to have time to pray in the locker room. On days off, the staff and players would join in on trips to the mosque.

He felt the difference in moments of contemplation, but also in moments of celebration.

“The difference to a Premier League dressing room, where you can have 20 different nationalities, is that most of those songs and cultural values ​​are all the same,” adds Kingston.

“Everyone has grown up with them and Moroccans know how to celebrate, dancing and singing in the locker room and continuing on the bus.

“It’s a really cool thing to see and be a part of.

“There is that photo with José Mourinho, when he was at Tottenham, and all the players look at their phones after a victory. External link

“They just had an amazing result and all they wanted to do was tell people on Instagram, texts and WhatsApp.

“Morocco was different, everyone really wanted to celebrate and enjoy it in the moment.”

There was much more than a time to celebrate as well.

After the tournament, Kingston returned to Rabat, where the magnitude of what the team had accomplished was reflected to him in a bus parade through the capital.

“You see the excitement on people’s faces, they’re 10 feet away and they’re yelling and yelling, throwing things, flares going off,” Kingston recalls.

“It was great to have that perspective because my main feeling after the semi-final loss to France was disappointment. I felt there was at least one more step we could take.”

Morocco lost 2-0 to France and was then beaten 2-1 by Croatia in the third/fourth play-off match.

“Maybe I was being a bit greedy, but I really felt like there was a time when we could have gotten the better of France,” admits Kingston.

“Ultimately though, we are more than happy with the way we ended a fantastic tournament and seeing the Moroccan public come in great numbers in Rabat will never leave me.”

The King, who had taken to the streets to celebrate his country’s quarter-final victory over Spain, external-link handed out medals to the Moroccan players and coaching staff when the bus finally arrived at the Royal Palace.

Through Kingston, England can claim a small part in the race, but Morocco will always be a part of it too.

“Next for us is the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2024 and the Women’s World Cup in the summer,” she says, looking ahead once again.

“We will have a different pressure now in the Africa Cup of Nations. Coming fourth in the World Cup, there will be a different expectation in terms of how we do and also how we perform because we won’t necessarily be the underdog.”

“Inshallah [if Allah wills] we qualify and then we go to the tournament to try to make more history.”