The Buccaneers stunned a much fancied Masandawana side in an enthralling clash which was played in Soweto
Coming into this match, Hlompho Kekana and Andile Jali had been in superb form of late, dictating affairs on the ball and doing excellent destructive work when defending. How Orlando Pirates dealt with those two players would go a long way to deciding this game.
German coach, Jozef Zinnbauer decided to stick with the 4-2-3-1 shape that brought an emphatic victory against injury-ravaged Polokwane City last time out. Sundowns, meanwhile used their usual narrow 4-4-2 shape with the two wider players coming inside to often make the shape resemble a 4-2-2-2.
In the early stages, Sundowns looked to press high and be very aggressive in midfield. In the opening seven minutes, there were several examples of Downs’ front six looking to win the ball when Pirates looked to play out from the back.
First, Jali recovered possession after a failed Luvuyo Memela backheel. Then, Thapelo Morena sprinted forward to press Happy Jele. The Bucs captain looked for Memela for the ball, but Jali was again aggressively closing down and forced Memela into losing it. Lastly, a sideways Fortune Makaringe pass to Ben Motshwari saw Kekana close down in the final third to break up the attack.
Since August 2017, Orlando Pirates have looked to play out from the back. However, most games have seen a slow circulation of the ball, often with the central midfielders moving into the half-spaces to receive; the intention appeared to allow them to get the ball away from pressure, increase the distance the opposition midfielders need to cover to press, and to open up passing lanes centrally as those opponents moved wide.
Against Sundowns, Pirates’ midfielders generally maintained their central positions, whilst the defenders were much more forward-thinking in their passing, looking to play forward as early as possible, but not by going long.
When the receiver was under pressure, their intention was to use quick touches and individual actions to bypass any pressing. Although Downs’ initial high pressure forced several turnovers, there were good signs in the intentions of Pirates to keep looking to build-up even when closed down.
Sundowns, meanwhile, looked nothing like the patient build-up side of recent seasons and the continued absence of Ricardo Nascimento was really felt in Mosa Lebusa’s risk-averse approach. As Pirates dropped off and set their pressing engagement line deeper, so both Gabadinho Mhango and Memela blocked Kekana and Jali from receiving the ball.
There was, therefore, plenty of time for Lebusa, Madisha and Langerman on the ball, but all three looked to play constant long passes over the top in the absence of passing options in midfield. Essentially, this looked like a plan from Pirates to show Sundowns wide and trap them on the flanks and they had no reliable way to progress the ball through the thirds and rarely through the central midfield duo.
Only when Sibusiso Vilakazi dropped deep into midfield from his false nine position to connect the team, could Downs move forward with short passing. He did that very rarely though, and Bucs were largely comfortable. Themba Zwane’s absence due to suspension was a massive blow.
The few chances Sundowns did create in the match came when Kekana managed to move very deep or slightly wider to receive and hit early long passes forward to runners. It was his 17th minute dinked pass that gave Morena a chance to shoot inside the box, whilst his 37th and 48th minute passes to Vilakazi and Sphelele Mkhulise respectively saw the offside flag go up when both players had looked onside.
Kekana’s 77th minute diagonal to Tebogo Langerman led to Phakamani Mahlambi’s half chance from a header too. This was effectively Downs’ only weapon in a game when they were far too direct and had little threat between the lines. Late in the game, this was exacerbated by the introduction of Mahlambi and the withdrawal of Vilakazi. Pirates largely limited Kekana’s impact in the match to just these fleeting moments though.
When the key goal arrived, it was a perfect microcosm of the game. Langerman hit a long ball forward and gave it away to Jele. When Motshwari received in midfield, he was pressed by Kekana but got away from him with some quick feet. He then moved across the pitch, drawing Jali with him. A very clever forward run by Makaringe behind Kekana saw him receive and find Memela in 20 yards of space in front of Downs’ defence.
Lebusa had to leave the backline, Mhango burst into that vacated area, ran onto Memela’s pass and finished well. That was just the fourth goal since Zinnbauer took over that the duo have combined for, and with Memela fit again, Pirates finally have the threat between-the-lines they have so lacked all season; for all their running power, neither Vincent Pule nor Thembinkosi Lorch can receive and turn in tight spaces and play the final pass like Memela can.
The goal showed the value in building up for Pirates and in looking to play forward and bypass any closing down. Makaringe’s run off the blind side of Kekana and Motshwari running Jali away, had allowed Pirates to be facing the Downs backline with no cover.
BUCS LOW BLOCK
In the second half, Pirates spent the half defending in a low, organised block. This was not the passive “park the bus” defending often seen from other teams though, but rather an intense, compact shape with plenty of aggressive closing down and interceptions.
Zinnbauer did what Pirates have rarely done in recent seasons and completely shut up shop with his substitutions. First, he withdrew Memela for Thabiso Monyane and pushed Lorch inside from his wider role to be Mhango’s partner to lead counters.
Then, when Maela went off injured, he brought on Alfred Ndengane and switched to three centre backs, with Pule dropping to left wingback. The intensity of the latter’s defending in that role was really impressive and fewer threats came up that side.
Then, he withdrew Lorch for Mthokozisi Dube, who went to right wingback, with Abel Mabaso moving into a defensive midfield role. This allowed Ben Motshwari a little freedom to close down higher up.
Sundowns created very little in the second period and this was one of the first times in recent memory that Pirates have looked so organised and coordinated in their low block defending. The midfield duo shifted excellently, they did not allow Sundowns many switches of play, and the fullbacks were never left isolated in one-versus-one actions.
The chance that Downs had from hitting the post from Sirino from 35 yards came because of poor positioning from Wayne Sandilands.
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Pirates deserved this win. Although their buildup play often broke down in the early stages, their intent and intensity in that phase bode well for coming weeks, whilst their organisation and pragmatism defensively is a very positive sign.
Although Lorch had little effect on the game, and Memela was hit and miss aside from his superb assist, the setup of their best frontline has been found, especially with Mhango such a superb finisher and relentless worker defensively from the top.
Sundowns continued in a season in which they have used a lot less interplay and combinations in attack, instead of using pacey players like Morena or Jose Ali Meza, or target man, Mauricio Affonso. They may be better suited to using their selection against AmaZulu recently with Morena at right back, Vilakazi and Lebohang Maboe as the front two, and two of Mkhulise, Sirino and Zwane in support.