On Kaizer Chiefs’ side, with numerous injuries to contend with, head coach Ernst Middendorp had to find solutions in several positions.
In goal, Virgil Vries replaced Itumeleng Khune, but the right flank was an area of greater concern as both Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Kgotso Moleko were absent at right-back.
The German tinkerer decided to move left-footed Siphosakhe Ntiya-Ntiya over to the right to cover for those injuries.
In midfield, Philani Zulu was out injured so Hendrick Ekstein started centrally.
For Sundowns, coach Pitso Mosimane went with his usual policy of having one more defensive full-backs in bigger games.
It’s usually Anele Ngcongca selected on these occasions, but instead it was Mosa Lebusa at left back in preference to the more adventurous Lyle Lakay in this one.
Rivaldo Coetzee started in central defence, whilst Tiyani Mabunda partnered Hlompho Kekana.
With Themba Zwane out injured, Anthony Laffor got a rare league start as one of the three players in support of frontman, Jeremy Brockie.
Chiefs’ Surprise Setup
In Middendorp’s first league game in charge, he used a midfield diamond and was expected to do the same for this game. Instead, he made a surprise tweak by using a back-five when out of possession, as Willard Katsande dropped into the middle of three central defenders.
This was a major surprise and the disruption led to an early goal for Sundowns.
In this shape, the lateral central defenders, Daniel Cardoso and Mario Booysen were supposed to be freed to be aggressive in closing down Gaston Sirino and Lebohang Maboe between the lines.
When Sirino dropped off into exactly the area in-front of the defence that Katsande usually operates, he was untracked. His pass put Laffor through on goal to give Sundowns the lead.
Godfrey Walusimbi had not stayed with his man, whilst Katsande was too slow to cover the danger. Booysen defending in a wide area on the left was often an issue under Giovanni Solinas, so it was a surprise to see him used on the left of a back-three in this game.
After 20 minutes, Maboe’s run nearly set up a goal for Sundowns as Katsande was exposed trying to play a misguided offside trap with Booysen several yards deeper and playing everyone onside.
This surprise setup did have some positives though, as it gave real license for Walusimbi and Ntiya-Ntiya (at right wingback) to get forward.
The latter though was not comfortable on that flank and chose to cut back on his left foot and deliver hopeful crosses into the box on several occasions.
He lacked the interplay or dribbling ability to really test Lebusa, and Sundowns looked happy for Chiefs to switch play over to that side.
Many of Chiefs’ attacks down the right petered out, and without a fit specialist right-back, the side will surely enter the transfer market in January to address that issue.
On the left flank, Walusimbi got into great areas but was either ignored or flagged offside as passes came too late.
When Sundowns broke up play on his flank though, his defending left something to be desired against an in-form Laffor.
The setup also gave Chiefs the chance to either build-up with Katsande pushing higher into his normal role if just Brockie closed down the back three, or with Cardoso or Booysen playing out from the back from wide if Sirino joined Brockie in trying to press. This spare man led to high possession numbers for Chiefs.
Although the sides went in level at the break, Chiefs’ setup meant that the front two of Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro could be joined by Hendrick Ekstein and occasionally Lebogang Manyama – playing a deeper role of late due to his lack of box-to-box fitness – and with the wingbacks high too, this meant Sundowns had to defend with eight outfield players back for large parts.
Decisive Ernst Alterations
Despite a good first half, Middendorp clearly wasn’t happy with Katsande in his role in the middle of the back three, nor with Walusimbi’s poor defensive work. Ekstein had also not done enough to cover Maboe, or aid the attack.
Therefore, the coach made a double change at the interval, bringing on Teenage Hadebe for Walusimbi and Bernard Parker for Ekstein.
This saw a change to a back four with Hadebe at left back. Parker played on the right of a front three, with Billiat moving to the left wing. In midfield, with Katsande now holding, Maluleka and Manyama were tasked with picking up one of Kekana and Mabunda each, and thereby stopping Sundowns from switching play as easily, as well as giving Chiefs five men to press Sundowns high up the pitch.
Mosimane described the removal of Walusimbi at half-time by saying, “a relief was the left back coming out”.
After his move forward, Maluleka set up Parker for a clear-cut headed chance which he should have scored, and another good chance fell to the same player as he headed wide from Billiat’s delivery. Chiefs looked much the better side without necessarily creating many other clear openings.
However, with the higher pressing required by the team, the defensive line naturally played much higher up to close the gap to the midfield and forward units, and this did allow Sundowns some space to counter-attack.
This space seemed to be the reason for Pitso Mosimane to take off Jeremy Brockie, who had been a peripheral figure.
The Kiwi striker made only four successful passes in his 72 minutes on the pitch and did not register a shot. Sphelele Mkhulise came on to take his place and bolster the midfield, as Laffor and Maboe took it in turns to play as the frontman.
Two other injury-enforced substitutions were made as Lyle Lakay replaced the cramping Lebusa, whilst Kabelo Mahlasela came on for Katsande as Maluleka returned to a deeper position.
Sundowns ended up going in-front when Lakay’s long pass bounced over Virgil Vries’ head, but that goal was also a result of a good burst from Maboe too, whose run made Vries leave his line.
This was a very interesting game, as Pitso Mosimane described his opposite number as a “very, very good tactician”.
Chiefs’ changes to try and surprise Sundowns worked to some degree, as did their half-time rejig to 4-3-3.
But for all of their good structure and possession (54% in the game), Chiefs only hit the target once and most of their better openings came from set-plays, Parker’s early second-half header aside.
Sundowns stole the victory in this game thanks to a goalkeeping howler and created very little in the second period.
With so little pace up-front, they lacked a regular out-ball and more questions are sure to be asked about whether Brockie deserves a starting place with how little involvement he has in games if he is not scoring.