For Pirates, it was a return to a back four after several weeks of using three centre-backs. This meant a return for Mthokozisi Dube at right-back position for just his fourth start of the season.
In midfield, Xola Mlambo was injured. So, Ben Motshwari partnered Musa Nyatama.
In attacking areas, Vincent Pule was out suspended. This saw Luvuyo Memela continue in the starting XI with Justin Shonga back to start and Augustine Mulenga in support.
For Sundowns, Pitso Mosimane went with his most experienced backline, bringing in Anele Ngcongca at right-back and preferring Wayne Arendse ahead of Rivaldo Coetzee in central defence.
Thapelo Morena moved into a more advanced role as he often does for away Caf Champions League matches.
With Gaston Sirino suspended and Anthony Laffor injured, Emiliano Tade started just behind Lebohang Maboe.
Pirates Try To Suprise Sundowns
In attack, Orlando Pirates usually play with a lone striker and three supporting attacking midfielders. Thembinkosi Lorch is usually the number 10, pulling the strings between the lines.
For this game, they made a change, moving Lorch to a right midfield role. This allowed Motshwari to play to Nyatama’s left and to get in Hlompho Kekana’s face when Sundowns had the ball. That plan worked excellently in denying the Sundowns captain time and space to play forward passes.
In attack, this meant that Memela was stationed centrally and was often the highest man, as Shonga played as wide striker on the left, and Mulenga as a wide striker on the right, albeit often moving into a number 10 role to drive at the Sundowns defence.
This shape could be interpreted as a 4-3-3 with a false nine (Memela) or as a midfield diamond with Memela as the advanced number 10 behind split strikers. This was akin to Liverpool having Roberto Firmino dropping off the front for Liverpool, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane playing narrow as inside forwards.
Sundowns Commit Numbers
The surprising aspect of the first half, and the first 25 minutes in particular, was how open and attacking Sundowns were. Themba Zwane played in a narrow role on the left, freeing Tebogo Langerman to overlap at every opportunity. Tade also moved out to that side to create an overload. This freed Morena to make diagonal runs in-field from the right flank.
In the first minute, Langerman burst forward onto Tade’s flick to set up Morena for a decent opening, but he dinked his shot wide of the post.
The result of Sundowns overloading Pirates on the right was that Lorch found himself having to do significant defensive work, with Nyatama was having a very difficult first half trying to keep up with the impressive Zwane.
This pressure led to a several half-chances for Sundowns, though mostly from long-range or from set-plays. This came as Pirates resorted to several fouls to break up play on that flank, with Zwane getting some rough treatment. Wayne Sandilands dealt well with some testing Tade deliveries from the resultant free-kicks or any corners though.
Pirates Break At Speed
With Sundowns also pushing their front four high up to disrupt Pirates playing out from goalkicks, the visitors found a different way to threaten – with very fast, penetrative counter-attacks and transitions.
In the 9th minute, Lorch made a good interception centrally and Nyatama immediately released Mulenga with a great forward pass on the turnover. The Zambian could only shoot straight at Denis Onyango. Then in the 11th minute, Pirates broke again but Motshwari released Mulenga too late and the offside flag went up.
With Memela excelling in his advanced role, bringing others into play, pulling Nascimento wide, or finding space behind Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda, Pirates were a real threat. One example was Lorch finding Memela’s run into the space behind Langerman and then backheeling onto the path of Mulenga. Again, the Zambian’s attempt to beat Onyango was tame.
The big talking point of the match arrived just after the half-hour mark. Tade gave the ball away trying to play a short corner, and Pirates counter attacked at break-neck speed through Lorch and Memela. With the latter about to enter the box, Maboe hacked him down.
The question was whether or not there were covering defenders for Sundowns and the referee deemed Mabunda to be close enough to intervene. It was a close call but Pirates were incensed that a red card was not shown.
Downs On The Ropes
By this stage, Sundowns had been very fortunate not to concede on the break and they become the side next to disrupt their opponents’ momentum with a series of fouls. Tade pulled back Memela on the right flank, and then Mabunda chopped down Dube. Pirates looked a threat from set-plays with their height advantage on a fairly small Sundowns team, but Nyatama headed the best chance wide.
With Sundowns still trying to press high on Pirates’ goalkicks, one excellent build-up from the home side led to the next chance.
As Sundowns committed six men forward to press Pirates, some very good play from Motshwari released Lorch behind the press and set up a four versus four attack. Mulenga pulled wide onto Lorch’s pass, then found Memela (pulling Arendse out of the backline) to release Lorch’s run. Mabunda had a desperate swing at the ball from the wrong-side of Lorch and somehow avoided being blown up for what looked like a clear penalty for impeding the Pirates man.
The sides went in level at the break despite excellent periods of attack for both sides. Pirates were a huge threat on the break with the early forward passes of their midfielders, whilst also a danger when bypassing Sundowns’ attempts to press high, and from more direct play (crosses and set-plays).
Their issues were defensively on their right flank, space behind Motshwari when he closed down Kekana, and the lack of involvement and understanding of his role by Shonga.
Sundowns’ positive plan to commit their front four, plus Langerman and Kekana high up, led to some chances through wide overloads and finding space behind the Pirates midfield.
However, a few clear openings were created. It left the side wide open on turnovers though, and this seemed an unnecessarily risky approach in a game where a draw would do.
Second Half: Stop Start, Low Tempo
For the second half, both sides made changes. Pirates reverted to their usual 4-2-3-1 shape, putting Shonga back in the middle and Mulenga on the left flank. Lorch and Memela alternated between being the right winger and the number 10.
Downs dropped Morena and Zwane into much deeper roles after 10 minutes to make a genuine four-man midfield. Kekana also withdrew alongside Mabunda and the side’s high pressing was now reduced to being done by just Maboe and Tade, instead of being done by six players. This seemed to have been prompted by another Pirates counter attack that saw Langerman rob Shonga in the box as he took down a deep Mulenga cross.
The first 20 minutes of the second half saw the game lose tempo after a long stoppage for Sandilands’ to have stitches to a cut lip, whilst Memela later needed extended treatment as he had his knee cut open by Kekana’s studs.
By the 68 minute mark, Pitso Mosimane decided to reinforce his defensive shape by taking off Tade for Lyle Lakay. He went to a defensive wing role on the left, with Zwane going over to the right, and Morena now pushed upfront. The plan was clear: counter attack using their speedy makeshift forward as Pirates get more desperate for the win.
With a flurry of fouls and clear yellow cards, the breathless first half had been replaced by a completely disrupted second half. There were still some good chances before the end though.
Zwane tested substitute goalkeeper Mpontshane after great skill to beat Jele in a dribble, whilst Maboe did the same to the Pirates’ captain but the latter recovered well. Sundowns had several good opportunities to counter using Morena’s pace, but the passes into space lacked precision or the timing of the runs was off and the offside flag went up, much to Mosimane’s frustration.
The two best second-half chances both fell to Pirates. First, Shonga (before he was taken off for Thamsanqa Gabuza after 76 minutes) won the ball in midfield, finding Lorch to play a perfect deep diagonal for Mulenga in the box. He took the ball down well but could not beat Onyango as the Ugandan denied the Zambian for the third time.
Then in the sixth minute of additional time, Lorch got onto Nyatama’s hopeful pass but could only have an air-shot as he took down the pass. The player had been writhing in pain with cramp just seconds earlier after a mighty shift for his side, which included six shot assists for teammates and three tackles won in his more defensive role.
This was a very entertaining game, especially in the first half. The second half failed to live up to expectations due to player injuries, fouls and yellows cards, as well as Sundowns making defensive changes to try and take a point.
Pirates created most of the game’s best chances and had a good penalty call ignored. They were a constant threat on the counter attack for the first 55 minutes and completely nullified Kekana, who was a peripheral figure in Sundowns’ attack. His famed 40-yard killer passes were barely seen thanks to Motshwari’s display.
Sundowns’ plan to press high was only mildly successful, but left the side open in midfield and exposed the defence. Although Pitso Mosimane claimed this as a typical away performance in a big game (especially on the road in the Caf Champions League), this was not the case. His side were reliant on Pirates’ wasteful finishing to leave this game with anything and only began to solve their issues 10 minutes into the second half.
Pirates’ changes from the bench, losing Memela to injury and using a sub in goal when Sandilands had to be taken off, tied the technical team’s hands somewhat.
However, the choice to add Gabuza to the attack for Shonga, no matter how ineffective the latter had been, did not work at all.
In the end, Bucs outplayed Sundowns and missed a golden opportunity to move to the top of the PSL log. They may regret that come May 11 when the league comes to an end.