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IN DEPTH: How Bidvest Wits beat Orlando Pirates in seven-goal thriller

10:51 AM WAT 22/09/2019
Augustine Mulenga, Orlando Pirates & S'fiso Hlanti, Bidvest Wits, September 2019
The Clever Boys recorded their fourth PSL win of the season against the Buccaneers. Goal analyses the tactical battle which unfolded

Orlando Pirates came into this game on the back of Rhulani Mokwena’s first win as head coach, whilst Bidvest Wits were looking for a third league win in a row. Could Gavin Hunt’s men exploit Pirates’ on the counter-attack and from set-plays or would Bucs’ possession football and combination play come out on top?

WITS SCORE EARLY

Against what was expected to be an obdurate Wits side, conceding in the opening minutes was the worst possible start for Pirates. Although the goal came from a superb Deon Hotto freekick, the source of the opener was direct play from the Clever Boys. 

Hlanti took a long throw, Mxolisi Macuphu flicked the ball on as Happy Jele dropped off instead of challenging, and Terrence Dzvukamanja ran off Ntsikelelo Nyauza to win a freekick on the edge of the box. From the onset, Hunt’s men had looked for direct passes up to their excellent target man, Macuphu. 

There were other good examples of their aerial strength from long balls as Hlanti pushed high up to be a target on diagonals from centre back, Thulani Hlatshwayo, whilst one attack saw Wits win three flick-ons in a row in the Bucs half.

PIRATES’ FLUID FORMATION

In recent weeks, Mokwena has been playing a fluid formation. There is very clearly a back three of Nyauza, Jele and Innocent Maela with Musa Nyatama and Xola Mlambo as two deep receivers. This makes the “build-up scheme” a 3-2 shape. 

Further forward, Augustine Mulenga and Fortune Makaringe are used as touchline hugging wingers for the most part with Tshegofatso Mabasa as the out-and-out striker, rarely moving out of the middle.

That leaves Thembinkosi Lorch as a number ten with complete freedom to move into wider roles, to drop deep or to run beyond the defence. Siphesihle Ndlovu has a role in the right half-space on the side of what morphs into something out of a “box” or diamond in central midfield. 

In the first half here, the former Maritzburg man did a great job in stopping counter-attacks in a hybrid defensive role between being a wingback, a fullback and a shuttler. 

Wits had trouble dealing with this shape in the first half because it was not clear who should engage Makaringe and Mulenga in wide areas. If the fullbacks went out to do it, it would leave too much space. Therefore, it was often Sameehg Doutie and Deon Hotto dropping back to defend, giving Wits little out-ball or threat on the break. 

Pirates levelled late in the first half after not creating many clear openings except for a shot by Mulenga cutting inside and Mabasa having a shot blocked from the Zambian’s cut-back. Makaringe also tested the goalkeeper from range as he rotated positions with Lorch and hit a good shot on the turn. 

When the goal arrived, it was Lorch involved, Mlambo joining the attack, and Mabasa showing his usual excellent chest control before volleying home.

WITS CHANGE STRUCTURE

At half-time, Gavin Hunt changed formation to help deal with the wide areas whilst giving more support to Macuphu. Haashim Domingo replaced Doutie and Wits went from what had effectively been a 4-4-1-1 to a 3-4-2-1 shape. 

This alteration saw Hotto drop to left wingback with Hlanti move inside to the left of a back three. Domingo and Dzvukamanja were now playing off Macuphu, better able to help defend Nyatama and Mlambo, but also get behind them on transitions.

It took just six minutes to bear fruit as Hotto won the ball of Mulenga in their direct battle, carried the ball forward at speed through a vacant left half-space and timed his pass to Macuphu perfectly. The forward rifled past Joris Delle to make it 2-1. 

That goal was the first real counter of note from Wits as Ndlovu sprinted 60 yards to try to stop the break, but was never able to catch Hotto. That no other Pirates player came across to engage Wits’ wingback shows just how little athleticism there is in the deeper areas of the team – everyone backed off to protect the depth and not risk being bypassed by Hotto. Oh, how Ben Motshwari is missed by Pirates.

PIRATES ACT – CHANGE SHAPE

At 2-1 down, Pirates changed formation themselves. Ndlovu was harshly sacrificed for Thabiso Monyane, whilst Mlambo was taken off for Gabadinho Mhango. The team’s shape switched to 4-2-3-1, with Mhango now hugging the left touchline and Makaringe in midfield. 

Monyane was bursting forward, often on the under-lap to cross from narrow positions, from right back to try to create a two versus one of that flank for Hotto to deal with.

Nyatama immediately equalised from a corner, but Bucs’ threat in the final 30 minutes was largely from crosses with their new-found space on the flanks against Wits’ back three. Parity lasted less than 15 minutes as Cole Alexander scored from long-range with Delle unsighted and beaten too easily in goal. Wits had used a good wide overload on the left to progress the ball. 

Going forward, Wits’ wingbacks were not being tracked at all as Mhango and Mulenga stayed high and wide. Maela was finding himself pulled inside to deal with Domingo or Macuphu, leaving Macheke free on the right flank. 

In the first half, the latter had pulled a ball back for Macuphu to have a chance and he missed a sitter himself with ten minutes to go here as he was picked out running inside from the flank with Maela occupied and left exposed by Mhango. 

Wits made it 4-2 soon after as substitute, Phathutshedzo Nange ran onto Domingo’s through ball to finish. By that stage, Hunt had moved Macuphu to the right where he worked hard defensively. Domingo was now through the middle as a false nine and Nange supplemented central midfield. 

Once again, Bucs responded quickly as Mhango volleyed home from Monyane’s cross from the right half-space. The Malawi forward had gotten himself into the gap between right centre back, Hlatshwayo and right wingback, Macheke. Conceding from a cross with the height they possessed at the back would have been galling for Gavin Hunt. 

Late on, Monyane fired an excellent driven delivery across the box, but this time Macheke cleared crucially. Wits held on and took the three points.

SUMMARY

This was a very interesting game tactically. Pirates’ awkward setup asked questions of Wits in wide areas and drove their wingers back. However, with a lead to protect, Wits limited Bucs to few chances in the first half even if they did not offer much on the counter-attack. 

In the second period, Gavin Hunt’s switch of structure gave greater direct engagement for Pirates wingers and Domingo’s introduction gave greater threat between-the-lines and therefore more support for Macuphu. 

Pirates’ switch to 4-2-3-1 gave them overloads on the flanks, but with their wide forwards not defending, Wits capitalised in wide areas by using their wingbacks to join the attack. Hunt later made a clever switch to have Macuphu defend the right against Maela, with Domingo through the middle – the latter created the fourth goal.

Neither side were at their best in this game, but the fact that Wits played only reasonably well yet scored four goals and missed one other clear-cut chance, shows that Pirates’ defending of the wide areas, direct play and second half counters all left a lot to be desired. 

Rhulani Mokwena assertion that “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time” may hold some semblance of truth. However, that quote, stolen from Steve McClaren about Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, may mask the deficiencies and over-thinking in setting up his side. 

For every small advantage gained by packing the centre of the pitch and having several spare men to play from the back, there is a shortfall elsewhere. In this game, there was often too little threat between-the-lines, too little box presence and wide-open spaces up the sides, at least once Ndlovu went off. 

Wits currently look like the better-oiled machine with four wins from their first five games. Their structure is usually clear and straight-forward, but Hunt showed he is no tactical fool with an excellent half-time alteration and three second half goals.