In central defence, Wayne Arendse replaced the injured Mosa Lebusa, whilst Thapelo Morena dropped to right-back. This saw Anele Ngcongca on the bench and Sibusiso Vilakazi coming in on the right flank.
In central midfield, Rivaldo Coetzee got his second start in that role after a man of the match performance against Black Leopards. Tiyani Mabunda was amongst the substitutes.
In defence, Limbikani Mzava and Devine Lunga returned to the XI with Matome Mathiane and Nduduzo Sibiya dropping out.
Lerato Lamola had to make do with a place on the bench.
A fast start was expected by Sundowns, who came into the game having scored nine goals in the first 15 minutes of games, more than any other team.
They look to get in front early, which draws the opposition out and creates space either behind their back-four or between their midfield and defence.
Golden Arrows made two opposition-specific selections for this game.
Steve Komphela is well-known for his thorough analysis of opponents and he clearly identified two danger areas: Thapelo Morena’s forward runs from right-back, and Hlompho Kekana’s long-range passing to play the ball over the top.
Komphela’s solution was to select two left-backs as Frank Motebejane started in front of usual full-back Lunga on that flank. This was designed to ensure Morena could not get forward untracked, whilst giving Arrows protection for their left-back to move narrow and track any movements from Vilakazi.
The other selection was that of Sanele Mathenjwa as a defensive number ten. He played more advanced than Danny Phiri and Danny Venter, and focused on man marking Kekana when Sundowns were building up or on transitions where the Downs captain may look for early passes forward into space.
However, after just over five minutes, this nullification plan went out of the window as Sundowns were 2-0 up.
The tempo was set straight from the kick-off by the pressing of Lebohang Maboe.
First, he closed down Arrows’ attempts to play long from the start of the game. Then, his closing down forced Musa Bilankulu to miss a clearance completely.
The opener came from an inventive corner as Gaston Sirino found Maboe on the edge of the box and after some quick interplay, Themba Zwane backheeled for Kekana to score. The captain had been marginally offside, but the creativity from the set-play was the real cause of the goal.
The second goal came from Arrows’ own buildup attempt.
With Bilankulu rattled by Maboe’s closing down again, he passed the ball straight to Sirino and he found Zwane to finish.
That assist was the Uruguayan's 21st goal created in all competitions this season.
At 2-0 down with 05:05 on the block, Arrows’ plan was completely out of the window.
Sundowns’ interplay was just too difficult to stop without full-pitch man-marking or incredible organisation at passing men onto teammates.
FALSE NINE FLUIDITY
Although Arrows did have one clear chance of their own in a very eventful opening 30 minutes, Sundowns really should have completely buried the game.
Maboe had been the initial false nine; clearly the focal point with his pressing, whilst three players rotated in narrow positions behind him.
This was made possible by the extremely adventurous outlooks of Tebogo Langerman and Morena from full-back.
The interchanging between Maboe and Vilakazi as the false nine was particularly troubling for Arrows.
The latter brought a greater physical strength in playing with his back to goal and giving teammates time to make penetrating runs, whilst when Maboe was the false nine, Vilakazi could arrive late himself.
In a superb 13 minute spell, Sundowns could have three more goals. Vilakazi first hit the side netting after linking up with Zwane – with Thapelo Morena in the middle of the box.
Then, Vilakazi’s strength allowed him to be a target and he picked out Langerman’s burst into the area, but the attacking left-back could only hit the post.
Finally, Maboe dropped off the last line and pulled Bilankulu completely out of the backline. This made space for Kekana to slip Vilakazi through on goal, but he put his shot wide of the post.
Once again, Morena was inside the box for that attack.
The interplay of Sundowns in tight spaces was a thing to behold in the first half, as was the energy and desire of their “full-backs” to essentially play as wingers, therefore allowing complete freedom for the attacking trio to find space centrally.
KOMPHELA ADJUSTS - MIDFIELD DIAMOND
At half-time, Komphela desperately needed to act. In fact, he probably could have made a first-half change to stem the tide although his side had improved in the final 15 minutes of the opening period.
The change at the interval was to introduce forward, Lamola for defensive wide midfielder, Motebejane. This meant a change to a 4-diamond-2 formation.
Lamola joined Knox Mutizwa up front, Danny Phiri anchored the diamond with Venter and Richard Matloga narrow on the sides, and Mathenjwa playing higher up – looking to get behind Kekana instead of solely focusing on trying to nullify him with counter-pressing.
This alteration certainly made a difference. Lamola’s pace and movement into the channels meant a tougher second half for Arendse and Ricardo Nascimento, who had to move into less comfortable wider areas to cover behind their full-backs.
The away side also defended higher up the pitch. Whilst this left more space in-behind for Sundowns, it compressed the space between the backline and the midfield diamond and gave less room for interplay, as well as making sure that combination play was 30 yards from goal as opposed to being on the edge of their own box.
The higher defensive line made the distances smaller for Arrows to counter-press (closing down as soon as the ball is lost) in Sundowns’ half.
DOWNS MANAGE GAME
As the hour mark arrived, Sundowns clearly dropped their intensity, likely due to fatigue.
The time between their actions – pressing, passing or sprinting – was much bigger and Arrows had a few opportunities to attack Pitso Mosimane’s side on transitions.
Unfortunately, their passes into the final third were often cut out by a good reading of the game from Downs’ experienced centre-back pairing.
One chance on a quick counter saw Mathenjwa dribble past Langerman and force Onyango into a comfortable save.
With 72 minutes on the clock, Mosimane withdrew Sirino and Maboe and introduced Mabunda to stiffen central midfield, and Jeremy Brockie to give a more direct out-ball up front.
Ngcongca was introduced later for Zwane, which allowed Morena to engage Arrows’ left-back, Lunga in higher positions, whilst the substitute stayed deep at right-back to block that channel for Lamola’s runs.
This was a comfortable and impressive win. It is not an exaggeration to say that Sundowns could have gone in at half-time with a four-goal lead.
Arrows’ changes stemmed the tide well, but Sundowns’ own drop in tempo, both due to fatigue and to slow down the game to protect the result, also played a part in clear chances drying up.
This was a game that highlighted the incredible chemistry between the front four and the extra dimension that fit-again Vilakazi brings to the table.
With him as an extra option rotating with Maboe as false nine, and Rivaldo Coetzee emerging as a good new alternative as a “number six”, this side keeps finding ways to trouble their opposition.
Arrows had one of their tougher games under Komphela.
They had only conceded one goal in the opening ten minutes of matches before this game, so their tailored tactical setups have been dismantled as quickly for the most part.
Next season, Arrows’ should look more comfortable with the coach’s various formation changes, as 3-5-2, 4-diamond-2 and 4-2-3-1 variants have all been used by the former Kaizer Chiefs mentor.