Kaizer Chiefs came into the game without Itumeleng Khune, Mario Booysen and Lebogang Manyama who were out nursing injuries.
New signing Daniel Akpeyi made his debut in goal as Virgil Vries was dropped, George Maluleka anchored the midfield with Willard Katsande only a sub, and youngster Happy Mashiane made his third start in a row.
Since taking over the Chiefs ship, Ernst Middendorp has been very adaptable in his formations used, moving between a 4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-2 with wingbacks and 4-3-3 with two wide players either side of a target man.
In this game, he played more of a 4-4-2 with his usual front pairing of Leonardo Castro and Khama Billiat, but with Bernard Parker hugging the right touchline and Happy Mashiane as a left midfielder.
For Orlando Pirates, Happy Jele was back in the lineup after missing the previous game with illness so Marshall Munetsi dropped to the bench.
In goal, Wayne Sandilands was preferred to Jackson Mabokgwane.
In attack, Augustine Mulenga was left on the bench and Ben Motshwari came into the side as an extra central midfielder.
Coach, Milutin Sredojevic went with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ben Motshwari as the most advanced of a midfield three.
Chiefs Man-mark Danger Men
From the start of the game, it was immediately clear that Ernst Middendorp had geared his tactical setup towards nullifying Pirates’ two match-winners, Vincent Pule and Thembinkosi Lorch.
To do this, he instructed his full-backs to follow the Bucs attackers in a man-marking job in certain areas of the pitch.
This was usually done when Pirates were looking to counter-attack – one early example was Ntiya-Ntiya moving all the way over from his left-back position to right-back to track Lorch’s movement.
Moleko was sticking like glue to Pule, even staying narrow when Chiefs were building up to ensure he was in a position to mark the left-footer if Amakhosi lost the ball.
Moleko could also underlap from this position to force Pule to defend.
The danger of this strategy was shown in the 11th minute though as Lorch evaded Ntiya-Ntiya’s attention and had a big gap to exploit, before setting up Motshwari for a clear opportunity.
The former Bidvest Wits man took too long to get his shot away though and the chance was lost.
This example showed the perils of man-marking opponents – if the attacker can eliminate his man then the structure behind that crumbles and clear chances materialise.
Pirates Build-Up Falters
Higher up the pitch, Chiefs had a plan to stop the Bucs build-up play from the back.
With Billiat and Castro as a front pairing, it was difficult for Pirates to have comfortable possession on goal-kicks.
Chiefs had Hendrick Ekstein closing down Xola Mlambo and not allowing him to turn, whilst George Maluleka was tasked with trying to close down Musa Nyatama.
When the latter dropped into deep positions (visibly motioning for Maela to push higher so he could drop into the left half-space), then Chiefs would ask Castro to help block him off. Jele was allowed to have the ball, safe in the knowledge that his passing could not hurt them.
Amakhosi had more of the early chances as first Castro beat Jele in the air, but under-hit his pass to Billiat who was bursting through the middle.
Then Jele lost the ball to Billiat, who forced a strong save from Sandilands. Parker then went close with a header as he got in-behind Maela from Maluleka’s raking long-pass.
Parker also forced another save out of Sandilands as he cut inside to test him from range.
The veteran was looking a real threat on the right flank and gave Maela a tough time defensively. The latter’s attacking game was hampered as he mostly stayed back to deal with Parker’s high and wide position.
On Pirates’ side, their pressing was a real problem too.
With the lack of pace in Bucs' backline, the defensive line rarely moved out of their defensive third, creating a huge area in midfield to cover, especially on the vast expanses of the FNB Stadium pitch.
As Chiefs enjoyed a good spell in the game, Pirates took the chance to have a quick tactical meeting on the touchline to make adjustments.
The initial change was to move to a back-three, pulling Maela into left centre back, swapping Jele and Ndengane and asking Pule to drop back to left wing-back to help against Parker.
This change worked well to stem the flow. This allowed Pule to join the attack from deeper and therefore made it harder for Moleko to mark him.
One great cross nearly reached Shonga as half-time approached. That was arguably Pule’s first real influence on the game, a sign of how well Moleko had marshalled him.
Mbekile’s more attacking role also gave Bucs a way to stop Ntiya-Ntiya from being an easy out-ball to relieve any pressure.
As Pirates had reacted to his initial setup, Middendorp made a small second-half alteration.
Philani Zulu replaced Mashiane and played a little narrow on the left flank with Billiat stationed towards the left wing.
This looked like a hybrid of the 4-4-2 of the first half and a 4-3-3.
Bucs had moved back to their initial shape for the second period.
Seven minutes into the second half, this small change bore fruit. Billiat won the ball in his own half on the left flank and ran 40 yards unchallenged with the ball.
He eventually drew a penalty after Mbekile’s mild tug. Although the decision itself was debatable, the goal had come for a clear reason.
Even though Pirates had lost possession 10 yards into the Chiefs half, they allowed Billiat to carry the ball with no one coming out to engage him. Ndengane, who had defended very well up to that point (especially in the duels against Castro) had retreated all the way into his own box without stepping out to close down Chiefs’ talisman. Mbekile had run 40 yards to try to recover from losing the ball and his tug looked desperate.
Daniel Cardoso tucked away the spot-kick.
Chiefs continued their spell on top as Parker’s lovely cross found Billiat, but Sandilands bravely came out to put him off.
Then Billiat tested the goalkeeper from long-range after Cardoso had made an interception and burst through midfield with the ball to create the opening.
Pirates Add Attacker, Chiefs Add Defender
By the 60-minute mark, Chiefs were 1-0 up, creating better chances and were keeping Pirates’ front three quiet.
Justin Shonga had barely been involved in the game as Cardoso and Teenage Hadebe’s aggressive defending gave him a tough afternoon.
Pirates’ move was to take off Nyatama and introduce Mulenga. This saw them now have four attacking players.
Chiefs responded by having a meeting of their own on the touchline as Akpeyi went down with a feigned injury (as is becoming the norm now for goalkeepers across the PSL).
Soon after, Chiefs put Katsande on for Castro.
Amakhosi’s shape was now something resembling 5-4-1 as Zulu moved to left wing-back and Ntiya-Ntiya switched over to right wing-back.
Ekstein pushed higher up with Katsande on the pitch. Chiefs were now going to sit back and try to play on the break, but inviting pressure for a full 30 minutes looked a risky ploy.
Wasteful Chiefs as Bucs Grow
With Pirates now playing with more attackers, there was space for Chiefs to counter and one such break forced Ndengane to pull Billiat back as he realised he had no chance in a foot-race.
Ekstein also had a great opening to kill the match on a counter but made the wrong choice.
Pirates, on the other hand, made their first real opening in an hour as Shonga finally began to move across the front-line after a static game up to that point.
His cross from the left found Pule in the box, but the latter’s header was straight at Akpeyi. Mpho Makola came on for Mlambo, whose disappointing run of recent form for Pirates had continued in this match.
Chiefs were visibly fatiguing by this point and Middendorp readied Mphahlele to further reinforce his defence.
But before he could make the change, Chiefs lost the ball in their own half and Motshwari put Lorch through on goal to equalise.
Hadebe had tried to play offside but had made a bad error and Pirates were level with 10 minutes to play.
Despite no longer winning, Middendorp brought Mphahlele on anyway, using him on the right of a midfield diamond as Hadebe moved out to left-back.
This was Chiefs’ fourth different formation on the day.
Pirates surprisingly did not go for the kill and instead took Shonga off for Munetsi as they settled for a point.
This was a highly tactical Soweto derby, although perhaps lacking in some goalmouth action, it was an entertaining affair.
Chiefs’ plan worked very well for the first hour, allowing Pirates very few chances whilst hindering both their build-up play and pressing.
However, the introduction of Katsande did little to protect the lead and instead invited pressure. This eventually saw Pirates level the match and Chiefs had little way to try to seize back the initiative at that point.
Both sides ended the game happy with a point but for different reasons.
Chiefs were exhausted and stacked with defensive players so had no choice, whilst Pirates had been outplayed for large stretches and felt a draw was a good result in that context.