Prior to this game, there was much talk of how Middendorp would change Kaizer Chiefs’ side as he looked to arrest their alarming results and defensive showings, in particular.
With Itumeleng Khune missing, Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Erick Mathoho out for the long-term with injury, and Willard Katsande suspended, his options were limited somewhat.
In defence, Kgotso Moleko got the nod at right back, with Mario Booysen and Daniel Cardoso recalled in the centre of defence.
In midfield, Philani Zulu got a start, with both Siphelele Ntshangase and George Maluleka also selected.
In attack, all three of Chiefs’ high-profile attackers in Khama Billiat, Leonardo Castro and Lebogang Manyama started.
On Supersport’s side, with injuries ruling out Bongani Khumalo, Dean Furman, Thabo Mnyamane and Bradley Grobler, coach Tembo had several youngsters included in the squad and decided to start one of them, Sipho Mbule, who was preferred over Reneilwe Letsholonyane in central midfield.
In attack, James Keene was left on the bench, so Evans Rusike played centrally.
Morgan Gould started against his former club alongside Clayton Daniels, whilst Aubrey Modiba was recalled on the wing after his impressive outing as a sub against Mamelodi Sundowns.
Chiefs’ Diamond Midfield
Amakhosi’s German coach is nothing if not adaptable in his formation preference, and he immediately changed from the flat 4-4-2 used by his predecessor, Giovanni Solinas, and moved to a diamond midfield.
At the base was Maluleka, with Ntshangase as the shuttler on the right, Zulu as the shuttler on the left, and Manyama behind the front two.
Immediately noticeable was how much more compact the side were in this shape. The centre of the pitch, which has resembled a freeway at times this season, was protected much better.
The four-man diamond would shift across the pitch in coordination with each other, shutting down any space between the lines. This meant that the far flank was left unoccupied and the midfield could surround their opponents.
When Chiefs won the ball, they had two strikers to find on transitions, with Billiat running in-behind onto early deliveries on several occasions. Castro also offered himself on counters but didn’t have the same pace or comfort when running the channels.
In possession, Chiefs now had Manyama in a central area, and if Supersport’s midfield three tried to press Chiefs’ deepest three central midfielders, then Manyama was free behind Phumlani Ntshangase, with the two centre backs also occupied.
Some of Chiefs’ quick interplay was impressive, creating triangles with the fullbacks, shuttlers, and either Manyama or Billiat. One such moment saw Manyama played through on goal, but Ronwen Williams thwarted him.
Supersport were having real problems in the first 25 minutes as Chiefs forced them to one flank, then trapped them there.
On the right, there was very little joy with Zulu doing a diligent job in protecting Godfrey Walsumbi.
However, Supersport created one clear opening as Onismor Bhasera exploited space in front of him with no Chiefs winger to deal with, and his cutback found Lakay in the box, but Booysen blocked well.
That chance showed how to expose Middendorp’s setup – switch the play quickly, and get the fullbacks forward to try to create a two versus one situation on the flanks.
Defensively, Tembo had pushed Modiba over to the right and when he tucked in, Supersport could match Chiefs with four men of their own in the engine room and switch play more easily.
Mahlasela Makes Maluleka’s Match-winner
With Supersport trying to turn the game by pulling off midfielder Mbule for another forward in James Keene, the away side went to 4-3-3, using Modiba centrally.
This was a strange change as just a few minutes later, Maluleka exploited the extra midfield space and curled home via a small deflection.
Tembo’s men had not carried a much-sustained threat, so that seemed to be the motivation for this change.
With Kabelo Mahlasela having come on at half-time for Chiefs to give greater energy on the right of the diamond (as Ntshangase was withdrawn), this change only served to give the diminutive, former Bloemfontein Celtic man more space to thrive.
Supersport chased the game even more, then took off Teboho Mokoena too for Ghampani Lunga and went to 4-4-2 with Modiba now one of just two central midfielders.
Only constant poor decisions stopped Chiefs killing the game off with some scorching counter attacks as Mahlasela impressed, and Maluleka hit early forward passes in search of Billiat.
With Bernard Parker coming on for Castro to run the right channel, Chiefs were able to constantly pull Supersport’s central defenders apart.
In games to come, Chiefs’ opponents may need to be wary of withdrawing central midfielders and allowing themselves to be over-run in that part of the pitch.
Chiefs defend diligently
This season, the Amakhosi backline has been constantly guilty of individual mistakes, described as “schoolboy errors” by captain Itumeleng Khune.
These howlers have been committed by every single defender who has been tried in the backline, showing with some certainty, that the structure of the side was exposing the defenders.
In the middle of the backline, both Booysen and Cardoso had very strong games, not giving Supersport many openings at all, but also passing the ball really well.
Where Booysen looked nervous and clumsy as a left centre-back, he was confident and penetrative with his distribution on the right of the pairing.
He often found teammates between the lines with firm, driven passes. Cardoso was calm and classy, and one long diagonal ball put Billiat through on goal in the first half, but Castro missed the opening when his teammate squared to him.
With Chiefs doing a great job of picking up second balls when the defenders made headed clearances, and none of the back-four finding themselves isolated or outnumbered, there were suddenly no schoolboy errors in sight.
In a compact structure, with midfielders not being caught wrong-sided constantly, this pairing looked back to their best, and Kgotso Moleko looked good at right back too.
Where Middendorp Wants Improvement
This game was a good first outing for the team after just a few days of training with their new coach, but there will be several areas where the coach will demand improvement.
Firstly, the side simply has to be more clinical. Castro, Billiat and Manyama missed several clear openings to kill the game, but the trio looked effective playing together in close quarters, and the latter will be happy to have returned to a number ten role. It was in a central position where he excelled for Cape Town City and won Football of the Season just 18 months ago.
On the break, Chiefs looked deadly at times and with better decision-making, they could be fearsome in this phase of play.
Up front, Castro has to get used to running the channels, otherwise, the new coach could instead pick the more mobile Parker or Dumisani Zuma.
In midfield, the coach will have a big call over whether to recall Katsande or stick with Maluleka at the base of the diamond. With the winner in this game, and a very fine display with his quick, forward passes on transition, Maluleka looks better suited to this shape than the veteran Zimbabwean.
At right back, Mphahlele’s absence means that Moleko is the only specialist for that role.
In this shape, much of the width will come from the fullbacks, so having adventurous options will be crucial and Moleko fits the bill. Middendorp will want to see less speculative crosses when there is no one in the box though, especially from Walusimbi.
Summary – Ernst's Optimism
The universal pessimism and negativity that greeted Middendorp’s re-appointment at Chiefs is already looking like a knee-jerk reaction. The coach has made the side look less open and disorganised in just a few days, and this was a fine win considering the players who were unavailable.
With more hours on the training ground and some time watching videos of what the coach wants, Chiefs’ players could be ideally suited to this midfield diamond.
Right now, the squad lacks quality wingers, but has a plethora of skilful number tens to fit into this shape.
For Supersport, the side’s lack of invention and quality going forward over their recent games is a worry, and the injury to Dean Furman is hitting their midfield hard.