Two promising performances marked the start of Gordon Igesund’s Bafana Bafana reign. The result was never the focus in Brazil, with the wiser individual appreciating the performance and attitude in a tough fixture in Brazil for the first time in Bafana’s history.
The travel and jet lag that comes with crossing 5 time zones was less of a factor going to Brazil than it was coming back, when the team had 3 days to readjust to South African time. Therefore, the physical energy levels of the second friendly was particularly impressive, although the decision-making in attack sometimes looked a bit ‘tired’. Firstly, a look at the Brazil match.
Brazil v South Africa
No massive surprises in defence with 1st choice Khune in goal (who should be starting for a mid-table side in one of the top 5 European leagues), with the promising centre back partnership of Khumalo and Sangweni ahead, the pacey Masenamela on the left and the more conservative Gaxa on the right.
Sangweni brings a calming aura to the rest of the defence with his relaxed style, body language and excellent, unfussy distribution (with an underrated passing range). Against Brazil he made a couple of crunching, superbly timed challenges on Neymar in the opening minutes showcasing his attributes that make him easily the best centre back in the PSL (Mor Diouf would probably disagree). Khumalo should recover his best form given time, his move to PAOK finally giving him the chance to get consistent games under his belt having only made 9 appearances on loan at Reading from Spurs last season (only 4 in the league). Khumalo should be given the ‘stopper’ role (better aerially) with the quicker Sangweni covering. This should be the first choice centre back partnership for Bafana even with Gould, Mathoho, Fransman, Daniels or any other eligible South African centre back 100% fit.
With Ngcongca (in the original squad for Brazil) injured, Gaxa had a late call up to the squad having recently joined the new look Kaizer Chiefs defence. Gaxa is more conservative with his positioning than Masenamela on the opposite wing (who’s quick recovery often covers up his over-offensive nature), who only started due to Masilela lacking recent game time.
The Brazil result has to be taken into context, a new coach, several new players, long travel, first time in Brazil, etc. All these aspects weighed up in Brazil’s favour. What we got was a spirited, high tempo game with what could have been a very credible draw had certain Bafana players converted good chances (Gaxa). On the other hand, Khune made a number of excellent reaction saves to stop Brazil from winning by a landslide. The performance was encouraging, however mention must be made of Tshabalala’s poor performance, losing the ball numerous times on important transitions for South Africa, leaving Brazil with their own dangerous counter-attacking opportunities. It continues to be a major talking point whether Tshabalala should be starting for Bafana (despite Igesund’s insistence on the importance of wingers), especially when Pienaar is fit, Serero available and Mahlangu lurking in the background.
What can be scrutinized in more detail is the Mozambique game. Igesund made 3 changes to the starting XI, tactfully bringing Josephs in (to play infront of a home crowd after making a major decision to rescind his international retirement) and giving starts to Letsholonyane and Parker.
South Africa v Mozambique
Parker started as a 9 in a 4-3-3 with Furman holding, Letsholonyane becoming the passing 8 looking to make runs from deep to support the attack, and Serero slightly further forward as a 10. An injury crisis to Bafana’s strikers with Mphela, Manqele, Ndlovu, McCarthy and Nomvethe all injured left Igesund with the decision to start Parker upfront on his own, a position he rarely plays for Chiefs (where he is a second striker/wide forward). He did well against Mozambique, making good runs off the shoulder of the centre backs and scoring 2 goals, however naturally his hold up play with his back to goal looked uncomfortable at times.
Dean Furman had an excellent game, with his awareness of space and ball retention positive. His passing is limited, however he has a clear role and does it well. He lacks speed and struggled in patches against Brazil on the ball, however against slow opposition he will be a good asset for Bafana to have to see out games. There seems to be a slight overreaction to his performance in the media following the friendlies, possibly due to the fact that South Africa generally do not have an abundance of players in that pure holding style like him, with the exception of Dikgacoi, Manyisa, Scott, Khuboni (slightly more adventurous) or Mokotjo (still very inexperienced). It is debatable whether any of these are international standard at the moment. Nonetheless, Furman brings a unique tactical discipline to Bafana.
It is disappointing that Serero and Khumalo had to go off, clearly under instructions from their clubs to limit their playing time. Despite Serero being relatively quiet in both games, he continues to show the most attacking potential out of the entire squad. These friendlies are the types of games where Igesund needs to test combinations around him, not to have to substitute him after 60 minutes and leave out of form, well-known players like Tshabalala on the field.
Mahlangu and Mokotjo both show promise. Mahlangu won the Swedish Player of the Year at the age of 22 and needs to be slowly implemented into the side to provide competition to Pienaar and Serero as a 10. Mokotjo is getting increasing minutes at Feyernoord in a technical Dutch league with excellent coaches. Worth mentioning that Giovanni Van Bronckhorst is the assistant at Mokotjo’s club and should provide excellent tutelage for a young holding midfielder.
Strikers continue to be an issue. Ndlovu looked good in the short time he was on the field against Brazil. His pace suited our pressing and he played a great layoff that setup Gaxa for Bafana’s best chance. McCarthy’s physique is an embarrassment for a representative of a nation, it was no surprise that when called up to a system that requires pressing (unheard of for McCarthy at Pirates) he injures himself almost instantly. Young, hungry players like Ndlovu need to be brought in if the long-term ambitions remain the priority. Players like Malmö FF’s Tokelo Rantie and Ajax Cape Town’s Bradley Grobler (the pure 9 that SA needs?) also deserve chances.
It would be encouraging if Bafana’s core was built around combinations playing week in week out at club level. The Russian side at Euro 2012 had 8 players from 2 clubs in one of their starting XIs. This obviously builds understanding between the players and if Igesund does persevere with Tshabalala on the left, it is at least positive that Masilela will be linking up behind him on the left wing at Kaizer Chiefs. Igesund will do well to convince Andrew Surman to play for his country of birth, who could slot in in central midfield alongside Furman. A spine of Khune, Sangweni/Khumalo, Surman/Furman, Serero/Pienaar, Mphela/Ndlovu with Mahlangu, Mokotjo, Rantie and Xulu developing alongside would be exciting.
Igesund: “We travelled through four time zones, you know; the bodies of the players were tired tonight. I’m satisfied, we did okay. We weren’t great tonight. We kept the ball, our passing and movement; we still gave the ball away too much.
“But I can’t expect more after four days of training. I’m happy with the attitude, I’m happy that we won the game and I was also able to throw in a couple of young players in there to give them a chance.
“At the end of the day, we’ve played two games and it’s something to build on. We’ve really got a lot of work to do.”