South Africa: Revolution in the Head
Shakes Mashaba’s reign as South Africa coach began with many celebrating the imminent ‘revolution’ that the coach was promising to initiate.
However, as Bafana Bafana progressed through the group stage, so the boss regressed to the mean, and eventually turned back to certain key players that had been part of the derided Gordon Igesund era.
Ultimately, Mashaba must be credited for giving some youngsters an opportunity, as well as, most importantly, instilling a new belief and a much-improved team ethic in the side.
South Africa progressed unbeaten through the qualifying process, conceding only three goals. Only four teams (Cameroon, Zambia, Senegal and Tunisia) managed better, and two of the goals Bafana let in came once they were already qualified.
Impressively, for four matches and 77 minutes, South Africa didn’t concede a goal. Testament, perhaps, to the quality of the late Senzo Meyiwa, but also evidence of Mashaba’s ability to organise a defence.
The manager employed a fairly consistent 4-4-2 during qualification, although there were signs, certainly, that a simple switch to a 4-2-3-1 (with the wide men pushing forward and one striker dropping off) was a viable option.
Following Meyiwa’s tragic murder, Darren Keet took the goalkeeping berth, and Mashaba’s decision not to recall Itumeleng Khune is a major show of faith.
Meyiwa kept four clean sheets in four matches, while Keet conceded three in two. The Kortrijk stopper commanded his area well, but has neither the distribution skills nor the shot-stopping ability of Khune.
Ahead of the keeper, Eric Mathoho will be a key man in the defence. The centre-back isn’t called ‘Tower’ for nothing, and his excellent work in the air can often alleviate pressure on Keet. The defender appears to have grown in stature under Mashaba, but will have his work cut out in Group C. Mathoho will be suspended for the first game, however, a fact that will likely be giving the coach sleepless nights.
Alongside him, Mashaba has several options.
During the early qualifiers, he opted to use Genk’s Anele Ngcongca alongside Mathoho, with Thulani Hlatshwayo of Bidvest Wits on the right. I personally prefer Anele on the right, and it seems Mashaba does too, as he changed his approach during the qualifying programme.
The inclusion of teenage centre-back Rivaldo Coetzee represented a ‘feel-good’ moment for South African football, although I doubt whether the youngster will manage to cope with the considerable attacking menace in the ‘Group of Death’.
At left-back, Sibusiso Khumalo’s injury comes as a considerable blow as the defender looked to have seen off the challenge of Thabo Matlaba. Either man would do a fine job, and together, they had largely ended the calls for Tsepo Masilela to return to the national team.
I was surprised that Kaizer Chiefs man Tefu Mashamaite, who started in the qualifier against Nigeria, was overlooked altogether.
His absence means it will now be Matlaba starting on the left, with Mathoho/Coetzee and Anele in the middle and Hlatshwayo on the right.
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In midfield, the dynamic Dean Furman—recently installed as skipper—and the twinkle toed Andile Jali are likely to start. The pair complement each other exceptionally and will not be overawed by the talent they are to face in Group C.
I once claimed that Bafana can boast of a roster of central midfielders that ranks among Africa’s best. They can call on Oupa Manyisa as well, for a central role, although his inclusion tends to encourage a narrower midfield or even a diamond.
This was particularly the case when Thulani Serero, of AFC Ajax, was in the team. Serero, Bafana’s star man on his day, was a potential tournament MVP, but was sensationally axed by Mashaba after not turning up for a squad meeting. The midfielder’s exclusion represents a major gamble by the boss and while his commitment to the collective remains admirable, it may well backfire.
Had the Ajax man been present, one could have expected a narrow 4-4-2 with Serero on the left and Manyisa on the right. As a foursome, they had the potential to dominate the centre of the park, but possibly struggled with width, which isn’t always provided by the full-backs.
Serero’s absence will force Mashaba into a midfield reshuffle, not easy, considering he’s already dismissed two of his other talented options:
Kamohelo Mokotjo, of FC Twente, is a supremely talented midfield all-rounder who would have added to the midfield, although he has been overlooked for the provisional squad after a fall out with Mashaba back in September.
May Mahlangu, the talented playmaker, will play no part at the Afcon having been banned for refusing a call-up.
In reserve, veteran Renielwe Letsholonyane will be a valuable option. The dreadlocked ‘Yeye’ is an energetic defender, but also possesses poise on the ball and a cultured shot.
Should Mashaba want a more attacking option on the flank, then Mandla Masango of Kaizer Chiefs is a lively presence on the right. There are fewer options on the left—particularly with Siphwe Tshabalala exiled—but Bongani Zungu will be an option. Now that Serero has been overlooked, Zungu might step into a pivotal role.
In attack, Mashaba will look for the partnership of Tokelo Rantie and Bongani Ndulula to ignite as they did, sporadically, during qualification. The latter is the great success story of the new coach’s time in charge. He was handed his debut in the opening qualifier against Sudan and scored both against the Falcons of Jediane and against the Republic of Congo.
Rantie, who plays in the Championship with Bournemouth, brings a fine physical presence, even if his finishing can be erratic. Currently injured, there are doubts about whether the diminutive forward will be fit for the tournament, although the Cherries are confident he will make it.
Kermit Erasmus was called-up during the qualifiers, but has missed the cut and thus, the opportunity to ignite his sluggish international career from the bench. By contrast, Chiefs’ Bernard Parker—a key figure under Igesund—didn’t feature under Mashaba during qualification, but was a surprise inclusion in the final squad.
Sibusiso Vilakazi will likely be a central creative option from the bench, and could be a replacement for Serero, with Themba Zwane, Vuyisile Wana, Mondli Cele and Thuso Phala (among others) all in contention for reserve offensive roles.