17 October 2019, by: Grant de Smidt
How Baxter’s Miserly Defence Led to Chiefs’ Record Season
With Kaizer Chiefs’ 50th birthday just a couple of months away, we look at their record-breaking 2014-15 season and how their British coach masterminded their success on the way to record 69 points.
Having gone trophy-less in his second season at Kaizer Chiefs – blowing a six-point lead over Mamelodi Sundowns with nine games to go – Stuart Baxter had a point to prove. His first season in charge (2012-13) had brought a league and cup double despite just 57 points in total.
However, Pitso Mosimane’s first full season in charge at Downs in 2013-14 saw him wrest the league title away from Chiefs with 65 points. Despite actually getting six points more than in his first season, Baxter had ended as the runner-up. Sundowns had raised the bar in the PSL and Chiefs would need to hit new heights to regain their crown.
Chiefs did not do any major transfer business, though. For the 2014-15 season, they added uninspiring signings like David Zulu from the NFD (in January) as well as the likes of Ovidy Karuru and Siphelele Mthembu.
The major outgoing transfer was Knowledge Musona, who has scored 16 times in all competitions in the previous campaign during a loan spell from Bundesliga side, Hoffenheim.
Style of Play
Baxter had a very clear preferred style of play at Chiefs. He liked his sides to drop off, drawing the opposition onto them then exploiting transitions to attack opponents whilst disorganised. Many supporters did not approve of Chiefs allowing opponents to dominate possession or the defence-first approach when leading games, but it was extremely effective.
Large numbers of other supporters did not care as the side were winning every week and that gave them bragging rights over the Sundowns and Pirates faithful.
Baxter described the evolution of his side from very much based on transitions in his first season to a slightly more proactive side in 2014-15, saying:
“The first year, my thoughts were that in SA everyone’s over-playing. If we worked hard on transitions, we could get a good payback. That led to teams holding back against us. This year we had to be better on set plays, and build more momentum in pressing, to get our noses in front and force people to come at us – then use transitions again.”
Chiefs were a very dangerous side on set-plays, both from the excellent delivery of Tshabalala and Parker (with both feet!) and from their direct freekick threat. Amakhosi scored only 41 goals in their 30 matches, with 14 of those from set-plays, 12 from build-up play and 15 from transitions – eight on the counter-attack and seven from winning the ball in the opposition half.
Critical to their style of play was Reneilwe Letsholonyane. He would so often play the first pass forward after Chiefs won the ball, and he was equally adept at receiving off the back four to build attacks or bursting into the box to finish off moves.
An idea of how quickly and progressively he moved the ball is seen in his average of just 1.96 touches per occasion he got possession. He would often play one-touch or two-touch at most to eliminate opponents and more than 50% of his passes went forwards.
MALEMA's Great Start
Before the PSL had the famous CBD combination at Sundowns, there was MA-LE-MA at Kaizer Chiefs comprising George MAluleka, George LEbese and Mandla MAsango. Because of injuries to Siphiwe Tshabalala and Bernard Parker at the start of the season, Baxter fielded that trio behind a focal point in Kingston Nkhatha.
They linked up brilliantly in the early weeks, offering arguably greater dynamism that when “Shabba” or “Die Hond” were playing. Chiefs won their opening eight matches, keeping seven clean sheets. Masango scored four times whilst Lebese scored twice during that run. In his first 10 league appearances that season, Lebese netted five times and was a big reason for Chiefs flying out of the traps.
After that sequence, the injured duo both began playing matches at the same time and MALEMA only made one more start together for the rest of the season. That is a pity and with more time, perhaps something special could have developed.
Chiefs’ outstanding start to the season came with the same XI in the opening five matches and all season, Baxter used a very small core of players regularly with only fleeting appearances from the fringe options and very little rotation or tinkering to the side.
This built real understanding and chemistry between the squad and much credit had to go to conditioning trainer, Josh Smith, who kept a relatively old team down to minimal injuries.
Nkhatha FAITH… Then Departure
Throughout his time at Chiefs, Baxter had players who he felt were key to the side, but who the fans did not always rate. The man who exemplified that was Kingston Nkhatha, who was often booed by the supporters but was crucial to Amakhosi.
With Baxter favouring a counter-attacking style of play, it was key to have a forward who could give an out-ball to teammates, run the channels and make decoy movements to vacate space for runners. Nkhatha did those things to perfection, but rarely got the goals or finished off straightforward chances. His defending from the front was also key and Chiefs’ defensive record owed a lot to the work done by Nkhatha.
Such was the lack of trust by Baxter in his other number nines, that when Chiefs went to face Ajax Cape Town in round 8, it was Tshabalala as a false nine to replace the missing Zimbabwean forward – Siphelele Mthembu was only on the bench.
In January though, Nkhatha left to join SuperSport United, who were offering the player more money than Chiefs as his contract ran down. Having signed a pre-contract with Matsatsantsa, Chiefs released him early and left Baxter without his first-choice striker.