PSL 2020/21 – Tactical Innovations

By BET Contributor

We look at fives sides’ tactics so far this season and how they are creating advantages and overloads on the pitch using tactical innovations. Baroka, Swallows FC, Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and AmaZulu are featured in this instalment.

Baroka’s 4-4-2

It may seem curious to call an old school 4-4-2 an “innovation” but with so few teams now playing with two genuine strikers, it has created central defenders who look very uncomfortable without the luxury of a spare man against a lone striker.

New boss, Thoka Matsimela, who has been caretaker coach and assistant coach in the past, has switched from Dylan Kerr’s 4-2-3-1 shape and used a dual striker structure in most matches. Although they needed some serious fortune and many top saves from Elvis Chipezeze, Baroka took seven points from their first three matches using Richard Mbulu (three goals) and Evidence Makgopa (two goals) in attack.

That has meant Nhlanhla Mgaga, used as a narrow left winger or number ten under Kerr, has moved back to pure central midfielder role. Ananias Gebhardt, more naturally a centre back or fullback, has played as a left midfielder.

However, the age old issues with a flat four-man midfield has been evident through as a big gap has opened between their defence and midfield. The coach changed setup against Pirates to be more compact and it worked well, leading to a 1-1 draw.

In the clip above, Baroka go long from the back and Makgopa flicks on for his strike partner Mbulu. Few teams’ centre backs are used to facing a front pairing.

Pirates’ Lopsided Shapes

Orlando Pirates have used various schemes to build up or overload certain areas in recent seasons. Such examples include Rulani Mokwena using Paseka Mako as an inverted left fullback with Gabadinho Mhango and Thembinkosi Lorch overloading Kaizer Chiefs’ right flank. Against Bidvest Wits last season, Pirates had Luvuyo Memela and Kabelo Dlamini completing overloading in the right half space, giving Lorenzo Gordinho a nightmare cup in the Nedbank Cup.

This season, Bucs have often played a very lopsided shape where the majority of the width on the right has to be provided by Wayde Jooste whilst the left flank has a more genuine winger like Deon Hotto.

In the early season match against AmaZulu, Siphesihle Ndlovu played a specialist “right half space” role without a right winger used at all. For Pirates goal, Fortune Makaringe found Ndlovu on the blind side in that inside channel to win a penalty.

Caption: Pirates have a genuine left winger in Hotto and draw AmaZulu over to the left flank before a “half switch” from Makaringe finds Ndlovu free to drive forward and win a penalty from the right half space. All the genuine width on that flank was tasked to right-back, Wayde Jooste.

Bucs have continued to use asymmetric (lopsided) formations where only one flank has a winger whilst the other sees a narrow player. They can either overload a team on one flank to progress the ball or draw them to one side before switching play.

The benefit of a “half switch” is that there is less ball travelling time for the opposition to adjust and reorganise whilst the receiving player is in a position to immediately drive towards goal – something that would not be possible if he were hugging the far touchline.

Of course, packing your side with central midfielders means less spots for genuine attackers or goal threats and Pirates have often had to rely on their substitutes to rescue points after toothless first-half performances. Perhaps a more standard 4-2-3-1 would be wise as the default with opposition-specific overloads within that or for certain matches only.

Swallows’ Inverted Fullbacks

Perhaps the most interesting innovation in the PSL so far is being used at Swallows by Brandon Truter. The former Richards Bay coach oversaw 12 wins, three draws and just one defeat in the final 16 matches of last season and his team now sits atop the PSL.

The coach has used inverted fullbacks throughout this season, a concept used most famously by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munch and Man City. Essentially, when building up, the side’s two fullbacks move in-field (“invert”) either side of the defensive midfielder as opposed to being on the touchline.

This has a few knock-on effects. Firstly, this allows Swallows’ other two midfielders to play very high up between the lines as two number tens. Secondly, this will often pull the opposition’s two wide players in-field, thereby opening up a passing lane directly to the Birds’ wide players. However, the biggest benefit is defensively where five players remain behind the ball in central positions to guard against transitions.

We can see Swallows’ structure against Chiefs above. The centre backs split very wide to try to draw the opposition strikers wide and open up passes to the inverted fullbacks, Mere and Hlanti in midfield roles, or the wingers dropping off.
Against Stellenbosch, it was Ritchie as the inverted left-back. We can see Gamildien, the left-sided forward in this match, dropping down and connecting play on the left.

The result of this innovation has been just one goal conceded in five matches, both due to the central protection afforded by the shape on transitions but also by the ability to keep the ball in deep areas as a defensive strategy. How teams look to nullify this – other than just sitting off and letting Swallows circulate the ball – is something to keep an eye on.

This setup works best when you have outstanding 1v1 wingers like Guardiola has enjoyed in Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery. They often have the opposition isolated and can attempt a dribble to eliminate their man.

Multi-Functional Maboe is A Diamond

If you look in the football dictionary for the definition of “multi-functional”, you will see a picture of Lebohang Maboe. At Maritzburg United, he often had different roles in different phases of the game. When Fadlu Davids’ side were defending, he would be deeper as part of the midfield three but in the buildup phase, one could see him as a false nine with Andrea Fileccia moving into a wide forward role.

At Sundowns, he has been a lone false nine in a 4-2-3-1 during the 2018-19 season to great effect and as part of two forwards in a 4-2-2-2 where his goals dried up but his counter-pressing remained crucial. Arguably his best role is as a number eight in a three-man midfield.

This season, Sundowns have been playing a very fluid shape resembling a midfield diamond in possession with Maboe to the right of Rivaldo Coetzee, Themba Zwane moving high between the lines and two speedy split strikers in Kermit Erasmus and Peter Shalulile.

Out of possession, Zwane and Shalulile have had some defensive duties in wider areas but they enjoy complete freedom in the attacking phases thanks to very adventurous fullbacks providing the width and Maboe’s ability to cover ground, take up various positions and perform many duties. He is the ideal shuttler.

Maboe drops deep to receive off the back four with Andile Jali rotating into a higher position (out of shot). Sundowns midfield diamond has been very effective so far this season with a genuine front two and Zwane excelling at arriving in the box.

At times last season, Sundowns’ narrow 4-4-2 system would see one of the wide players dropping deeper to connect play (usually Sibusiso Vilakazi or Sphelele Mkhulise) which allowed Hlompho Kekana to get forward and not have to recover his position as quickly in his advancing years. In recent matches, the captain has been left out with a younger midfield of Coetzee, Jali and Maboe used. That makes sense in a midfield diamond as Jali has the defensive nous and discipline to cover the left flank whereas Kekana could be wasted in that role.

Memela’s Free Role

Without doubt, AmaZulu picking up Luvuyo Memela was one of the signings of the off season. Few players in the PSL are as good between the lines as him and his creativity is exactly what AmaZulu have been lacking in recent seasons.

His start to life at Usuthu has been superb. No player in the PSL has had more shots and only two other players have made more tackles – Memela has clearly had a point to prove to Pirates. His role has been an interesting one. For large parts of matches, he plays as a number ten when AmaZulu have possession but when the ball is lost, he has some responsibilities to defend the right flank.

On the other side is often Augustine Mulenga, also in a narrow role. It means the shape of Ayanda Dlamini’s team can appear to be a 4-3-2-1 shape with three genuine central midfielders. Memela has total freedom in possession to drift into space or make runs into scoring positions.

AmaZulu’s shape becomes a 4-3-2-1 as Mulenga and Memela come in-field and leave the fullbacks to provide width. Memela is very difficult to mark as he is constantly showing for the ball between the lines.

The two things needed for Memela to excel are runners to hit further forward and a deep-lying midfielder behind him who can pick him out between the lines. Xola Mlambo fulfils the latter role perfectly whilst the speed of Phakamani Mahlambi could be ideal to run onto Memela’s through balls as Gabadinho Mhango did to such good effect last season at Pirates.

In some games, when Xola Mlambo has been unavailable, AmaZulu have also switched to a genuine 4-2-3-1 with two wingers, allowing Memela to be a dedicated number ten in all phases. The one question for AmaZulu is whether there is any space at all for Siphiwe Tshabalala or whether he is going to have to make do with short sub cameos at best this season.

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