AmaZulu enjoyed their best-ever PSL campaign last time out as they finished second and qualified for the CAF Champions League. Many laughed off the club owners’ aims to finish in the top four but they exceeded expectations under Benni McCarthy. Can they repeat their achievements of last season or will it be much tougher this time around?
Benni – Coach Of The Year
The furore over Benni McCarthy winning PSL coach of the season last year was completely unfounded. At the time of his arrival, Usuthu had six points from six matches and sat 11th in the table, a long way off their ambitions of a top four finish. He had an iffy start with a defeat in his first match having had one day of training with the side. AmaZulu got one win, three draws and two defeats in his first six matches in charge – ironically their exact record to start the season before his appointment.
What followed was a truly unbelievable run of results. The side won 12 and drew two of their next 14 PSL matches with only 0-0 draws against Swallows and Mamelodi Sundowns being games where points were dropped. There was a run of six clean sheets at one stage and an incredible 5-1 win away at Cape Town City for McCarthy to relish against his former side.
Although AmaZulu did dip in the final four matches once it was clear that Mamelodi Sundowns were going to win all their matches in hand and march to the title, it was nothing short of a remarkable season. From the time of his appointment until the final day, AmaZulu picked up just five points less than imperious champions Sundowns. Compared to expectations, Benni blew his out of the water completely.
League Table from McCarthy’s appointment:
A year ago, AmaZulu desperately needed a good transfer window with quality players arriving. Otherwise, another season in the bottom half or a relegation battle was likely. In came some top additions including goalkeeper Veli Mothwa from Chippa United and the released Orlando Pirates duo of Augustine Mulenga and Luvuyo Memela in attack. Also arriving was Makhehlene Makhaula from Highlands Park and he delivered an incredible season as genuinely one of the division best performers in midfield. Those four players completely changed the way AmaZulu could play and all enjoyed fantastic seasons.
This offseason, the side lost left-back Sibusiso Mabiliso to Kaizer Chiefs and were not able to retain Zukile Kewuti after his strong loan spell from Cape Town City. AmaZulu moved for the fullback Chiefs wanted to upgrade on with Mabiliso’s signing in Philani Zulu. Also coming on board was another player released by Amakhosi in Kgotso Moleko. Both are steady additions but don’t improve the starting XI from last season.
In midfield, the side got Keagan Buchanan, who was released by Maritzburg United last season. He is a more tenacious deep-lying passer than Xola Mlambo. Hendrick Ekstein could be a tidy signing if he can bring goals to the midfield three which have been lacking somewhat. Tercious Malepe is a useful utility player for a few different positions, as is Mxolisi Kunene, but both could find themselves playing left-back if it becomes a problem position.
No striker has arrived and Bongi Ntuli is seemingly not going to be first choice under McCarthy despite his 2019-20 campaign where he scored 13 of Usuthu’s 20 league goals. Lehlohonolo Majoro is still a class act but just turned 35 and Siphelele Mthembu is 34. The club also got rid of a couple of wingers and could be short in those areas.
Overall, the squad has a lot more depth but the starting XI has not become any stronger.
How They Set Up – Energy, Experience and Pressing
Since McCarthy arrived, he has basically used two different formations most often. A 4-3-3 shape with a very abrasive, energetic midfield and a 4-2-3-1 shape where he goes with Luvuyo Memela as a pure number ten with wingers on either side. The composition of the midfield three has been interesting at times. Xola Mlambo, when he played, was generally the “number ten” with Siyethemba Sithebe deeper for his energy and greater defensive abilities. However, as play progressed, Mlambo would drop deeper to be on the ball and Sithebe would get forward.
It probably didn’t quite work and is not likely to be repeated much this season. Mlambo could find himself on the bench most of the time with Buchanan or Malepe taking his midfield spot. That gives a combative midfield three who can close down aggressively and provoke transitions to release Mulenga and Memela but it also has the passing range to find the two inverted wingers coming inside during buildup play to make it a 4-3-2-1 shape. Thabo Qalinge is the pure winger option but he often takes Memela’s place and perhaps the way for AmaZulu to evolve is to play a double pivot more often with a genuine number ten (Memela) or new signing Ekstein.
The toughest thing for Benni to navigate this season will be having CAF competition and the domestic league without any genuine new match winners on board. In reality, there were several victories during that sensational streak where his side scored very late in the match to take three points when draws would often have been fair results. Those fine margins can see 1-0 wins turn into 1-0 defeat quite quickly when a team is fatigued, more feared (and therefore facing low blocks) or has injuries to the couple of match winners.
Usuthu netted a 93rd-minute freekick winner from Tapelo Xoki against Bloemfontein Celtic, got a late winner at ten-man Kaizer Chiefs and nicked a win at Stellenbosch as Qalinge netted in injury time too. Ten of their wins under McCarthy were by a single goal and there were a couple of penalties in 1-0 victories. Those sorts of results are not always sustainable.
Once again, AmaZulu will be a very interesting team to follow and their coach is absolute box office. Benni will no-doubt get his squad to run through brick walls for him again but there should be a fear that they haven’t had the best transfer window and don’t go into the season with more quality but just more quantity of players.
Considering this fact, the fine margins being likely to go against them more often this season (as already seen by conceding late against Cape Town City in the MTN8) and the major distraction of the CAF Champions League, it would be an even bigger achievement to finish second again. It isn’t particularly likely.