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Is Jose Riveiro’s Approach Perfect For Knockout Football?

After defeating Amazulu last weekend, can Jose be classified as a Cup specialist, leading a team that neither scores many goals nor concede too many?

Jose Riveiro Knockout Football

Of all sides currently in the top flight, Orlando Pirates have been talked up the most as potential title challengers in the first three months of the season. Of the three teams between them and Sundowns, Richards Bay are widely expected to slide down soon, SuperSport had a terrible start (they were bottom after 3 games played), while Kaizer Chiefs only overtook Pirates this past weekend. The league doesn’t seem to have a challenger ready to go toe to toe with Sundowns over the course of 10 months. This is not to say it’s over for Pirates in the league, but only one team has won a PSL title with as many (or less) points as Pirates have so far this season (2008 SuperSport).

The much talked up team now lie fifth on the table, closer to the bottom than they are to the top, raising a few questions. Could it be that their Cup performances, in particular restricting Sundowns to zero goals in 180 minutes, have led us to think they are good for the title? Results like these leave fans who are happy with the less positive playing style as long as it brings results more content. After defeating Amazulu this weekend, can Jose be classified as a Cup specialist, leading a team that neither scores too many goals (and early if they do), nor concedes too many (and late if they do)?

Low Goal Numbers

It does not take advanced statistics to see that Pirates’ main issue this season has been the alarming lack of goals. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve written pieces on this phenomenon, and have been fascinated in particular by the lack of any second-half-goals in the league (a PSL record by the way). The xG Table also highlights how much Pirates are underperforming their xG in the league, ranking here as the team with the 4th biggest xG difference (gap between goals scored and goals worth of chances created).

Even in what has been a particularly goal-shy start to the season, this Pirates side have taken this to a new level compared to those of the past. Never has a Pirates side played so many games in a season with fewer goals. No team in PSL history has ever started a season with a run of so many blanks in the second half. Yet, they have three 2nd half-goals in the MTN8, making us wonder if there’s a different approach to league games and Cup games.

Low Pass Numbers in Cup Games

The passing profile of Pirates this season also makes for interesting reading when we look at how few passes they attempt (sometimes). In the 3-0 win against Sundowns, Pirates attempted just over 200 passes, their lowest in six years, with only 145 completed. Gamestate is an important element to consider when looking at passing data. Often, when a team has taken an early lead, they cede to the other team and spend more time out of possession than with the ball. It’s common, if not expected, for chasing teams to have the most passes.

The four matches where Pirates attempted the fewest passes season are the four MTN8 matches they played, suggesting this may be an intentional game plan in Cup competitions. In the majority of fixtures Pirates tend to outpass the opposition (bottom right quadrant – many passes for Pirates, few for the opposition). Given that they won only two of the 10 matches when they were outpassed, and have won all but one where they had fewer passes, the most likely explanation is that game state has influenced these numbers. The ball possession numbers also back this up, with Pirates winning just one match where they had over 50% possession.

Many Early Goals

“In these two legs of the game it makes things difficult for the opponent and we know that we’re very strong in defending,” – Riveiro said after beating Sundowns.

Riveiro has really leaned heavily on his defence so far, even if he insists the whole team is responsible for this phase of play. If you don’t have finishers to get you many goals, then it’s better that you get those goals early, and in his words, “make life difficult for the opponent”. This early goal and sit-back approach has worked in three of their four MTN8 games (except the goalless game), helping the team to yet another MTN8 tie. Only one team in PSL history has won the trophy with fewer goals conceded. In truth, the strong defence has provided a stable base for everything else that follows, and given the new coach enough time to tinker and find the working formula upfront. A tight defence and a reliance on counters may be just what is needed to keep things ticking while you experiment with attacking options.

Pirates matches with the most counter-attacks
OpponentCompCounter -attacks
RoyalMTN27
MaritzburgLeague18
SundownsMTN17
AmaZuluLeague17
ArrowsLeague16
AmaZuluMTN815

The stat on failing to score in the second half may be unprecedented, but focusing solely on that misses one important thing: Pirates Plan A is to score the early goal, drop back and lean on a strong defence to thwart opposition attacks. We see the early goal in all three games where they scored, coming in the 3rd, 8th and 25th minute. They then aim to make the most of the few opportunities they create, safe in the knowledge that they can take refuge in their miserly defence thereafter. Against Sundowns, this plan was pulled to perfection.

While this has worked well in the Cup, the same success is yet to translate to the league. We see this in the league matches where Pirates do not get an early goal, they often end up conceding late on as they chase that elusive goal. No team has a higher proportion of goals conceded in the final 20 minutes than Pirates (70%), with defeats coming to goals in minutes 74, 80, 84, 86 and 93. It will take time to get plan B and Plan C in place, and the coach has hinted that he is working on that. For now, the key is to ensure there are many attackers in the box when on the front foot, with their Spanish coach mentioning that they aim for six attackers in the box when concluding their attacks. You can clearly see a pattern in most of the goals they scored in the tournament.

Goal 1 v Royal AM

Pirates successfully complete a high turnover in the 3rd minute, pouncing on a Royal AM defence still adjusting to the game. Four attackers are in or around the box when the ball crosses the line, for the early goal (their 2nd earliest this season).

Goal 2 v Royal AM

This was neither an early goal nor a clear high turnover, but it was Nascimento’s wayward header that led to the chance. By the time Monyane scores, there are 4 players in the box, with Hotto also making his way there.

Goal 1 v Sundowns in the second leg.

Another early goal, with four attackers in the box. Monyane did well to Modiba on the left, and even if Erasmus had been tight marked, he still had many other options.

Goal 3 v Sundowns

There are many attackers also on the 3rd goal, after some Sundowns players stopped playing.

We also see many attackers in the box at the end of attacks also in league games, with six of their nine goals ending with 4+ attackers in the opposition box. An example is below from the Golden Arrows game.

In all four MTN8 ties, Pirates have been happy to do so with less possession (as low as 33% in the 2nd leg against Sundowns). They may still prioritise defence over attack in the coming months, we’ll have to wait and see. But maybe defence first is part of Riveiro’s long-term plan – to build the foundations for a strong side that can challenge Sundowns in the next year or two. The idea that a team could be solely a Cup team may be a foreign concept to a double-treble-winning club. But maybe we are asking too much of the Spaniard to stop this Sundowns juggernaut in his first, and perhaps it is enough just to be a Cup team.

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