Kaizer Chiefs continued their trophy drought and general malaise last season as they finished in fifth place, some 18 points off champions Mamelodi Sundowns. Stuart Baxter’s return proved ill-fated and short-lived with Arthur Zwane overseeing the final seven matches. He has been given the job on a full-time basis now, instigating a clear-out and making transfer market moves to freshen the squad and change the style of play. A huge season awaits at Naturena.
Stuart Baxter’s return seemed a safe decision considering his knowledge of the local game and strong record in the past. He arrived intending to use the old guard and so it proved. Erick Mathoho and Daniel Cardoso were partnered together at the back as the coach admitted he’d never actually seen the 2020-21 PSL Defender of the Season, Njabulo Ngcobo play. Bernard Parker was back in the picture and trusty more solid Cole Alexander came on board. As the last man to win a trophy with Chiefs back in 2015, the board felt he could eke out the best from a disjoined squad and end the long wait for silverware.
The first 15 PSL matches yielded a steady 25 points and there was a run of 23 points across 10 matches mid-season with seven wins and two draws. However, the dour style of play and the coach’s lack of interest in using young players (many of whom had played well and been heavily used under Gavin Hunt) saw him lose his job. A meek Nedbank Cup exit to TS Galaxy to start 2022 put the first nail in the coffin before a home loss to a young SuperSport United team sounded the death knell.
Arthur Zwane, as Baxter’s assistant, was not seeing eye-to-eye with the incumbent. He took the reins on a caretaker basis, proclaimed the players aren’t good enough (“the reality is we know we didn’t have players good enough to play for this club”) but didn’t turn things around overnight – eight points from seven matches (W2, D2, L3) in three tumultuous weeks were forthcoming.
Commander In Chief
A year ago, Amakhosi ended a transfer ban by signing nine new players. The preview 12 months ago summed up the recruitment well by saying: “solid additions have been made but the quality of their work in the market has been a little overstated”. This off-season has brought seven additions at this stage. A big difference from the recent years is that Chiefs, have, as the English football terrace chant goes, ‘Spent Some F***ing money” and paid significant fees for Ashley Du Preez (reported R10m), Zitha Kwinika (reported R3m), and Yusuf Maart (reported R5m)’. All three are surely recruited to play straight down the spine of the team as bona fide starters.
As much as the new signings say about the direction the club wants to go, the departures perhaps say more. The club’s two target men have been sent packing and so have some underperforming foreigners and Daniel Cardoso. The latter is something of a scapegoat after seven seasons of good service and as someone who could have added more than some of the centre backs who survived the cull. The fact that Samir Nurkovic and Leonardo Castro have left shows how Zwane wants to play – modern, short-passing football, building up from the back and looking to dominate possession. It’s his first head coaching gig and he will be changing plenty in the so-called ‘game model’. His expected way of playing is likely to bare resemblance to the style of Maurizio Sarri, minus the chain-smoking.
As with Sarri, the coach demands a ball-playing number six (“Your number six should be a playmaker. We want a ball player because we want to build from the back”) and you’d imagine that Maart’s arrival is to play the Jorginho role. If he is being earmarked to play higher up, then it’s not clear who becomes the first receiver off the centre backs. Zwane likes some midfield rotation but he surely has designs on making Maart into that deep-lying playmaker (or ‘Regista’ in the modern football hipster parlance).
Du Preez adds searing speed up front and will cause nightmares for any team daring to defend high up the pitch or any opponents who open up when trailing. Keagan Dolly was undoubtedly the best signing made last season, even if his form tailed off and he looked much less effective after Zwane moved him centrally, having excelled as an inverted right winger. With the through-balls of Dolly to the runs of Du Preez and Khama Billiat, expect to see teams sit very deep against Amakhosi as the season rolls on. As covered in an in-depth podcast looking at the Chiefs signings, Kwinika is now best as a centre back and George Matlou, Siyethemba Sithebe, and Kamohelo Mahlatsi look like ideal players for a midfield three. Nkosingiphile Ngcobo (who Baxter barely used), Sabelo Radebe, and the very exciting Mduduzi Shabalala are already in the squad to give options in attacking midfield areas too. Dillan Solomons is another addition as a utility player down both flanks due to his crossing and Ambipedal nature. It’s a good window and a striker should still arrive to give some cover and depth.
How Zwane Plays
In terms of formation, it could be a back three or a back four for the new coach. With five centre backs to choose from, selecting three of those would make sense in a 3-4-3 setup. Reeve Frosler, Njabulo Blom, and Dillan Solomons would all be capable wingbacks. Whether the side has two midfielders with the energy and quality to hold that area down is the big question. Phathu Nange and Maart are the top contenders in that area.
As said above, with so many number eights, a 4-3-3 would suit whilst Zwane has also used a 4-2-3-1 with Dolly as the ten and Ngcobo toiling as a right winger. The coach has promised his side will both try to dominate matches and not rely on counter attacks, but also that they need to grind out some results at times.
Squad Shapping Up
Looking at the squad, there is reasonable depth in some areas and very little in the front-line. Du Preez could play wide left or through the middle – as something of South Africa’s own Timo Werner – but it could just as easily be a 3-4-1-2 with Dolly behind Du Preez and Billiat. Zwane has said he needs another left-footed left centre back as Austin Dube started precisely zero of the coach’s seven matches in charge last term.
It’s not clear who gets the nod at the back, or why Erick Mathoho has been retained when he so patently doesn’t suit the build-up play that Mangethe wants. The fullback areas look to be a slight concern too. Sifiso Hlanti is still a good few weeks off from featuring in matches after injury, Njabulo Blom is perhaps most effective in midfield and Reeve Frosler’s defensive deficiencies are still clear. Sibusiso Mabiliso is persona non grata and that leaves Solomons, a squad player at Swallows as a winger who shone at right back in the final 12 matches of last season. Overall, it’s been a decent window with three big hitters (Du Preez, Kwinika, Maart), a couple of calculated gambles with big upside (Matlou, Mahlatsi) and a couple of versatile options (Sithebe, Solomons).
Chiefs are going to be box office this season because they’re changing their style of play so much. How quickly Zwane can get this idea across is a big question aand also whether he can find a regular core in central midfield and centre back. Du Preez is perhaps the one to watch and the best signing by a distance but, don’t expect Amakhosi to be title challengers. The best they should hope for is a run at second place and real signs of progress in implementing “Zwane-ball”.