With five successive titles to their name, Mamelodi Sundowns go into this season as resounding favourites to win the crown yet again. Despite a slight drop-off in the final months of the last term, they still finished 16 points ahead of Cape Town City whilst scoring 13 more goals than any other side. They’ve had another busy transfer window but could quite easily have acquired no new players and still have retained the title with relative ease. We look at the areas they can improve, where the new additions fit in, and the foreign quota conundrum.
In reality, Downs were already in an unstoppable position after 10 matches last season. They didn’t concede a single goal and won eight and drew two during that streak. By the end, they had 17 clean sheets to their name. Denis Onyango started just 16 league matches but 11 of those saw him keep the opposition from scoring. Grant Kekana arrived on a free from SuperSport United, converted permanently to centre back, and, was arguably the league’s best performer in that position until Christmas.
After 17 PSL matches without losing, an unbeaten season looked like the aim for the second campaign in a row. The year before, Kaizer Chiefs inflicted a smash-and-grab defeat to end those dreams. Last term it was a loss at AmaZulu that did the trick. Further losses followed at Maritzburg United (after a contentious injury-time penalty) and then a 3-0 loss in round 29 to an Ashley Du Preez inspired Stellenbosch FC. They surprisingly leaked 20 goals in their final 20 matches after injuries in the heart of the backline and seeing Denis Onyango only play three of the final 12 fixtures.
There were several outstanding individual performers, not least Peter Shalulile. Thanks to him, Downs heavily overperformed their Expected Goals numbers. He scored 23 league goals from around 18 xG and scored 27% of his shots. He is a one-man tornado up front with the durability and hunger to contribute in every facet of play. The fact that he went four games with a goal on either side of the mid-season break was a shock in and of itself!
Andile Jali, Rivaldo Coetzee (before injury), Rushine De Reuck, Lyle Lakay, the aforementioned Kekana, and Khuliso Mudau were all amongst the best in their positions in the division. Neo Maema and January’s R5million addition of veteran Bradley Ralani added a different dimension whilst a very large fee lured Teboho Mokoena in the January window too. It was an incredible season with three trophies lifted (adding the two domestic cup crowns) but it still feels like a very slight disappointment with how they crashed out of the CAF Champions League to Angolan side, Petro de Luanda.
It’s been another pretty busy window for Sundowns. Without a doubt, the signing of Bafana Bafana captain Ronwen Williams headlines the arrivals. At 30 years old, he is some seven years younger than Denis Onyango and Downs are succession planning with this addition. As it stands today, Onyango is still the superior goalkeeper and significantly better in claiming aerial balls especially. Williams will get games but it could be a rotation between the two for 12 months before we see the number one jersey leave the Ugandan legend’s grasp.
Sipho Mbule is another addition from their cross-city rivals in midfield. After his 2021-22 season proved a write-off due to weight and discipline issues, he is going to have to shift gear overnight if he wants anything resembling regular minutes. His talent, dribbling, and goalscoring ability is clear but this feels a lot like a punt – his upside is huge but he could also just fade into the background like another special talent, Phakamani Mahlambi. Competition in his position is fierce and Mbule lacks any of the intensity that Domingo or Maboe bring to the table.
Abdelmounaim Boutouil has also been signed – a left-footed, ball-playing Moroccan central defender – to replace what they lost when Ricardo Nascimento departed. He looks to have potential but plenty of areas for improvement, not least his ball-watching and reliance on last-ditch tackles. The biggest news could very well be the arrival of Uruguayan midfielder Marcelo Allende from Montevideo City Torque (part of the group that also owns Man City) for a fee said to have hit $3m or R51m. Early impressions show a highly inventive player around the box with an excellent final pass and a love for backheels, Cruyff turns, and dummies. His assist numbers look great and Shalulile could hit even more than 23 goals with him on board.
Another addition is striker Abubeker Nasir Ahmed, who was signed in January and loaned back to the selling club, Ethiopian Coffee. He had an excellent scoring record in his home league but is surely set for a loan. Downs adding three new foreigners gives a headache to register only five. Erwin Saavedra arrived to much fanfare and the Bolivian international winger/wingback should play much more now that he is over a serious ankle injury. Slovak striker Pavol Safranko and Zimbabwean Divine Lunga (bet.co.za’s best left back in the 2020-21 season for Golden Arrows) could both be sacrificed.
The 4222 Shape Again?
Sundowns are not going to change much tactically this season. They almost always play a back four and a double pivot with the front four organising either into a 2-2 (two narrow wingers slash number tens and two strikers) or three men supporting Shalulile. We also saw the Namibian and Thapelo Morena as very wide forwards and then almost two false nines (Themba Zwane, Gaston Sirino) in the first leg against Petro de Luanda.
The coaching staff usually selected Pavol Safranko alongside Shalulile in games where high pressing was required. The Slovak forward was excellent in this regard and therefore provided a good plan B. If he doesn’t get registered this season, it gives fewer options and means an injury to Shalulile could potentially be fatal in the CAF Champions League (Downs are winning the PSL regardless!). Kermit Erasmus’ goalscoring numbers have plummeted and his constant injuries mean he isn’t someone to hang your hat on. To accommodate all the playmakers, a 4-2-3-1 may make sense and a false nine whenever Shalulile gets a rest (assuming Safranko is sacrificed).
Marcelo Allende looks ideal to play as one of the two/three tens whilst Maema, Ralani, and Thabiso Kutumela are all into their second season and should score more goals. Themba Zwane slowed down somewhat last season and may play a lot less in the year ahead. If Gaston Sirino survives the foreign player cut, he should enjoy linking up with his countryman Allende. Saavedra also looks in competition for one of those inside forwarding roles so the depth there is intense.
Lebohang Maboe’s return from a serious injury is genuinely ‘like a new signing’ and he will often need to compete for a deeper role against Jali, Coetzee, Haashim Domingo (excellent last season when fit, but in danger of becoming a forgotten man) and Mokoena primarily. The squad’s quality and quantity are insane in every single position. You could take ten players out of Sundowns and still have a squad that would win the league by a large distance.
Sundowns Depth Chart
The squad is quite bloated so a large number of players didn’t even make this depth chart. The likes of Gift Motupa, Lesedi Kapinga, Pule Maraisane, and Reyaad Pieterse surely won’t get more than 200 minutes each. Even guys listed in the roster above like Mothobi Mvala, Sphelele Mkhulise, Erasmus, Brian Onyango, and Mbule could spend most weeks in the stands or as unused subs.
Sundowns will win the league. Even Shalulile getting a long-term injury won’t stop them. They’re the best team with the best players and technical staff and they play the best football. They are relentless in their pursuit of trophies and will certainly be lifting the DSTV Premiership in May.