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Mamelodi Sundowns Season Preview 23/24

Sundowns made it six league crowns in a row last season. With Rhulani Mokwena enjoying his first pre-season as sole head coach, we should see a well-oiled machine from day one.

Mamelodi Sundowns

Sundowns made it six league crowns in a row last season. With Rhulani Mokwena enjoying his first pre-season as sole head coach, we should see a well-oiled machine from day one. Is it inevitable that they win the title yet again? Will we see any new tactical innovations from the coaching staff? And what represents a good season – is it all about chasing that elusive second CAF Champions League star?


It was a slightly disappointing start to last season as Sundowns uncharacteristically lost two of their first six fixtures. After ten matches, the board decided to restructure the technical team as Rhulani Mokwena went from co-coach to lone head coach. He promptly oversaw a 5-0 win at Maritzburg United, and Downs went 20 PSL matches without defeat under his leadership. From round seven (shortly before Mokwena took over) until round 21, the Brazilians won 15 DSTV Premiership matches in a row.

Some of the football on display was amongst the best we’ve ever seen in the local game as few opponents had any answer to Downs’ buildup structure and midfield diamond shape. Even a three-month layoff for key striker Peter Shalulile didn’t slow them down, as Mokwena showed faith in the 21-year-old, Cassius Mailula up front. At one stage, the forward scored 14 goals in 18 appearances. There were several standout performers, but Ronwen Williams may have been the best of the lot. Unseating Denis Onyango as number one, he kept 18 clean sheets in his 26 league starts. More than that, his ball-playing ability some 35 yards from his own goal made Sundowns un-pressable at times. This unique setup drew international attention from well-known analysts.

There were other excellent performers, especially the midfield trio of Neo Maema, Marcelo Allende and Teboho Mokoena. All three played deeper than we’ve seen them before as Mokwena looked to get as many technical players into his XI as possible. There was no space for a destroyer like Andile Jali, who was quickly cast aside and then released. At the back, Mothobi Mvala became a full-time central defender and had a very strong season. The side remarkably only leaked three goals in his 12 PSL starts with ten clean sheets. Khuliso Mudau won the Defender of the Season award and maybe the league’s best one-versus-one defensive player, even if he is consistently omitted at the international level.

And yet, some will point at their CAF Champions League semi-final exit as the abiding memory of the season. Sundowns looked like the best team in Africa and genuinely feared by their opponents. Somehow, they let two leads slip against Wydad Casablanca at home and their dream of a second star were dashed.


As gets repeated annually, Sundowns don’t need to sign anyone in most transfer windows. They had a squad with all bases covered but they are always looking to improve and to keep the current squad on their toes. Very big transfer fees were spent on Stellenbosch attacking midfielder Junior Mendieta (17 PSL goal contributions last season) and on SuperSport United winger Thapelo Maseko (who had attracted several bids from Belgian side, K.VC. Westerlo). Mendieta looks a sure thing and 100% suitable to Downs’ style of play, although he may still have a real fight for a starting place with Themba Zwane still playing as such a high level. It helps that he is very capable playing down the left wing, either in a wide role or on the left of the diamond.

Maseko is joined by Marumo Gallant’s winger Lesiba Nku. In the expected formation, there is no space for wingers, so Nku could fight for a spot on the side of the diamond whilst Maseko could even play as one of the two forwards – time will tell. He is fast, left-footed, and able to play off both flanks so a role as a split striker could suit him to a tee. The other notable addition is that of Brazilian attacker, Lucas Ribeiro Costa from SK Beveren. He appears to be the replacement for Cassius Mailula, who was sold to Toronto FC in the MLS. The majority of the business has focused on having a variety of options to partner with or support Peter Shalulile.


Although Sundowns looked so fearsome in a midfield diamond last term, don’t rule out Rhulani Mokwena trying something different this time around. There is some talk that he could look to mirror Pep Guardiola’s 3-2-4-1 buildup shape in some fixtures. What this means is that he could leave out his natural left-backs to make space for an extra midfielder like Rivaldo Coetzee. That shape would allow him to possibly get two of Maseko, Mendieta, or Lucas Ribeiro into the XI by using them as the “wide” men in the formation.

If he does do something like this, there is the risk of simply overthinking things and having some early-season teething issues. It also means that the left backs in the squad like Terrence Mashego and Sifiso Ngobeni will have no route to game time. Aubrey Modiba is a different story because he has played in other roles, including as a right winger and as a left-sided number eight. Evolution is key, but there may not be any need to rip up the script just yet with how well the diamond was shining.


*Realistic options to play regularly – excludes fringe players

*Accurate up to 31 July 2023

As always, Downs have assembled a squad with incredible depth, cover, and competition. A large number of players won’t play regular minutes and have been left off this squad roster. There is no position where options are lacking but perhaps centre back is one slight worry. Rushine De Reuck is still arguably the best pure defender in the country, but he has undergone knee surgery. Mosa Lebusa and Brian Onyango were largely fringe players last season and Grant Kekana has had his fair share of injuries. The signing of Bathusi Aubaas is close and he will bring options in a few midfield roles whilst he can also deputise in the defence if it comes to that. His size and energy will be a good asset in the CAF Champions League, too.

There is a lot more to come from Abdelmounaim Boutouil if he can steer clear of the treatment table and it’s hoped that Mvala can repeat his performances from last term. In midfield, Rivaldo Coetzee is fit again and he was unmatched as a number six about 18 months ago when fully fit. He will feel like a new signing having started just twice last season, once at centre back and once in midfield. It’s certain that there is so much more to come in their second seasons from Marcelo Allende (a R 51 million signing) and Ethiopian forward Abubeker Nasir Ahmed, too. The latter looked extremely good when he wasn’t nursing a multitude of injury problems.


It feels inevitable that Sundowns will win the league again. They’ve spent big on proven PSL players and have the guaranteed goals of Peter Shalulile. Even half a dozen serious injuries probably wouldn’t detail them, such is their depth. Aside from that, expect to see the best brand of football on display in the division by quite a distance.

Although it is unfair, winning the league will be seen as par for the course or even the bare minimum. Rhulani Mokwena will be judged on whether he can end the eight-year wait for the CAF Champions League. He will be wiser from last season’s disappointment and has extra creativity and pace to call upon this time around. We may also see him look to innovate tactically once again to ensure his side are never standing still.

Best Possible Finish: FIRST

Worst possible finish: FIRST

James is a football analyst who writes about the tactics of the PSL and English Premier League. He holds the UEFA A coaching licence and has previously worked for several clubs in analysis roles.Twitter:

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