The last two seasons have seen Pirates finish 17 and then 21 points behind champions, Mamelodi Sundowns. The three seasons before that saw the gap total 14 points across those campaigns combined. After finishing sixth last term, Pirates have appointed 46-year-old Spaniard Jose Riveiro as head coach and made some significant changes to the playing staff. Will we see a big improvement this season from a team who lost the CAF Confederations Cup final last season and have won just a single trophy in the last eight years?
Last Season – Draws Galore And Penalty Pain
Bucs had the same problems in the last campaign as in the previous couple – they drew far too many PSL matches, they struggled to score goals and regularly fired blanks, and they lost opportunities to lift cup silverware due to their penalty shootout curse. In the 2021-22 league season, they only scored in 19 of their 30 league matches and drew a massive eight matches with a 0-0 score-line. Of their 30 matches, 14 finished in draws.
The side lacked the firepower to break down many opponents and didn’t have the ruthlessness to kill games off. So much of that is down to their injuries in forwarding areas as Thembinkosi Lorch and Vincent Pule spent most of the season in the treatment room. Their run to the CAF Confederations Cup also played a big part, draining and distracting the players from league action. They got to the final of the competition but lost on penalties and were also eliminated from the Nedbank Cup on spot-kicks.
With three games in hand to finish the season, they still had a chance to jump into the second spot and qualify for the CAF Champions League if they could take nine points. A 2-0 lead after 78 minutes at Royal AM became a 2-2 draw and the final day saw a disappointing 2-0 loss at SuperSport United with ten men. It may have turned into the darkest timeline but they weren’t actually that far from finishing second and winning a continental trophy under co-coaches Fadlu Davids and Mandla Ncikazi.
The end of the season saw both Fadlu Davids and long-term performance analyst Darian Wilken depart the Sea Robbers’ ship. With Riveiro’s appointment as a coach with an almost entirely new technical staff (save for Ncikazi staying on as an assistant coach), there is some degree of upheaval at Bucs. A large number of players have departed including captain Happy Jele and other leadership figures (who have donned the armband) in Ntsikelelo Nyauza and Thulani Hlatshwayo. The boisterous, influential Linda Mntambo also moved on and was promptly named captain at Sekhukhune United.
There is a major risk of a lack of dressing room leadership in the short-term with Innocent Maela in a new role as club captain with the strong, vocal Richard Ofori as his deputy. Both spent most of last season out injured and will be wanting to make up for a lost time.
The new coach’s tactics and style of play are yet to reveal themselves. His work in Finland usually came in a 5-4-1 defensive setup focused on transitions in quite a direct league. That formation can be framed as a 3-4-3 too if we’re optimistic and he is sure to attempt more attacking, progressive football as the Bucs faithful will demand. Considering the side set up with a back three for much of last season – using Paseka Mako as a left centre back and Deon Hotto as left wingback – Riveiro won’t have to rip up the script and should hit the ground running.
A New Spine Is Signed
The transfer window a year ago was a weird one for Pirates. A player like Kwanda Mngonyama was clearly not of the required standard but Bandile Shandu surprised all and sundry. He suddenly scored a bucketload of goals having been famed for his profligacy at Maritzburg United. Olisa Ndah was an amazing addition at centre back and made Nigeria’s AFCON squad off the back of some brilliant displays. Kwame Peprah took a long while to get going up front but was handed a run of starts and eventually settled well, proving a real nuisance with his work-rate.
This off-season has seen the club try to address its scoring woes by signing Bafana Bafana international Evidence Makgopa and Chippa United’s 29-year-old striker Bienvenu Eva Nga. The latter played in probably the league’s most defensive team and had a golden run mid-season. After beginning the campaign without a goal in 11, he scored 10 goals in the next 12 matches (with three braces) before finishing on a six-match scoring drought. Makgopa got four goals in eight in the 2019-20 season and then seven strikes in 28 appearances (in 2020-21), prompting Pirates to sign him and ‘loan’ him back to Baroka. Unfortunately, he could only muster three PSL goals and went 23 outings with a goal between rounds four to 29 in the season just ended. Both will add options alongside Peprah and preseason has seen Eva Nga scoring freely in a two-man strikeforce with the Ghanaian. If the new coach starts them together (with Makgopa and Zakhele Lepasa in reserve), then many opponents will finish matches questioning their life choices.
Further back, releasing Jele, Hlatshwayo, and Nyauza in the same window is a huge call. Tapelo Xoki arrived from AmaZulu and so did Nkosinathi Sibisi from Golden Arrows. Both captained their former clubs extensively and will give extra athleticism and youth to the back three alongside lynchpin Ndah and captain Maela. Miguel Timm has also signed on a free transfer to add a deep-lying playmaker to the ranks. He isn’t particularly different from Thabang Monare (who was bizarrely released and then given a renewal a few weeks later). The latter started, along with Sibisi in South Africa’s recent 5-0 loss away to France.
Assuming Timm, Eva Nga and at least one of Xoki or Sibisi are in the XI regularly (plus having Ofori available on a weekly basis again), it will mean an entirely new spine from last season. However, it could all be immaterial if Lorch and Pule aren’t available to create goals for the new forwards or give Timm a target to find between-the-lines.
Orlando Pirates Depth Chart
Bucs have a strong squad in terms of depth but there are a few areas where they could be caught short. In defence, an injury to Ndah for any period (as seen last season) leaves the side far weaker. The goalkeeping department could also be left bare if Ofori has any more knocks and he has missed some of preseason already. Jose Riveiro has been using Deon Hotto – the side’s most durable and consistent threat – and Vincent Pule as wingbacks during some friendlies. Lorch has been given the liberation of playing behind two strikers, as well. A team selection like that would signal a very positive approach by default.
The one area where there is absolutely loads of cover is in central midfield where seven players will battle for just two spots. Pule or Hotto could move forward further should Lorch get injured or a 3-4-2-1 with a lone striker is preferred. The options and depth look reasonably good but it only takes one or more of the key men (Ofori, Ndah, Hotto, Pule, Lorch) to be ruled out and the entire picture changes.
Bucs haven’t challenged for the title in two seasons and that has to be the aim for the year ahead. Even though the very best they can hope for is second place, closing the gap to Sundowns is imperative. If the new coach manages his squad well and doesn’t overtrain or overuse his key players, then a good season awaits. There is a lot for the Spaniard to prove with many supporters defaulting to inane ‘plumber’ jibes. Some early wins and an attacking outlook will go a long way to getting the Bucs faithful on board the newly assembled ship.