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The defence of JZ and Orlando Pirates

Despite Orlando Pirates recent run of results, head coach Josef Zinnbauer has improved the team significantly argues Grant de Smidt.

After a 1-1 draw on Tuesday night against Baroka, Orlando Pirates are five league games without a win and have failed to score in four of those games. This dip in results, both pre-lockdown and since the restart, has seen a wave of criticism for coach Josef Zinnbauer. Supporters have even compared the German coach to former Bucs mentor, Kjell Jonevret. There are even calls for Gavin Hunt to be brought in for next season once he becomes available.

All of this talk is completely irrational, as it stands. In fact, even in these disappointing results, Pirates have shown encouraging signs at times and the bigger picture of JZ’s reign is still highly impressive.

Since the German coach was appointed on the 10th of December 2019, Pirates have played 13 matches and taken 26 points. That puts them top of the log since the coaching change. From their first 13 matches this season (two under Milutin Sredojevic and 11 under Rhulani Mokwena), Pirates took 17 points.

Log when Zinnbauer was appointed:

League table since Zinnbauer Arrived (up to 19 August 2020):

If Pirates can stay unbeaten between now and the end of the season, they will have finished the league campaign with just one defeat in their final 17 league matches under Zinnbauer (and 19 games if you add in Mokwena’s last two matches). That is a real objective for the club to strive for, even if the title is now seemingly beyond them.

Defensively, the improvement is significant. Having conceded 20 goals in their first 13 PSL matches, the following 13 under Zinnbauer and Fadlu Davids have seen just seven goals conceded. Bucs look much more solid at the back, more settled in their selections in that department and, for the first time in many years, comfortable absorbing pressure in a low block. Pirates also look significantly stronger at defending set plays.

So, why the recent dip in results? Aside from blaming poor officiating as Evidence Makgopa converted from an offside position against Baroka, Pirates have still played really well in possession. In the defeat to Kaizer Chiefs before the pandemic, Daniel Akpeyi gave a virtuoso performance with at least four outstanding saves on the day.

Against Sundowns after the restart, Pirates dominated the second half having switched to an inventive 3-6-1 shape – featuring two wingbacks and a midfield diamond to complete dominate Pitso Mosimane’s side in the centre of the pitch.

There are valid questions about some recent team selections, especially in the game against Wits where Pirates simply did not have enough of a goal threat in their team selection. Against Baroka, the side used something resembling a 4-4-2 shape (albeit with freedom for the wide players to turn the structure into a 4-2-2-2 at times) and it really did not work all that well.

Key for Pirates is having some threat between the lines. When Luvuyo Memela plays, he is amongst the PSL’s best at floating behind the opposition midfield. Once Nkanyiso Zungu fully settles at the club, he possesses the ability to break lines from deep and find Memela in tight spaces.

However, whenever Memela is out, the side becomes too direct in their play – not long-ball direct, but with too much play going through the wide areas and with too many players who makes run off the ball and who therefore need space to thrive.

The addition of Deon Hotto is going to add the end product so often missing from Vincent Pule’s shoot-on-sight game, but he won’t solve the lack of cover for Memela. In Kabelo Dlamini, Bucs could have a good solution if they were to give him more game time.

Don’t be mistaken, Pirates have not been at their best of late. Had they won each of their last five games, turning their four draws into four wins (an additional eight points) and beating Kaizer Chiefs (a six point swing from the 1-0 defeat that materialised), Bucs would be five points clear at the top of the log!

There are no guarantees in football, but everything points to not only Pirates challenging for the title next season but perhaps being the team to stop. With Fadlu Davids as an assistant coach, the club has a strong technical team but also a succession plan for after Zinnbauer departs. The future is bright. The calls for Gavin Hunt are misguided. And the comparisons to Jonevret are simply inaccurate and unfair.

Grant is a football analyst and coach who writes about the tactics of the PSL and English Premier League. He is currently completing his UEFA A coaching licence and has consulted for a Premier League club in England. He has previously worked for several clubs and a national team in coaching and analysis roles. Twitter: @grantdesmidt

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