There are mitigating circumstances that make Bafana Bafana’s penalties Cosafa Cup defeat against Madagascar seem less disappointing‚ but at the same time three crucial tactical errors by coach Stuart Baxter appear to have been factors in the result.
Among extenuating factors in the 4-3 penalties defeat after a 0-0 normal time in the quarterfinal at Peter Mokaba Stadium are that‚ of course‚ Baxter has a very young team here.
They had never played as a combination‚ and the main purpose of their presence was to develop them in international football.
Even Baxter in the buildup to the tournament‚ though‚ did say that developing while winning was preferable‚ and he did have a week to work with the team in Polokwane.
Zimbabwe‚ with a full-strength team (Bafana’s‚ while talented‚ are at best a mixed C and B team)‚ had to rely on penalties to beat Botswana.
But Zimbabwe were far more convincing over the 90 minutes against a Botswana who had looked the form team of the group phase‚ than Bafana were against an at-best physical‚ but otherwise pedestrian Madagascar.
Of course‚ Bafana missed chances.
But it could be argued that the frequency of three missed chances in the first half‚ and one in the second‚ does not necessarily constitute an injustice in the result.
Baxter’s tactical mistakes were:
1. Playing captain Siyanda Xulu at right-back and Motjeka Madisha at centreback
This was necessitated by the withdrawal from the original 34-man squad of right-backs Grant Kekana and Reeve Frosler.
But even if Baxter was left with just these two centrebacks to chose from‚ it should have been the other way round.
Xulu has finally settled at centreback at Maritzburg United‚ winning the PSL’s Defender of the Season there having flirted unsuccessfully with right-back throughout his career.
While Madisha had a good game in the middle‚ Xulu is the more solid centreback.
Madisha has more pace and skill‚ and is the more likely of the two to be able to get up the line and put in crosses.
This proved crucial in the second half‚ when Madagascar shut down and sat back‚ and instead of transitions Bafana needed both fullbacks (on the left Maphosa Madiba did try) to get forward and press the line to shake the islanders loose and draw them out.
Overall‚ playing with such a defensive right-back as Xulu lessened the chances of Bafana creating chances at a higher frequency over the 90 minutes and was a waste of what Xulu’s defensive capabilities could have offered in the middle.
2. Playing Ryan Moon on the right in a three-man attack
Baxter’s 4-3-3 formation‚ overall‚ promised much‚ especially the middle Maritzburg United trio of Fortune Makaringe‚ Lebohang Maboe and Siphesihle Ndlovu.
But the frontline of Luther Singh on the left‚ Gift Motupa in the centre and Ryan Moon on the right seemed problematic.
Moon is a centre-forward.
He can hold it up in the middle and spread it around for the players catching up.
He’s superb meeting crosses.
But he does not have the skill or the pace for a wide position‚ even if on a few occasions in the first half he tried hard‚ and just about succeeded‚ to make up with that with his intelligence.
Baxter tried to rectify the situation at half time‚ introducing lively Bidvest Wits right winger Abednigo Mosiatlhaga for Motupa‚ and moving Moon inside.
But after the break Madagascar shut down‚ and the momentum had been lost.
3. Continuing to try to play the transition in the second half when Madagascar shut down
Bafana‚ and Baxter‚ clearly need to have a plan B.
This was seen in the two defeats against Cape Verde in last year’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign.
It was seen again against Madagascar.
Because to play the transitions‚ which are the strength of Baxter’s football‚ a team need to attack you‚ at least even a little.
In the first half on Sunday Madagascar did try to cautiously attack a little‚ and most times that they did they would be punished on the counterattack.
Madagascar’s change in tactic from the break was partly due to reaching half time without conceding‚ so they knew they would frustrate the young Bafana increasingly by shutting up shop in the second half.
It was partly because they saw that any form of attack just drew a quicker response from South Africa’s transition‚
so they decided that going even vaguely toe-to-toe was unwise.
Bafana‚ though‚ then needed to throw their full-backs forward and press high.
They did not enough – especially in Xulu’s case on the right.
The result was a confused slow buildup by Bafana from deep inside their half‚ or the halfway line‚ waiting for Madagascar to come at them so they could hit on the transition‚ which the islanders saw no reason to comply with.
Marc Strydom- TimesLIVE
* Marc Strydom is in Polokwane as a guest of Cosafa.