Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s tinkering in the two warm-up matches before the team leaves Durban on Saturday for the African Cup of Nations in Ghana has raised eyebrows and a few questions.
How will captain Aaron Mokoena cope with his shift in position from central defence into a holding midfield role once the opposition become considerably more serious about attacking Bafana?
Will the starting 11 — lacking the inclusion of an out-and-out striker — come to rue their over-reliance on Sibusiso Zuma, who has, admittedly, been in blistering form?
These questions will be answered when South Africa face up to their Group D opponents: Angola (on January 23), Tunisia (January 27) and Senegal (January 31).
Parreira, in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Mozambique at Durban’s Chatsworth Stadium, and again on Wednesday in the 2-1 defeat of Botswana at King Goodwill Zwelithini Stadium, played Mokoena as a holding midfielder — a position he occupied for his English Premiership club, Blackburn Rovers.
The coaching staff was quick to point out that Mokoena will fill the role according to a Brazilian interpretation rather than an English one.
While the traditional English anchor is a destructive force, breaking down opposition attacks and generally disposing of the ball quickly by hitting it long, in Brazil there are greater organisational responsibilities.
The position is referred as the volante or rudder, which gives direction to the team. ”Aaron’s task is to keep it simple, to press, break down attacks and play the five metre or ten metre passes to [Lerato] Chabangu, [Teko] Modise or [Steven] Pienaar,” said assistant coach Pitso Mosimane.
The inclusion of a more creative midfield trio in front of Mokoena is vital. The two warm-up games this week confirmed that when it comes to passing, the Bafana captain sometimes resembles a matric learner who received his textbooks the day before the exam.
”Mbazo” is, nevertheless, already adding assurance and stability in front of a back four likely to feature Benson Mhlongo and Nasief Morris as the centre-back, pairing with Maccabi Haifa’s Tshepo Masilela at leftback and rightback Bryce Moon, who has shown encouraging signs as a potentially swashbuckling attacking force.
The new configuration and Mokoena’s sense of position — especially when covering for any of the defenders switching to attack — will be tested. Their chemistry is vital against the likes of Angola’s tall hitman Manucho GonÃ§alves, who recently moved to Manchester United.
The telepathic understanding of the Tunisian team, born from eight of their squad coming from a single club side, Etoile Soleil, will also put pressure on the new-look Bafana rearguard. Etoile strikers Mehdi Ben Dhifallah and Amine Chermite both scored braces, with a fifth added by club teammate Majdi Traoul in their 5-0 demolition of second division club side EOG Kram last week.
As an attacking force, Senegal are potent, boasting the likes of Marseille’s prolific Mamadou Niang, Henri Camara of Wigan and Fulham’s Diomany Kamara. Their interplay could prove the difference in what might be a make-or-break final Group D match.
Parreira said he was ”happy” with Mokoena’s progressively better performances as the volante, with noticeably ”less mistakes” in the Botswana game.
Against Mozambique, Bafana Bafana looked more threatening than they have on most recent occasions, with the youngsters, especially the fullbacks, playing with enthusiasm.
Granted these were both looseners, with Parreira conceding that both opponents sat back in a manner unlikely to be replicated during the Nations Cup. ”It was a good experience for us in how to break down a mass defence,” he said.
The reliance on midfielders will be felt heavily during the tournament, with the feeling that Modise will come to the fore, while Pienaar is long overdue a commanding performance in the Bafana shirt. Their creative imprint must be stamped on matches for the team to progress.
In front of goal, much will depend on Zuma (while Excellent Walaza and Terror Fanteni wait in the wings), who incited the crowd into a rendition of Umshini Wami after his winner on Wednesday. This prompted the stadium announcer to christen him ”Sibusiso Rhee 100% Zuma Msholozi”. If he takes his machine-gun boots to Ghana — and the midfield feeds the bullets — Bafana might fire.