South African Premiership leaders Kaizer Chiefs have grabbed headlines during a strong start to the season. Champions Mamelodi Sundowns, meanwhile, have quietly gone about their business.
However, Chiefs’ 1-0 loss to Polokwane City has given Sundowns a chance to leapfrog them. To make matters worse for Amakhosi, recent history suggests Masandawana do not need to start well in order to win the title.
Indeed, Sundowns have won their last three without once reaching 10 points in their first five games. They picked up nine in each of the last two campaigns and seven in 2015-16. With eight from four so far in 2019-20, they are well-placed ahead of Saturday’s clash with Maritzburg United.
“[Mamelodi Sundowns] tend to be slow starters because of the build-up of games in the previous season and pre-season. Despite that, they have done particularly well to man-manage their squad, particularly over the last three or four seasons.”Matthew Booth
Chiefs, by contrast, picked up a perfect 15 points in the first five games of their last title-winning season, 2014-15. In 2012-13, their only other triumph in the past decade, Amakhosi snapped up 13.
The Glamour Boys have picked up 10 points from five fixtures in 2019-20 — still a respectable figure, but one could argue that Sundowns have operated under tougher circumstances. The Brazilians have juggled their league campaign with CAF Champions League and MTN8 commitments.
Champions League challenges at Chloorkop
Former Bafana Bafana defender Matthew Booth lifted the 1999-2000 league title with Sundowns and played his part in their run to the 2001 CAF Champions League final. According to him, Sundowns’ regular early season struggles are partially caused by pouring energy into competing across the continent.
“They tend to be slow starters because of the build-up of games in the previous season and pre-season. Despite that, they have done particularly well to man-manage their squad, particularly over the last three or four seasons,” Booth claimed.
Looking back on his own experiences while at the club, Booth recalled: “Sundowns won it three times in a row and I joined the team when we won it on the third occasion. During those seasons, Sundowns didn’t progress far into the Champions League.
“When you consider the talent that we had in that particular squad, it just shows you how difficult it is to balance both.
“Only the following year, in 2001, did we finally reach the final of the Champions League against Al Ahly. In that year, we had to almost make the league secondary to our Champions League chase.”
Booth acknowledged that football has moved on since. In his opinion, South African sports science has made huge advances since his early days at Sundowns. This, he argued, has made it easier for a team such as Masandawana to juggle commitments effectively.
“Of course, that was in 2001. A week or two can be a long time in football. You’re talking about almost two decades ago. Sports science has improved exponentially in that time,” Booth claimed.
“It is now possible for a coach like Pitso [Mosimane] or [former Sundowns assistant coach and current Orlando Pirates boss] Rhulani Mokwena to man-manage their players much better than what we had to put up with back in the day.”
Nevertheless, Booth was significantly impressed by the manner in which Mosimane’s men defended their league crown last season despite an exceptionally busy Champions League schedule.
“Last season was almost miraculous in nature, because he [Mosimane] actually played both competitions with quite a small rotation policy. He didn’t use a big squad, which was quite unbelievable,” Booth said.
“I feel that because of the accumulation now over the last couple of seasons, he will be forced to rotate a bit more because of the build-up — especially when you look at the Bafana players who went to the Africa Cup of Nations and have only had a couple of weeks break. That will all be building up.
“It’s all about man-management now and realising which player is at which stage of tiredness.”
Booth added: “Their medical staff must also take huge credit [for Sundowns’ recent success]. I think they’ve got a very good technical team and medical department.”
Booth’s claims were echoed by Farouk Khan, who has worked as an assistant coach at both Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs.
“What I believe to be the reason [for Sundowns’ tendency to grow into the season] is that they have a good periodised plan, which allows them to peak at appropriate times,” Khan said.
“You will find that teams that sometimes peak too soon are unable to maintain their performance over longer periods — the reason being they do not lay a solid foundation.
“Also, with Sundowns, they have not had sufficient recovery over the last few seasons — which is why they are not able to start on a high.”
However, according to Khan, Sundowns have easily the best players in the Premiership.
“Sundowns have the best squad in the league. They are capable of fielding three teams in the PSL (Premier Soccer League). One could argue that there is no competition for them. Their fringe players sitting on the terraces would start in 90% of the PSL teams,” Khan said.
“However, all this quality still needs to be managed effectively. This is where I believe they have got it right.”
How Chiefs came flying out the blocks
Kaizer Chiefs were a powerhouse in the league under Stuart Baxter from 2012-2015. However, their Champions League form left a lot to be desired.
After lifting the Premiership trophy in 2013, Amakhosi were knocked out of the following year’s top continental tournament in the second qualifying round by AS Vita. In 2015, they lost to Raja Casablanca in the first qualifying round.
Baxter handed over the reins to Steve Komphela after reclaiming the Premiership that year, but the new coach fared no better. ASEC Mimosas knocked Chiefs out of the first qualifying round of the 2016 Champions League. They have not qualified for Africa’s premier club competition since.
“I think Chiefs have picked up a reputation for not taking the continental tournaments very seriously. It’s not only that; you have to have special characters in your squads to go and do well on the continent. I think Chiefs have lacked those two or three characters that need to provide that backbone,” was Booth’s candid analysis.
“That gives them an opportunity to start off well in the league. It’s been a disaster for them over the last four seasons, without having won anything. Certainly, having a good start this season bodes well for them.”
Despite his past ties to Sundowns, Booth insisted he also wanted the best for Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. He explained that together with his old club, the Soweto giants have always brought fanfare to the Premiership.
However, he admitted to being surprised by the Glamour Boys’ good start this season.
“Initially, when I saw their signings, to be honest I thought: ‘Here we go again. Are these players of Chiefs standard?’,” said Booth, speaking before they lost to Polokwane City.
“Certainly, [Samir] Nurković has come to the party. I think he’s somebody that can provide a lot for Chiefs this season. [Kearyn] Baccus had a bit of a shaky start, but I think his recent goal [against Cape Town City] can be a huge confidence-booster for him. The jury is still out on [Lazarous] Kambole and [James] Kotei of course has not played yet.
“A bit of a mixed bag, but I think certainly the big influence has been [Erick] Mathoho and [Lebogang] Manyama, who were injured for the better part of last season. With those two fit, they’ve filled big gaps in the departments where they operate.”
Chiefs will be encouraged by their positive start to the campaign, but winning the Absa Premiership requires stamina and consistency. There are many teams who could threaten them.
Pirates’ ship not sunk
Bidvest Wits are among the early frontrunners with nine points from four games. The Clever Boys can go top of the league should they win their game in hand. They are, however, traditionally strong starters, so their early form is nothing new.
Wits picked up 13 points in the first five games of their 2016-17 title-winning season and 12 by this stage of the last campaign, which saw them finish third. They have made no secret of prioritising the league over the CAF Confederation Cup this season.
Orlando Pirates, who have eight points from five games this season, cannot be counted out. After all, their last two title-winning seasons have come off the back of similar starts. The Buccaneers had eight points at this stage in 2010-11 and nine in 2011-12.
Given that Sundowns have picked up three titles in four seasons without starting especially well, recent history suggests Mosimane’s men in particular are of concern to Chiefs.
If the league season is a marathon and not a sprint, then the Brazilians are the archetypal long-distance athletes.
In brief: State of play after five matches across previous seasons
Five matches into the 2019-20 Premiership season (barring the teams with games in hand), Chiefs haven’t quite replicated their notable efforts during their last two title campaigns.
The table below shows points, goals, losses, draws and wins for each title-winning team after five games – starting with Mamelodi Sundowns in 2018-19 and ending with Orlando Pirates in 2010-11.
There are two notable trends from the past. Chiefs are the only team have won all five of their first games during a title win over the last nine seasons – having done so in 2014-15.
Orlando Pirates, meanwhile, had consecutive bad starts across all metrics after five games when they won the title in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
While historical data can’t always predict the future, if Bucs fans are looking for reasons to dream – two wins and eight points from their first five games in the current season isn’t the worst start when compared to their trophy-winning seasons in the past.
Additional input by Antoinette Muller.
Leonard Solms is a freelance South African multi-sport journalist who has written for a number of regional, national and international newspapers and websites. He won a Rhodes-Investec Top 100 Award in 2018, the year in which he completed his Bachelor of Journalism at Rhodes University.