Despite much excitement ahead of the 2019-20 season, Orlando Pirates have struggled to strike a balance between defence and attack. Augusto Palacios, the last coach to lead the Buccaneers to the Premiership title, claimed Marshall Munetsi’s move to Reims has played a significant part.
The French Ligue 1 side announced the signing of the Zimbabwean midfielder-cum-defender in June. At the time, Director General Mathieu Lacour described the purchase as “part of a logic of the future”.
Munetsi hasn’t wasted time bursting onto the French scene. The 23-year-old has made nine Ligue 1 appearances, including six off the bench. His indefatigable display against Paris Saint-Germain in his first start turned heads.
Munetsi provided the assist for Hassane Kamara’s opener with a pinpoint cross. According to France Football, he also racked up five tackles and six interceptions, winning 11 duels. Reims beat the French champions 2-0 on 25 September.
Back in South Africa, Orlando Pirates were crying out for help at both ends of the pitch. The Buccaneers endured a run of six games with only one goal in all competitions. Eventually, they found their flow, but problems developed at the back.
Only Cape Town City (21) have conceded more Premiership goals this season than Pirates (20).
Orlando Pirates: 2019-20 League performance to date
Pirates brought in several new recruits during the off-season. Among them were Tshegofatso Mabasa, Gabadinho Mhango, Joris Delle, Siphesihle Ndlovu, Fortune Makaringe, Kabelo Dlamini, Bongani Sam, Tebogo Tlolane, and Austin Muwowo.
But replacing Munetsi, a player with something to offer at both sides of the pitch, is challenging.
“Correct. tactically, he was important in different positions, good at set plays and aerial balls — not much technically, but he was strong in one vs one [situations],” Palacios told Extra Time Media when asked if Munetsi’s importance to Pirates was widely underestimated.
“You have players with great skill and technique, but tactically [are lacking].
“When he was scouted [by Reims], his tactical role was observed. He can adapt depending on the system in which he is playing.”
Palacios, who currently serves as Orlando Pirates’ Head of Youth Development, said he was not personally close to Munetsi. But the Peruvian made observations from outside regarding his character.
“He showed discipline. He never complained about playing or being substituted,” Palacios claimed.
“He went to the Africa Cup of Nations and to play for the [Zimbabwe] national team is more difficult. You have players to play local football but not international. He showed he can do both.”
Orlando Pirates in 2016-17 with Munetsi on loan
Statistics support Palacios’ high praise of Munetsi’s influence at Orlando Pirates. The Zimbabwean signed from FC Cape Town (now Ubuntu Cape Town) in 2016 and spent the 16-17 season on loan at Baroka. Pirates struggled in his absence, and in 2017-18, he made his Buccaneers breakthrough.
Munetsi made 12 Premiership appearances in that campaign in midfield and at centre-back. The Buccaneers picked up 2.58 points per game when he was involved, but the Zimbabwean still only played 652 minutes in the league.
The following season, Munetsi became a more central part of Milutin Sredojević’s side, almost doubling his minutes. Starring at centre-back, he played 1265 in the league across 14 starts and two substitute appearances. Pirates picked up 35 points in 16 games with Munetsi in the team compared to 22 in 14 when he did not feature.
Orlando Pirates in the league in 2017-18 and 2018-19
Munetsi’s impact was equally telling in the CAF Champions League. Pirates picked up clean sheets in all four of his continental appearances, collecting a win and three draws. The four Champions League matches in which he was not involved saw the Buccaneers ship six goals and suffer two defeats along with one draw and one win.
Orlando Pirates in the CAF Champions League in 2018-19
There was, of course, the blemish of the red card in the Telkom Knockout final defeat to Baroka. However, Munetsi’s influence in 2018-19 was largely positive.
Little surprise, then, that Reims came calling. Since his move, Munetsi has taken to Ligue 1 like a duck to water in midfield. He appears to have learned a thing or two about adaptation at his last club.
“My game has improved a lot since I played for Pirates, where I learned to adapt to different formations and positions,” Munetsi told Soccer Laduma shortly after his move to Reims was confirmed.
“I joined Pirates as a central midfielder but played as a centre-back and an attacking midfielder. So, the coaches helped me improve a lot on my versatility and that helped me to understand that, as a professional, you can be able to play in more than one position and do well.”
It would have been cruel of Orlando Pirates to try and block Munetsi’s overseas move. But when evaluating Rhulani Mokwena’s performance as Pirates coach, it would be wise to remember that he never had the luxury of calling upon the services of Munetsi, an unsung hero in his predecessor’s team.
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.