The Orlando Pirates “ship” has navigated two types of waters this season. First came the rough and stormy seas (under Micho and Rhulani), where Pirates endured one of their worst ever starts to a PSL season (P13 W4).
Second came the calm and serene waters (under Josef Zinnbauer), where Pirates enjoyed the best ever run by a Pirates coach in a PSL season matches (P10 W7). Orlando Pirates play Mamelodi Sundowns on Tuesday night in a heavyweight clash in South Africa’s Premiership – the first fixture post the pandemic-enforced break.
On the surface it looks like two different squads performed – the contrast in results under the two periods has been so stark. Pirates were seventh before Zinnbauer’s first game, while the mini-table after his arrival places them first.
It’s no surprise then, that their resurgence under Zinnbauer has been one of the biggest stories of the season. Few coaches have enjoyed such a great start, let alone at such a big club, especially mid-season, without a pre-season and/or a transfer window.
Zinnbauer had to perform with the same personnel that had been part of one of Pirates’ worst ever league starts and find the diamond in the rough.
Going into everything that changed (tactical, mental, physical, personnel etc) would take much more time to dissect. For now, we want to use the data to focus on one personnel (re)integration.
Who did Zinnbauer turn to?
Two games and a Christmas break into his arrival, Zinnbauer quickly settled on a three-man starting midfield made up of a double-pivot of Fortune Makaringe and Ben Motshwari, with Luvuyo Memela just ahead.
These three started every game as Pirates won five in a row, before injuries in the sixth win that matched a Pirates PSL record.
The two more defensive-minded players have provided a solid defensive foil for Memela and the likes of Pule, Lorch and Mhango to freely attack. In that time, Pirates have scored the most goals (16) and won the most points (23) in the league.
One major reintegration Zinnbauer had to manage was one of a 32-year old who (mostly due to injury) hadn’t featured much in the season until December: Luvuyo Memela.
If we were to spotlight one player whose fortunes have changed as the team’s fortunes have changed, it would be him. He has been the biggest winner in terms of minutes played under the new coach, going from just 84 minutes before Zinnbauer (only two minutes under Rhulani) to 643 minutes after Zinnbauer, and featuring in every game but one. Having Memela fit and available has been crucial.
Where has Memela been used?
Zinnbauer’s first challenge must have been to shore up the second-worst defence in the league at the time, that had conceded 20 goals already in the league by mid-December.
In contrast, they conceded 24 and 26 in the previous two whole seasons in total. But it was important not to sacrifice the attack, and Memela has been an essential link between defence and attack. The cliché phrase would be that Memela has been given “license to roam”.
We’ve divided the length of the pitch into 10 blocks, and the width into five, to map out his touches. The concentration of touches on the left side of the pitch (the dark blue box) may not be surprising for a left-footed player.
He was less involved on the right, but what’s interesting is that he took more on the ball actions in the inside right channel (the second set of boxes reading upwards from the touchline, also known by tacticians as the half-space) than the central channel (the third set of boxes with the penalty spot).
Perhaps this is him cutting in from the right-wing, as we see in-play often. While this visualization doesn’t clearly prove the difference, the next one paints a better picture of what he does in those areas.
A lot of his action is just past the half-way line, where he often drops to receive the ball from the defensive midfielders and defenders before launching attacks.
The archetype of his role in Zinnbauer’s team can be seen in his assist against Sundowns – Zinnbauer’s toughest test since he was hired. As Thapelo Morena and Hlompo Kekana pressed to win the ball back, a lot of space was left behind them. Memela drifted into that space from the wing, received the ball from Makaringe, turned and slid in Mhango to score the only goal of the game.
What danger does Memela pose in those areas?
His first assist against Polokwane was similar to the one against Sundowns. Polokwane midfielders clustered up to defend a Pirates throw in the opposition half, leaving a lot of space between the midfielders and defence. This time it was a loose ball Memela pounced on in the empty space, before sliding Mhango through to carry the ball and score. Same ‘assistant’. Same goalscorer.
But his meaningful contributions go beyond assists. If the first visualization showed where Memela operates, the second visualisation shows the danger that he brings in those areas, particularly in the final third.
A lot of passes into the penalty box (red) come in from the left. As we hinted earlier, there are significant dangerous actions from the right, especially the inside the right channel. And although his shots (green) are more centralised, he is yet to score this season.
He actually has more accurate key passes (blue) on the right of the field than on the left. A key pass is defined by our data provider as:
“A pass that creates a goal scoring opportunity. It takes a player one-on-one with a goalkeeper or to a scoring position. This type of pass usually leaves behind all the opponent’s players.”
Has Memela repaid the coach’s trust?
The end of the season would be the best time to judge if Memela has repaid the trust paid in him by Zinnbauer. Then, we’d have a larger sample size of data to work with. For now, the evidence for a positive verdict is there. The understanding he has built with Golden Boot favourite Mhango – no player has assisted Mhango on more occasions than Memela (four) is a primary indicator. No player has assisted more in the Pirates team since JZ took over (four in the league, six in all competitions).
And while Memela has been good, the unit he operates in has allowed him to thrive. Consistency in team selection, both by design (tactical choices by JZ) and fortune/load management (no injuries) has seen Makaringe-Motshwari double pivot behind him in six successive games where all three have been available.
Even Memela’s load has been managed such that he’s completed 90 minutes only once in the league. How would Memela fare under Zinnbauer when teams figure out the danger he poses, or when he has a different set of players behind him? Perhaps, injuries permitting, we’ll get better answers in the coming month of football action.