The 32-year-old is Orlando Pirates’ youngest ever head coach, but Rhulani Mokwena won’t have any time to get his feet under the table.
He will have to deliver immediate results or face extending Pirates’ trophy drought to a sixth year.
Five issues for Orlando Pirates’ interim coach to solve
Below are five key tactical and selection questions he will have to answer to turn around a tough start to the new season.
Building up under pressure
So far this season, perhaps the biggest tactical issue facing Pirates has been their struggles with build-up play from the back. As a bastion of the “game model” in use at the club, it is always going to be the biggest focus when looking at upcoming opponents. How do they press? How can we create a spare man? Where is the space?
SuperSport United simply pushed their front three onto Pirates’ back three that evening and blocked any pressure-relieving passes out to the wingbacks. It led to a 3-0 Pirates defeat. Other teams have man-marked key midfielders (Highlands Park – a -1-0 loss), allowed Happy Jele to have the ball on his less-favoured left side, or simply sat off and blocked all forward passing options.
For Pirates’ next step in their evolution, they need to find ways to train under this same sort of pressure and find fail-safes to lose man markers, bypass high pressing or break down deep defences. That opposition have had joy both in pressing high or parking the bus, shows that there are improvements needed.
Lean on Fadlu Davids
The appointment of Mokwena to replace Milutin Sredojevic also meant a promotion for former Maritzburg United head coach, Fadlu Davids. He moved up from a second assistant position to one where he should have greater input into team selection, tactics and training.
Although only 38-years-old himself, Davids has greater head coach experience than the man he is assisting and he built a young, vibrant, modern team when in charge of Pietermaritzburg. Although a series of high-profile attacking departures saw a poor start to his second season and a subsequent sacking, his first full season in charge was superb.
His Maritzburg side finished in fourth place in the PSL and made the Nedbank Cup final, whilst three of that team went from promising youngsters to big-money signings at the top clubs – two of those at Pirates in Siphesihle Ndlovu and Fortune Makaringe – as well as Lebohang Maboe at Mamelodi Sundowns. That side had no muscle injuries in that recording-breaking season (down to training methods; not luck), and were incredibly flexible in changing formation within games. Giving greater responsibility to Davids could a win-win scenario for all concerned and lighten the load on Mokwena.
Taking inspiration from Guardiola
Anyone spending time looking at Mokwena’s twitter account – which he has deactivated since taking the head-coach reins – will see someone influenced by several young, modern coaches. However, there has been a clear preference for learning from Manchester City’s innovations under Pep Guardiola. One of those was an innovative “3-box-3” formation last season featuring two number tens and two wingers.
Perhaps the next step is to try other innovations more regularly to surprise opponents who have become familiar with Pirates’ predictable play. Some of these could include greater use of inverted fullbacks, using a false nine or playing midfielders in defence.
Refresh an ageing Orlando Pirates defence
Undoubtedly, this has been a real concern this season. Pirates offloaded several central defenders and right backs in this transfer window, including Marshall Munetsi – himself originally a box-to-box midfield converted into defence – with no replacement coming in.
That has left two veteran centre backs in Happy Jele and Alfred Ndengane, and not much cover that is trusted beyond that. Whilst Thulani Hlatshwayo continues to be linked with a transfer from Bidvest Wits, Mokwena may need to seek innovative solutions within his squad instead.
Munetsi was moved back due to his physical gifts, and perhaps players like Ben Motshwari or Siphesihle Ndlovu could drop into defensive roles in a back three or as a wingback respectively. Guardiola did that with Javier Mascherano at Barcelona, whilst Fernandinho has also featured in defence.
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Using Young Signings
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges will be to ensure the wrath of new, younger signings made in this transfer window get the requisite game time not to stagnate as players. Whilst competition for places is tough and the older players are more versed in the game model, they are also less able to improve or overcome their long-entrenched shortcomings. Mokwena may find the younger players more hungry and coachable.
Undoubtedly, this promotion will prove a major challenge for the young coach and his young technical team. However, Mokwena has already been taking the majority of training sessions and analysis meetings over the last two seasons and this is a natural progression. Instead of having to motivate any major tactical ideas to a head coach, he can now take those decisions himself and legitimately start innovating. There is no doubt that South African football needs a coaching revolution to rival that seen in Germany’s Bundesliga, where numerous young coaches – who aren’t former players – get given the responsibility to lead clubs and develop players.