Ernst Middendorp simply can’t shake the German stereotype. When Kaizer Chiefs bullied their way to a healthy lead on the Premier Soccer League table he was credited with introducing the über-efficiency that his countrymen are famed for. Now that the lead has been slashed, it’s the predictability and limited imagination of the approach that gets all the blame.
The thinking is that if you cut off the free space available on the flank and reduce the amount of balls lofted in, half the battle is invariably won. Have his Amakhosi been figured out?
“They’re very adaptable throughout the 90 minutes,” Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands said ahead of the Soweto Derby this Saturday. “Obviously we know they have the long ball, they have target men up front, they can dominate aerially. But we also know that they have speed, we know that they like to play balls over the top for their speedy attackers. We might know their qualities and that will be our focus. But to say that they’re predictable, I don’t really buy it that much because they have different tools to unlock defences.”
From the club’s training base at Rand Stadium this week, it was obvious that media training had been ramped up in anticipation of the derby — everyone, from players to staff, was careful not to betray any hint of overconfidence, an emotion that would be hard to resist at this point.
The Buccaneers have been willfully good since Josef Zinnbauer took over in December. Yet to lose a game, no other side comes close to their record in that time. It’s been so good that memories of an atrocious start to the season and the subsequent points deficit have been thoroughly erased.
Chiefs have taken the opposite trajectory. What began as their redemption story is threatening to turn into a cautionary tale about the failure to adapt. Looking at the recent disappointments doesn’t make for compelling evidence to refute the suggestion that Middendorp is riding a one-trick pony either. What dropped points against Black Leopards, SuperSport United and Maritzburg United all have in common is a consolation goal from a set piece or header that ultimately proved insufficient.
The game against the latter two weekends ago was particularly frustrating. Every time the trident of Khama Billiat, Samir Nurkovic and Leonardo Castro surged forward, they appeared increasingly devoid of ideas of what do with the final ball when they had it at their feet.
Make no mistake, the acquisition of Nurkovic remains the coup of the season, but Middendorp has to produce a clear and consistent plan B. If he’s hiding one in his back pocket, there would be no better time to use it.
“Do you really read into form when it comes to a derby like this? I don’t think so,” said Pirates assistant coach Fadlu Davids, continuing efforts to portray Chiefs as the favourites. “Their coach is experienced enough to be calm this week. His players will pick up if there’s any change in him. We know they are the team that’s on top of the log and we are a team that’s only picking up form now late in the season. We approach the game as a new slate and we’re not talking about title race at all. The title race is for Kaizer Chiefs and Downs and BidVest Wits.”
Whether Davids would be drawn on it or not, there’s no denying that this derby has major ramifications for the title picture. South African football is capricious at the best of times, but it feels particularly volatile in this moment. Ironically, it is down to Middendorp to ensure that unpredictability extends to his side’s play if he’s to keep the year steady and on course.