A star-studded Ivory Coast came into their 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group D opener against South Africa as firm favourites to take all three points. And so it proved as The Elephants cruised to a one-sided one-nil victory over Bafana Bafana.
South Africa made two surprise selections in their starting lineup. In goal, Darren Keet was left on the bench with Ronwen Williams getting the nod instead. The former had performed well in the final qualifying match and plays alongside three of the back four at club level, this was an unexpected move by coach Stuart Baxter.
Further forward, Lebohang Maboe was selected ahead of Thulani Serero and Thembinkosi Lorch, who both had watching briefs from the bench. Star man Percy Tau played in support of Lebo Mothiba.
Ivory Coast had a major selection call in central defence after Eric Bailly was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury. Ismael Traore got the nod as Wilfred Kanon’s partner as he started his fifth game in a row for his country.
At left back, with Ghislain Konan out injured too, it meant a natural centre back in Wonlo Coulibaly had to cover in that role.
In attack, Max Gradel was preferred to Wilfried Zaha on the left wing as expected. The latter only featured in one of the six qualification matches, missing the other five with injury, so would need to try and make an impact from the bench.
BAFANA NARROW AND BUILDING
Prior to this game, South Africa played Keet in goal and used a fairly direct style of buildup play, ceding possession and looking for counter attacks and transitional play.
However, the selection of Williams and the 36-degree heat saw Baxter’s side looking to play short on goal kicks. The thinking behind this is unclear, but perhaps the coach wanted his side to rest in possession whilst trying to tire out the Ivorians in the heat.
The side also made a surprise formational change, using a 4-2-2-2 instead of the usual 4-2-3-1. Maboe and Themba Zwane were playing very narrow, particularly the latter on the left, who tucked in constantly to supplement central midfield.
After some initial short build-ups for South Africa, using Dean Furman to move out into the right-back area at times, Cote d'Ivoire decided to push Jean Michael Seri high up from his number ten role, and Nicolas Pepe moved centrally to make it three versus three, therefore forcing Williams long.
HLANTI HIGH; PEPE FREE
Both in short and long buildup, the fullbacks for Bafana pushed very high. The logic was that the aerially strong Sifiso Hlanti could be the target on the left for diagonal kicks. However, Williams hit several flat, long diagonals which gave the side little chance for fighting for the second ball. One poorly struck pass was headed in-behind the Bafana backline and Kodjia missed a clear one-on-one opening.
Whenever the ball was cleared and the Ivorians picked up possession, they could look to find Pepe in the space behind Hlanti. Early on, he beat the covering Kamohelo Mokotjo and set up Jonathan Kodjia for an air-shot, and later on, Furman had to scamper across to cover on the left and he brought down the Lille winger. Pepe stepped up and struck the bar from the resulting attempt.
Another issue down the left side was South Africa’s lack of ability to play around pressure. Buhle Mkhwanazi was closed down and hit an awkward left-footed pass forward into touch, then Mokotjo played a pass straight out for a corner.
It’s not clear why Baxter went from percentage football to a shape so reliant on interplay in forward areas, whilst asking Furman to move wide had little real benefit. He was never going to play incisive forward passes, nor switch the play. The Ivorians could just shift to that side and compress the game, whilst using the greater physicality of Franck Kessie and Serey Die to win the ball.
The 4-2-2-2 shape was also a bizarre move considering it had not been used in friendly matches. For that to work, Mothiba needed to bring the two number tens into play more, whilst Bafana needed to be able to switch play over to the opposite fullback when they were crowded out, but neither central midfielder has an ability to play passes longer than 30 metres.
All of the best openings for South Africa in the first period came from set-plays with Hlatshwayo going close twice. Cote d'Ivoire, on the other hand, always had an easy out-ball to Serge Aurier, who could feed Pepe, or they could use Coulibaly and Gradel on the left. It was a strange ploy for Baxter to leave his fullbacks fairly isolated against such high-quality wingers.
With 22 first-half fouls, the game was played at a very slow tempo and South Africa never looked likely to create an open-play chance against a physical defence who were doing a good job on Mothiba and Tau.
GOAL; SLOW RECOVERY FROM CORNER
When the goal arrived, it was an awful one to concede. Ironically, it arrived after Tau’s only opening and only touch inside the box, coming from a deep channel pass onto the forward’s run. That was one of very few deliberate depth passes all game. From the resultant corner, South Africa conceded.
As the Ivorians cleared and made their way up-field, Hlatshwayo, Mkwanazi and Mokotjo were very slow to regain shape and the latter was closing down in the opposition half instead. When Furman gave the ball away, both midfielders were 30 yards from their backline, and the two central defenders had still not recovered centrally. A simple ball to Gradel on the left and a square pass for Kodjia did the trick – an easy finish after a disastrous piece of defending.
The goal had arrived after 65 minutes and Bafana had not made a change despite the heat, and crucially, the lack of competitive minutes for Furman and Mokotjo since late April. South Africa were tiring but now could not reinforce with one of their three defensive-minded midfielders on the bench.
ZAHA ENTERS WHILST SOUTH AFRICA GO LONG
It says everything about the relative strength of the two teams’ players that Ibrahim Kamara could bring on Wilfried Zaha on the left, removing Seri and moving Gradel into a role as a support striker. South Africa’s response was Sibusiso Vilakazi coming on for Maboe and a move to 4-2-3-1. Tau moved to the left wing when a move to the right flank would at least have allowed him to bring the ball inside.
There was no great comeback as target man Lars Veldwijk later came on for an ineffective Mothiba and Baxter’s men looked to hit him with long passes. Vilakazi at least brought some strength and skill to protect the ball, both aspects desperately missing from the South African front four who were consistently bullied off the ball.
The soaring temperatures and an astounding 45 fouls meant this game was played at a slow tempo, but that should not excuse a limp Bafana performance. Baxter’s surprise selections did not work at all and neither did the side’s sudden desire to be a build-up team, despite lacking central defenders or central midfielders with anything more than a solid range of passing.
Cote d’Ivoire barely broke a sweat in the game, but always had Pepe as a threat as he drew two fouls in dangerous positions and twice nearly scored from the resultant freekicks. Kodjia, despite some heavy touches and poor finishing, was a good focal point with his movement and hold-up – in stark contrast to Mothiba on the other side. Kessie was the most mobile midfielder on the park, defending strongly but also making forward runs from deep and serving passes wide.
At the hour mark, Bafana were still in a decent position to get a 0-0 draw, so conceding from their disorganisation after their own corner would have been sickening for the coach. However, with only one friendly match played in preparation for the tournament, a proactive approach to adding fresh legs was needed. The fact that he only made two changes in the game and none before the 75th minute appeared a waste of resources.
Overall, the changes made by Baxter did not work at all as his side created almost zero danger for an Ivorian backline missing their best defender in Eric Bailly. South Africa had more than 55% possession in both halves –a departure from the style the coach knows best: ceding possession, drawing opponents onto them, and using fast transitional play.
One team had several high-quality wingers to call upon and the other had no wingers in the entire squad. That proved a key factor, aside from the failed pre-game tinkering from South Africa. Baxter’s side therefore lacked the basics of a functional attack: width (switching play, dribbles, interplay) and depth (speed and runners in-behind and players able to play penetrative passes over the top).