Five things Stuart Baxter needs to fix with Bafana
South Africa head into their must-win 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier with Burkina Faso on Saturday needing much more than just a change of fortune after demoralising back-to-back losses to lowly Cape Verde last month.
KweséESPN picks out five things coach Stuart Baxter needs to fix if the team are to keep their hopes of Russia 2018 alive.
At times in both games against Cape Verde, Bafana Bafana looked wide open at the back, with too much space between the centre-backs, and the full-backs not tracking back quickly enough from forward forays. He will have a new right-back, most likely to Thami Mkhize from Cape Town City, and also a completely new pairing -- at this level at least -- in the centre with Clayton Daniels and Morgan Gould likely to get the nod. They have experience of playing together at SuperSport United and should at least come with a readymade understanding. Neither are particularly mobile, but they do provide a physical presence to counter the rampaging Burkinabe. Injury-permitting, Baxter will also have a good organiser in Itumeleng Khune in goals, a first appearance for the gloveman since the 2-0 win over Nigeria in June.
South Africa were poor in this regard against Cape Verde, and not just the petulant red card received by Erick Mathoho that earned him a two-match suspension and a big fine from FIFA. They also gave away too many soft free-kicks, especially close to their own goal, and were punished by Cape Verde for that. They have a number of tough tacklers in the team, but have to be more smart about when to challenge and when to shepherd players away from danger. Sometimes tackling the player with the ball is not the right option, and it is better to hold him up to allow for reinforcements to arrive. They will also need have tactical discipline, both when on top in the game and when under pressure. Bafana tend to lose shape -- and their heads -- when the going gets tough and this will be an occasion for calm, calculated play.
It is now well documented that a number of players chose to party in the wake of the first Cape Verde defeat last month and have been criticised for a lack of professionalism. Getting a win over Burkina Faso should be consuming the thoughts of the players this week and nothing else. To be fair to Baxter, he has addressed this, but must have been bitterly disappointed at what would have been an unexpected response from players who ply their trade abroad. He has introduced a programme called the '24-hour professional' that he hopes will remind the players of their responsibilities, but ultimately it will be up to them. He cannot climb into their heads and make them behave in the right way.
It is unlikely that Bafana Bafana will create many chances against the Burkinabe, so when they get them they need to be clinical enough to finish. It has been a long-standing problem with the national side that they have spurned opportunities -- and it was so again last month -- but there can be no wastefulness now. Ironically, the one player who has looked composed in front of goal since Baxter took over, Tokelo Rantie, has been dropped for this match. Burkina Faso showed in their two matches against Senegal last month that they are difficult to break down, and away from home they will perhaps be even more cautious.
After the loss in Cape Verde, Bafana fans might have expected a reaction from the team and a rollicking home win. But it was the opposite as the side looked fearful and nervous on the ball, as if the pressure of what was at stake was too much for them to cope with. That pressure will now be intense, with the clash against Burkina Faso essentially a quarterfinal with the remainder of their pool campaign now played in 'knockout' style. How will they react to that? Will they be fearless and go for it knowing they have to win, or will they be paralysed by that fear again? Perhaps it is for this reason that SAFA have said they will hire a psychologist for the team, though how effective he could be in a matter of days is open to question.