South Africa will need home support – and luck

June 9, 2010

South Africa's possible team in their 4-2-3-1 system

They’re the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the lowest-ranked hosts in history, and they’ve been drawn in a very difficult group despite having been the seeds. Is there any chance South Africa won’t become the first-ever hosts to fail to get past the group stage?

Let’s look at the positives. Firstly, they are on a twelve-match unbeaten run since Carlos Alberto Perreira took over that includes games against  decent sides – Japan, Paraguay and Bulgaria. It was maintained with a 1-0 victory over Denmark last week. And Perreira himself has a wealth of experience, having lead Brazil to the World Cup in 1994, and having coached three other sides – UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia – at World Cups. Finally, of course, they have home advantage.

South Africa’s tactical evolution under Perreira could be considered a microcosm of how the 4-2-3-1 came into existence. He started out with what was termed a 4-4-2, and insisted upon two defensive midfielders in the centre, which was very unpopular with the South African public. He then announced that he didn’t favour systems with two out-and-out strikers, instead preferring one to drop off into the hole, creating a 4-4-1-1.

With top-quality strikers thin on the ground (a problem exacerbated by Benni McCarthy’s exclusion from the World Cup squad), Perreira now seems intent on fielding an attacking midfielder (rather than a forward) in the hole, with that player effectively forms a band of three with the wingers. And voila, we have a 4-2-3-1.

Another feature of South Africa under Pereira has been his insistence that the full-backs get forward and join the attack – and, on a related note, that the wingers come inside towards the goal, rather than going down the line. In a tactically conservative country, telling his two central midfielders to focus on defending whilst getting his full-backs to attack seems perverse, but South Africa’s improvement since Pereira started his second spell as manager is clear.

The first XI

Slightly less clear is the actual composition of the side. Captain Aaron Mokoena is a sure starter, although has been criticized by supporters for being too slow, and is considered a liability by many. To his right will be the highly-rated Siboniso Gaxa. Bongani Khumalo appears to have become a first-choice centre-back, whilst the main competition is at left-back, where Tsepo Masisela was considered the natural option, but might be overtaken by the small, tidy Lucas Thwala.

Reneilwe Letsholonyane is the most complete of the three central midfielders under consideration. He turned in a man-of-the-match performance in the win over Denmark, providing the assist for the goal, and will have more license to attack than his midfield partner, who will be either Thanduyise Khuboni or Kagiso Dikgacoi – Dikgacoi is a more physical player but less assured on the ball, and so Khuboni looks to have the edge.

Teko Modise plays a classic No 10 role – he is a popular, diminutive playmaker who drifts in and out of games, but provides moments of genuine quality. The same could be said of Steven Pienaar, though he has become a more well-rounded, physical player since his move to the Premiership. South Africa are better stocked on the left than on the right, so Pienaar will play on the right and Siphiwe Tshabalala, yet another small player, will come in on the on the left.

Katlego Mphela will be the lone striker – he makes intelligent runs in behind the defence, from between centre-back and full-back, and has an impressive international goalscoring record of 15 goals in 31 games, including two good goals against Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup.


South Africa are not as weak as some are making out, and should be able to compete with their three group A opponents.

There is a lack of quality throughout the side, however. There’s also relatively little top-level experience, with 16 out of the 23 players based in their home country.

Home support should mean they aren’t embarrassed, but a first round exit is likely.

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