Stuart Baxter gives instructions during a Bafana training session. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu /BackpagePix

CAPE TOWN - Let’s just plunge right in and stick the knife nice and deep in dissecting a Bafana Bafana performance that bordered on cowardly and, again, manifested the arrogance and complacency that characterise football in South Africa.

Year after year, it’s the same old story with the SA national football team. It reaches a level of performance that warms the cockles of the heart, and then plummets, like a miserable snowfall, to the depths of mediocrity. In June this year, shortly after the appointment of Stuart Baxter as head coach, Bafana played like champions, like men possessed, in smartly dismantling a high-class, much-vaunted Nigeria side in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Uyo.

On Friday night, though, they produced a craven, clueless display in a 2-1 defeat to Cape Verde in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Praia. It’s this smug attitude that has been at the root of many gutless performances in the past, and it was the same self-satisfied approach that was responsible for the ignominious defeat to Cape Verde.

Before I get to the players, let’s put Baxter in the dock. The onus is always on the coach to select the best eleven, without fear or favour, and then to motivate, drive and inspire the men under his command. In this, he has to take into consideration the conditions of the game at hand, the state of the pitch, the mental space of the players and what type of footballers he will need for the tactical strategy he has in mind. Did Baxter do so? Deconstruct that scrappy, chaotic Bafana performance - and then answer the question.

In short, and it’s certainly an issue for debate, is Baxter just a one-trick pony? The Brit has had great success with Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United in implementing a superb and effective counter-attack game plan. Teams he coaches are organised, play with shape and structure, and are difficult to break down; they suck the opposition in and then hit back swiftly on the transition (it was how Bafana surprised Nigeria three months ago). But is this all? What happens when Plan B is needed? In fact, does Baxter have a Plan B, or even C?

Cape Verde had definitely done their homework. With Bafana, under Baxter, always compact and strong down the middle, the opposition constantly hit out wide, forcing players out of position and, thereby, nullifying the Baxter game plan. 

With nothing more forthcoming with regard to a change in tactics, Bafana fell apart: there was no discipline, both tactically and mentally, there was no shape, no structure, they conceded possession like naïve schoolboys, failed to track the opposing team’s runners, they lacked composure and, importantly, there was so much listless observing going on, you could have sworn that ball-watching, like bird-watching, had become a recreational activity.

But fingers shouldn’t only be pointed at Baxter. The players, all of them, deserve as much blame for a feeble, patently abject performance. The body language, throughout, was slack and indifferent; there was little desire and nobody looked to prepare to go the extra mile or grab the game by the scruff.

Ronwen Williams in goal hardly inspired any confidence, his legs coated in treacle and his hands lathered with butter. Central defender Erick Mathoho looked like a man playing football for the first time ever, and not enjoying it all; hence, just to get out of it, he brutally hacked down an opponent and got himself out of there quickly and, need it be said, embarrassingly.

Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Tebogo Langerman, usually such consistent performers, probably had their worst outings in a Bafana jersey. Dean Furman, well, the less said, the better. Keagan Dolly, like a shady, unctuous conman, glibly promises much, but delivers nothing. As for the two who engineered high-profile moves on transfer deadline day last Thursday - Lebogang Manyama and Bongani Zungu - both were conspicuous in their anonymity.

It’s abundantly evident that the transfer negotiations in the build-up were a distraction. Manyama and Zungu can disagree all they want, but their detached, unfocused performances speak volumes. It’s easy to understand why Benni McCarthy dropped Manyama from the Cape Town City squad last weekend because “his mind was elsewhere”.

Cape Verde are here for the return match in Durban on Tuesday, and nothing short of victory will do. Both Baxter and the Bafana players have much to make up for.

Cape Argus

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