JOHANNESBURG - What's clear from Orlando Pirates’ opening match of the Absa Premiership season is that coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic is looking for a defensive solution. “Speed and aggression” were the words the Serbian mentor used following the Buccaneers’ 1-0 victory over Chippa United.
What is less obvious, however, is whether veteran Happy Jele - the only player still at the club a decade after the coach’s first stint there - will be part of this new dynamic back four.
Pirates conceded an incredible 40 goals in 30 league matches last season - the fourth-worst - and it was no surprise they endured their worst ever season in the Premier League era.
On Saturday night at Orlando Stadium, Sredojevic handed a debut to Innocent Maela at leftback, while Gladwin Shitolo and Ntsikelelo Nyauza found themselves in unfamiliar roles as centrebacks. Thabo Matlaba kept his place at rightback and goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands, though very experienced, was another debutant.
Maela: "I never expected to get into the team so early, and even then, never thought I'd play like this. I really want to thank everyone"
The end result was a clean sheet. But is that Sredojevic’s answer to last season’s leaky rearguard?
“No one is guaranteed a place,” the coach said. “As Maela will tell you, he did not expect to play, but we saw enough in training to believe that he was ready, and we told him that if he does well he takes the credit, which he did (pointing to the player’s Man of the Match award). But if he doesn’t perform well, as coaches we take the responsibility.”
Maela: "They focus on the individual & make you take the rewards when you do well. When you fail, they fight for you & take the blame"
It is likely that, with a new goalkeeper and as many as four debutants, Jele - because of his experience - would have started had it not been for a one-match suspension that carried over from the previous season. Nyauza and Shitolo did not put a foot wrong, however, and Jele, 30, will feel his place in the team could be in jeopardy.
“We need to field a central defence that has elements of speed and elements of aggression and correction in their defending,” Sredojevic explained further. “Nyauza is usually a right fullback, but we pushed him central because of his aggressiveness.
"He had top class results from the point of preparation since we have started. He fully deserves to play on the inside of defence and he has paid us back with his performance.
"Similarly, Shitolo is usually in central midfield, but we pulled him back. We wanted a pair where one has aggression and speed and the other knows how to deal with the ball so that we can build from the back.”
The coach said this careful consideration in choosing who would play in defence in Pirates’ opening league match was partly influenced by how Chippa would line-up upfront.
“We had Sandilands and Matlaba, who we asked and expected to lead with their experience and maturity what is a new-look defence,” Sredojevic said. “We want as many clean sheets as possible.
"This team is mentally harassed because of last season. I am happy we have established competition in the team and we have a pecking order for the right fullback or left fullback. I have not given anyone a position.
“We want the type of defence where we are not allowing isolations. And we have a specific target - to not be the team that has conceded one goal per match. We want the kind of defence that will give us confidence, that way we can have creative build-up.”