After initially battling to settle at Mamelodi Sundowns, Thabo Nthethe has established himself as a pillar in the team’s defence, writes MOGAMAD ALLIE in SoccerClub magazine.
The fearsome attacking triumvirate of Leonardo Castro, Khama Billiat and Keagan Dolly, dubbed by adoring fans as the CBD, may have played a pivotal role in Mamelodi Sundowns’ triumphant march to this season’s league title but it would be foolish to ignore the role played by their defence, which was expertly marshalled by Thabo Nthethe and Wayne Arendse.
At the start of the campaign, there were concerns about the team’s rearguard, particularly their ability to plug the massive gap left by the departure of Dutch strongman Alje Schut.
After a hesitant start that saw Sundowns winning only two of their opening four games, and coach Pitso Mosimane trying out different permutations in the heart of the defence, he eventually settled on the Nthethe-Arendse combination.
The pair grew in confidence as the season progressed, conceding only 20 goals in 30 games to handsomely repay the coach’s faith in them, as manifested by their delivering the league title and Telkom Knockout.
Former Sundowns defender Matthew Booth believes consistency in selection played a crucial role in settling down the defence, particularly since it was an area considered to be a potential Achilles heel in the team.
‘Things improved a lot for Sundowns at the back and I think it’s all because Thabo looks to be finally settled at the club. They’ve been so good in attack in South Africa that the defence hasn’t been under much pressure in the PSL, but it’s been a bit tougher in Africa where they’ve come unstuck in the Champions League and Confederation Cup, so they are still a work in progress.
‘Thabo has done well, considering he’s had the big shoes of Alje Schut to fill. His calmness is a big asset and his ability on the ball has improved since moving to Sundowns. That’s understandable; it also happened to me when I moved there from Cape Town Spurs. It’s something they work on at training because they are a club that take pride in playing attractive football.’
Booth believes Nthethe’s transition to Sundowns, whose demanding fans are often hard to please, was eased by having spent 10 seasons at Bloemfontein Celtic, whose passionate fans are the envy of the rest of the league.
‘It helped that he came from a club like Celtic, who have a loyal following, so it wouldn’t have been as difficult to settle had he come from a club that normally plays in front of 500 fans.’
Boebie Solomons, who spent a season as assistant coach at Celtic between 2012 and 2013, is not surprised that Nthethe has settled in so well at the seven-time champions. ‘Thabo is a true professional, a deep thinker. As a coach, you can be confident that he will take charge on the pitch once the team has received their final instructions in the dressing room.
‘He plays hard but fair. Because he reads the game so well it allows him to anticipate moves. This allows him to steal the ball off the feet of attackers instead of being rushed into tackles,’ says Solomons.
Nthethe, who captained Celtic to victory over Sundowns in the final of the 2012 Telkom Knockout, adding another winner’s medal to the one he picked up with his former club in the 2005 SAA Supa Eight, reveals he made the move to Chloorkop to take his career to the next level.
‘I came to Sundowns because I want to achieve more with this club and win major trophies. I knew it was going to be tough for me to get into the starting lineup, but I was ready for the competition, which is why I joined the team,’ he told Soccer Laduma.
‘I had no problems settling in at Chloorkop because I’ve played with some of the players here in the national team,’ says the 31-year-old defender who has won 21 caps for Bafana Bafana, including a handful as captain, after making his debut in a friendly against Iceland in October 2009.
In his 18 months with Sundowns, ‘Mr Cool’ as he’s affectionately known, has already fulfilled his ambition of winning more silverware. By picking up a league and another Telkom Knockout winner’s medal this season, coupled with lifting the 2015 Nedbank Cup, he now has the full set of honours available in domestic competitions.
Nthethe pays tribute to Mosimane’s vision and methods, which he believes have allowed the players to grow this season. ‘We had to get input from everyone. The players were given the task of watching matches and providing feedback. We also had to watch our opposition and report back individually about the strength and weaknesses of that opposition. It was a totally new approach, where everyone was involved intensely. Our match analysis was great because we did everything collectively.’
Having won everything on offer in the domestic scene, the challenge will be to replicate that success in a continental competition after receiving a rare Champions League lifeline. The sky is the limit for Nthethe and his Sundowns colleagues, who will want to make good on achieving glory in Africa.
– This article first appeared in issue 70 of SoccerClub magazine.