The attacker is regarded as one of South Africa’s most exciting players in a generation- and comparisons with Benni McCarthy are well founded.
Phakamani Mahlambi’s reputation as the ‘new Benni McCarthy’ is assured, at least for the time being. As soon as Bidvest Wits coach Gavin Hunt admitted that Mahlambi indeed possess qualities reminiscent of Benni, there was no chance of him shaking the tag. But it is not one that the player wants. Despite his reluctance he has earned the moniker “the new Benni” – a product of them being mentored by the legendary and accomplished Gavin Hunt & breaching the first-team picture in rapid fashion.
However in the short term, it is burden he is destined to bear. He may not be a regular at Wits currently, but he has already been spoken of in the highest terms by Hunt. With interest expressed by the biggest teams in the country and abroad. It is easy to see why clubs are interested in a player so young. There is a new wave of talented young South Africans emerging in the league, but Mahlambi might just be the most exciting player in the league.
His natural attributes are instantly recognisable, and that is little wonder given his footballing background. He boasts a peculiar combination of speed, vision and skill. For a player his age, he is already strong, while his pace is electric, as the Golden Arrows defence found out this past week, Mahlambi outstripped and outpaced them to an embarrassing degree. Having worked to get himself near the last man, he stole the ball and got a clear view on goal, however the young forward showed maturity that would be surprising had he not already displayed it countless times in his burgeoning career. Faced with the keeper, he had the cool to exquisitely roll the ball underneath the keeper and into the net.
There was certainly something very Benni-esque in his movement and composure to bury the chance. Finding an accurate player comparison is tough. The comparisons are plentiful but understandable. His rapier-like speed becomes immediately apparent when he turns and spins in behind the defensive line. It’s his favourite move, and he’s already adept at timing his darts and curving his runs in order to stay onside. If he’s away, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. The breakaway speed he showed against Golden Arrows on Tuesday was nothing short of eye-popping. He doesn’t seem to slow down while dribbling, either an issue many players, even the best, battle with consistency.
Mahlambi’s a remarkable dribbler, with his complimentary combination of size, power, skill and speed making for quite the sight when he decides to spear forward. He swerves around players at will, direct and penetrative with the ball at his feet. He drives his team up the pitch and creating attacking transitions in seconds. He’s played most of his football from the left striker position, and it seems to be a system that suits him and that he’s bought into. He links well with the main striker and the central midfielders while the rest of Gavin Hunt’s striking corps well extremely well with him, too.
Wits’ front paring is quite classical in its movements; one runs off the shoulder or splits wide, while the other secures the middle and drops in to link with midfield. While the roles are not as restrictive as “you do only that; I’ll do this”, the split allows Mahlambi to thrive. When required to drop himself or split wide, Mahlambi does a good job, too. He, Klate & S’fiso Hlanti understand each other’s game, and that leads to strong combination play down the left side. Mahlambi’s quick and tidy feet mean that if he does drift out into tight situations, he’s comfortable and willing to chisel his way back out. There’s work still to be done in this area- he sometimes takes far too many chances and ends up burying himself in a corner- but it’s a minor knock.
One of Mahlambi’s most impressive traits is defensive work rate, he never stops running and chasing to regain possession. It’s hardly a surprise when a player has been moulded by Gavin Hunt (who’s known for his astute defensive and all-around tactical brilliance) does this and there must also be an element of Mahlambi trying to earn further minutes on the pitch. If he loses the ball, he chases after it relentlessly. If he spies an opportunity to drop in and create a turnover, he’ll try his luck. A perfect example of this was the goal he scored this past week against Arrows.
It’s fair to say that, so far, the diminutive attacker has used the minutes he’s been given after his long-injury layoff, superbly. Already an explosive, talented attacking player with willingness to muck in and defend from the front, he’s edging further and further forward towards an even bigger role at Bidvest Wits.
The issue Hunt has is how long he’ll be able to keep him, as while Mahlambi is both ideally suited to his 4-2-3-1 and progressing fast. The arrival of Mhango, Keane and Rodgers means Mahlambi still doesn’t feature in the club’s best XI. It might just lead to a strange situation in Wits sell Mahlambi for a lot of money despite him not being the most crucial first-team player. His few outings this season put him in the “prospect” category along with Percy Tau, Thembisile Lorch and Kabelo Mahlasela.
Projecting support for Mahlambi is easy, but projecting where that might come is a slightly tougher task. There aren’t many teams at the top level with this many strikers, so Mahlambi might have some refining of his game to do.
Early signs suggest he can play up top on his own (should his drop-in play and decision-making improve) or play as “half-nine”. One thing that could hold his potential suitors back is the fact that he is still developing and that he is such an unpredictable player. There are some questions regarding his style of play that could only be answered by in a few years when he’s finished developing and many might be tempted to wait and see how he develops before they can decide how they’d use him.
No Extra Time.
By Kamohelo Phele.