Eight weeks into the 2012 Chinese Super League season and only one team remains undefeated. No, it’s not Guangzhou Evergrande with its $110million USD budget and star foreign players. The last team to keep the goose egg in the loss column is actually Jiangsu Sainty. Sitting at 5-0-3 (W-L-D), Jiangsu is currently in second place in the league standings, one point behind Guangzhou Evergrande. How has Jiangsu risen above mediocrity to be a serious contender to win the league title? Well, that’s a good question and the following points might be part of the formula that’s made Jiangsu unbeatable (knock on wood).
There should be a statue of Jiangsu manager Dragan Okuka somewhere in Nanjing. If not a statue, at least name a press box after the guy. Okuka came in last season when Jiangsu was at the lowest of lows. Former manager Ján Kocian had lead the team to a 0-4-1 start in the 2011 season which left the squad in dead last with a single point from five matches. The club was quick to make a change and brought in Okuka. In his debut outing Jiangsu earned its first victory of the season with a 1-0 win over Changchun Yatai. Throughout the remainder of the season Jiangsu continued to climb the table, until they eventually finished fourth in the final standings. From May 10th, when Okuka was brought in, until the end of the season only Guangzhou Evergrande had a better record in the league, earning 54 points from 24 matches to Jiangsu’s 48 points in 25 matches.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and last season goalkeeper Guan Zhen was a living testament to this old saying. Now, it might not be fair to say he was the worst player on the pitch, but he did single-handedly lose the match for Jiangsu against Shanghai Shenhua in 2011. After that debacle Okuka decided to bench Guan and start Deng Xiaofei. It’s safe to say this was a wise coaching decision as Deng has proven himself to be one of the top keepers in the league. Where Guan single-handedly lost games for Jiangsu, Deng single-handedly keeps Jiangsu in the games. Highlight reel saves are becoming the norm for Deng as he as recorded six shutouts in eight matches so far this season.
Before we look at the defenders, lets examine some impressive facts from the 2012 season.
- In eight matches Jiangsu has only given up two goals
- Jiangsu has never trailed during a match
- There was a stretch of 633 minutes, covering eight matches, in which Jiangsu did not allow a goal
- All four of Jiangsu’s defenders have started and played every minute of every match
Who are these men that make up the brick wall that is known as the Jiangsu Sainty backline? Two foreigners, Brazilian Eleílson and Uzbek Komoliddin Tadjiev, along with Chinese players Ren Hang and Zhou Yun. Eleílson is a fan favorite who has been with the team since 2009. His physical play leaves opposing forwards hesitant to go into a 50-50 ball. He also isn’t afraid to go forward and is a staple of every corner kick with his 6-4 frame. Tadjiev was virtually unknown when he arrived in the summer transfer window last season, but he soon became popular with the fans for his meticulous play. Ren and Zhou are two very young (23 and 21) defenders who have played like seasoned vets . Zhou was a member of the team back in 2008 when Jiangsu played in the second division and has eventually worked his way into the starting lineup.
Of all the positions on the Jiangsu squad, the midfield has seen the most changes, although that’s not saying much considering the starting defenders and forwards have remained the same all season. Captain Lu Bofei and Liu Jianye are the core of the midfield. Lu is very dangerous off set pieces and Liu is a workhorse that seems to cover just about the entire field. Ji Xiang has had a very successful 2012 season so far, already equaling his goal total of two goals from last season. Recent acquisition Jiang Jiajun has proven a solid pick up as the 22-year old has made two starts in place of Lu who was battling an injury.
Anybody who reads my match reports regularly is probably aware that I am a huge fan of the Eastern European Connection of Cristian Dănălache and Aleksandar Jevtić. Dănălache joined Jiangsu at the beginning of the 2011 season and Jevtić came in during the summer transfer period. Of the 43 goals scored last season, 24 were netted by these two, 13 for Dănălache and 11 for Jevtić. Dănălache currently leads the league in goals with six. Joining the Europeans up top every match this season has been Sun Ke. After scoring three goals all last season Sun has already tallied two this year. The team as a whole has scored 16-goals in eight matches, more than any other team, although ten of those goals did come at two home games.
If I have to name the source of Jiangsu’s recent success I would say it’s split between the coaching and the defense. Okuka has assembled a team that works well together and lacks all the drama you see on other clubs. As for the defense, it’s as infallible as a bank safe for the most part. On nights when the offense isn’t clicking you can count on the defense to kept the other team off the score board.
This weekend Jiangsu faces a tough road opponent when they travel to Guizhou. I’d be a little surprised if Jiangsu manages a full three points from this match given their lack of success on the road, but stranger things have happened. Although by writing this article I probably jinxed them and they’ll most likely lose 3-0.