Anelka topping the CSL top scorers list, backed up by a hard-working midfield supply line driven by Mario Bozic and Cao Yunding. Bustling striker Mattieu Manset’s goal tally nearing double figures thanks to the deadly crossing from wingers Feng Renliang and Song Boxuan. Joel Griffiths’ CSL know-how and work ethic chipping in with goals from the right-wing or up front. Hongkou stadium sold out, Shanghai having fallen back in love with its perennially under-achieving team. Shanghai neck and neck in the most gripping and high-profile CSL title race for years with China’s other big cities, Beijing and Guangzhou. Jean Tigana masterminding the deployment of “nuclear bomb” Didier Drogba at the half way point to obliterate the opposition in the second half of the season and bring Shanghai its first championship in nearly a decade. Shenhua back with a vengeance as a pre-eminent force in Chinese domestic football…
…Or so Shenhua fans dared to dream at the start of the season. Since then, things have deviated from that script to say the least. To be fair, few of a Shanghai blue persuasion seriously believed the fantasy scenario described above. Shenhua were never going to be favourites for the title this year, even with Anelka onboard. But still being in the championship race at the half-way point was the expectation of many, including this long-standing Shenhua supporter. However, the extent to which Shenhua have fallen short of this not unreasonable aim is quite shocking – the team are just one point of the bottom of an admittedly very tight bottom half of the league.
Anelka has scored just twice in 12 games, and been heavily criticized by many for a lack of on-pitch effort. Mario Bozic, who was the most important new signing to bring much hoped for midfield steel, is seemingly about to be loaned out to second division Shanghai East Asia. Feng Renliang and Song Boxuan this week involved in a petty sex scandal, sending flirtatious messages to pretty girls publicly viewable on Weibo just 30 minutes before a match, incurring the wrath of fans angry that they are not focused more on improving Shenhua’s dire position.Joel Griffthis has had one of the worst injuries of his career, playing in only seven games. Manset turned out to be a total donkey who managed only one goal, a fluke at that. Cao Yunding has been warming the bench too much. And Jean Tigana was out on his ear after just five games, then the incredibly bizarre Anelka / Florent coaching experiment which was a disaster for all concerned.
It’s easy to forget just how much excitement there was when, one dreary December day last year, Anelka joined Shenhua. Even your correspondent got caught up in all the shenanigans and high spirits, losing his usual ability to balance his enthusiasm for all things Shenhua with the harsh realities of Chinese football. With casual disregard for his own sanity, this contributor stupidly predicted Shenhua would finish runners-up in the CSL this year. And yet, with the season now exactly at the half away point, that forecast has already been shown to be embarrassingly wrong.
But how exactly have Shenhua made such a dogs’ dinner of their season? The first half of this season has been an illuminating one in that it has caused some, your correspondent included, to re-assess the merits of the Shenhua squad. The poor performances this year have been due to a variety of factors, but the roots of the problem go back to a decision made by Zhu Jun at the end of 2009 in his famous “firesale” of several key domestic players who were replaced with inexperienced youths.
Two of the players who Zhu Jun cast off at the end of 2009, Sun Xiang and Gao Lin, have been key members of Guangzhou Evergrande’s team which won the China League and CSL in successive seasons. Sun Xiang is a left back, Gao Lin one of the best Chinese strikers around. Guess what Shenhua have been lacking for the past two-and-half season? You guessed it.
Sowing the seeds of ineptitude
Other players who left at the end of 2009 were 2002 World Cup veteran defender Du Wei, forward Mao Jianqing and midfielder Chen Tao. Du Wei just joined CSL “big 4” team Shandong from Hangzhou this transfer window for a not insignificant sum of money. Mao has drifted around aimlessly since then, only playing well when coming up against his former team, and can’t be considered a huge loss, Chen Tao on the other hand is now a regular for the Chinese national team. The point to make here is that these are all “big name” Chinese domestic players who may or may not have been excellent players in their own right, but they at least brought experience and were willing to say with the club for more than a season, unlike most foreign imports. For some reason, Shenhua have had a fractious relationship with “big name” Chinese players under Zhu Jun’s stewardship – Lei Weifeng another example, the former China captain leaving at the end of 2008 after just two seasons.
Putting faith in youth is to be applauded, but too much of anything is usually a bad thing. For the last two and a half years, of Shenhua’s domestic first team regulars, all have been 23 or under with the exception of midfield pair Yu Tao and Jiang Kun who are in their early 30s. So what’s changed this year? What is the reassessment talked about earlier?
2010 – a Shenhua oddity
Well, 2010, the first year of the Shenhua “youth” team, was a season in which Shenhua over-achieved, leading the league for much of the season before running out of gas and eventually finishing a point behind Tianjin in 3rd. Their success the year before last created a false impression of the team’s over-all ability. Why? Because of two men – the very astute managerial skills of Miroslav Blazevic, and the outstanding talent of Duvier Riascos, who scored 20 goals in 2010 and single-handedly won several key games for Shenhua that year, and in the first half of last season. But with Blazevic exiting through Shenhua’s non-stop revolving door at the end of 2010, and Riascos going back to South America this time last year, it was no co-incidence that the burden on Shenhua’s young guns increased considerably. The inexperience of youth tends to make for a volatile morale – when Riascos was banging in goals, the rest of the team were high on victory and playing ahead of their years. Once he left, times became hard and heads when down – hence Shenhua’s terrible losing streak the second half of this year.
The reassessment is that, in hindsight, Shenhua’s squad is too young and lacking experience. Even in a league lacking the technical and professional excellence of Europe’s top competitions, there is seldom any substitute for experience. Whilst Shenhua’s young crop may well mature into the backbone of a CSL-winning team in a few years, it’s not an adequate basis to compete with the best of the league right now. In short, 2010 was a misleading year, and we are only finding out now how much long-term damage the 2009 firesale really did to Shenhua.
Foreign signings flop
Which brings us back to this year. It was clear the foreign signings were going to be crucial for the reasons mentioned above. But with the exception of defender Moises, all have failed for reasons mentioned near the top of this post. Griffthis has been unfortunate, Manset incompetent, Anelka petulant, and Bozic just hasn’t fitted in for whatever reason. So you basically have the same team as last year, minus Luis Salmeron’s goals, and Juan Angulo’s hard-running wingback assists, plus the tactically undisciplined Anelka, and there you have the current effectiveness of Shenhua’s squad – the starting XI is arguably poorer than the team which struggled at the end of last season.
Key issue again not addressed
Morale has undoubtedly been an issue for Shenhua. Batista has made a shaky start, but it would appear the team is biding their time waiting for Drogba to come and solve all their problems. In the meantime New midfield signing Moreno also looks to be a very good player. But he is not the answer to Shenhua’s midfield issues. Shenhua already have a very good creative attacking midfielder in the shape of Cao Yunding – one of China’s most creative players and a future national team star.
We have said it many times. Shenhua need a proper defensive midfielder. But part of the problem is that the team already has two hard-working and diligent midfielders who do the hard and un-flashy work which goes unnoticed – Yu Yao and Jiang Kun. And since these two are the only Chinese players over 23, its difficult not to pick them, especially as Yu Tao is the club captain in spirit, even if Anelka wears the armband. Again, the 2009 firesale continues to haunt Shenhua. However, Moreno is a good addition to the squad, hopefully his shooting ability will come to the fore in the second half of the season, as this is Cao’s one main deficiency.
Tigana’s laughable replacement
A further mistake made by Zhu Jun was the appointment of Jean Tigana. Have a big-ish name? Managed in the premiership before? The job’s yours. There are countless examples of players and managers who come to the CSL with less than impressive records. Tigana did bring a certain level of success to Fulham, but he had a lot of Mohammad’s money at his disposal. It’s difficult to criticize Tigana too harshly, the argument can be made that he should have been given more time. But losing the dressing room after just five games speaks volumes. Tiagana appeared to be inflexible in his approach to coaching in China, but as everyone knows by now, things here don’t quite work the same as elsewhere.
Granted, football is football. But this is the CSL and fantastically bizarre things can and do happen – such as Nicolas Anelka being mistaken for a football manager by a club owner who sees fit to pick himself upfront for his club during friendlies. That is the world Jean Tigana signed up for, and he did not seem prepared for it at all. Then again, who could have predicted Nicolas Anelka would ever sit in a managerial hot seat? Even Zhu Jun, with his limited understanding of football, was able to realise it was necessary to put an end to the absurd Anelka / Florent management charade and appoint Batista before the point of no return was reached.
A monument to incompetence
Simply put, the first half of 2012 has been a monument to sheer incompetence both on and off the field. From that surreal evening when Jean Tigana found himself hailing a taxi to leave Hongkou stadium before the game against Tianjin kicked off, to Nicolas Anelka holding court at press conferences off the pitch, and sauntering around in defensive midfield on it, to Mattieu Manset moonlighting as a striker, to conceding last-minute goals against Aerbin and Liaoning, to charging fans more than double the price to watch performances even worse than last season, pretty much everything which could go wrong has gone wrong so far.
Drogba the saviour
However, Shenhua do have time to make, well, not exactly amends, but at least they are able to avoid the season being a complete and utter disaster. The positive side to this review is that the man from the Ivory Coast probably will save the day. He’s no sulk like Anelka who stops trying when things don’t go his way. A player of his strength, skill, physicality, charisma and sheer star power would re-energize any team. Signing Drogba is going to be like signing Anelka all over again – he will solve most of Anelka’s issues about not having anyone on his level to play with at a stroke – do they both really want to be seen as not being able to hack it in the CSL? Of course not.
There are other positives. Shenhua’s defence has been much improved, Dai Lin has looked very solid and should be considered for a China call-up. Wang Dalei has been player of the season without a doubt, and looks like the quality keeper he promised to be a few years ago. Both of these players deserve special mention. Also, Cao Yunding continues to develop into a quality playmaker with unparalleled vision and creativity, on a Chinese level at least.
But Shenhua will have to rely heavily on a man who scored in the European Champions League final just a couple of months ago. The best Shenhua can hope for is Drogba ripping apart CSL defences for the rest of the season and the rest of the team getting their morale back and playing to the best of their ability under the inspiration of the Chelsea legend. If they do, winning the CFA cup to get into the ACL next season is possible, as is a top five finish. But only the most reckless gambler would put money on such an outcome given Shenhua’s appalling track record at not making the most of their resources at hand.