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The Mads Davidsen Column: China’s Zheng Zhi masterstroke

The new Chinese national team style

The EAFF East Asian Cup is now over, and we can be very excited regarding the Chinese performance and a second place finish. The results were good, but even more important the team’s mentality and style look good for the future.

First and most important of all – after the 1-5 defeat to Thailand, it was encouraging to see the mentality of the Chinese players in all three matches. No surrender and always fighting to the end. That’s the most appropriate spirit when playing for your country and representing its people.

Zheng Zhi is the key

As I mentioned in my last analysis from the tournament; compared to Japan and South Korea, China still needs to improve on  technical and tactical areas. China needs more players who can pass the ball well and of course more guys who “can think out of the box” and create magic in the last third of the pitch. We also have to remember that the best Japanese and South Korean players playing in Europe did not feature at this tournament.

I’ve been watching China’s new star Wu Lei play for over a year now and he showed against Australia what I have seen in him since I first saw him – that he is a potential top player. Let him play every time in the national team and hopefully send him to Europe to improve even more. Even if China lose a few games, they should think long-term and build up a young team ready for the next World Cup in 2018.

The head coach Fu Bo found a new style with more short passing play and more patience which meant more passes before moving the ball into the attacking phase and more speed and fewer touches per player than under Camacho. Actually this new style reminds me of the games I took in from 2009-2011 when the national team head coach was Shanghai East Asia’s Gao Hongbo.

China is playing with two very offensive full backs, a central defender in 10 Zheng Zhi, who can build up the game on the ground because he is a central midfielder and a strong passing player. China has a lot of movement in the attacking phase with fast players like Wu Lei, Sun Ke and Yu Dabao + Gao Lin in the first two games. China has other players who can manage this style of football  like Zhang Xizhe (Beijing) and Xie Pengfei (Hangzhou), but I would like to see more emerge in the future.

The most interesting aspect on the pitch was the use of number 10 Zheng Zhi as a central defender. He had some position problems at crosses defensively, but with the ball, he really helped the team. He is calm, strong on the ball and an experienced player. Very interesting move by Fu Bo – I say let him play in this role in future.

In general the Chinese team tried to control the game, the players dared to be in possession and had the confidence and flair to create chances and score goals,  style and mentality which suits the Chinese players very well. Well done to the coaching staff.

In the final game against Australia the Chinese team played very well in most periods. As a coach, I prefer to play with a left footed left full back as it leads to more opportunities in the attacking phase, and number 3 Sun Xiang showed very early in the game with his perfect run and cross that he should play in that position instead of 4 Rong Hao in the coming games.

As a professional match analyser, you look for patterns in the game, and I spotted an interesting one against Australia. First Sun Xiang’s low cross for Yu Dabao to score. In the second half, Wu Lei played the exact same low cross on the ground for Sun Ke to score.

This is very interesting, because head coach Fu Bu probably did his homework on Australia and found them to be a strong team in the air with big defensive players. Therefore the Chinese team prepared training accordingly – crosses played low, and working on timed runs.  This led to two goals in the match. Tactics on a high level by China.

The lack of a striker

The Chinese team still needs a classic striker. No one with a Chinese passport is scoring a lot of goals in the CSL in the striker position, and Gao Lin is better as a number 10 or even a fake winger – just like Yu Dabao. Against Australia, number 9 Yang Xu got a chance in the second half, and he gave a solid performance, but his problem is now that Shandong just bought Brazilian Vagner Love, so Yang Xu will mostly be on the bench from now on.

I liked number 17 from South Korea – a classic box striker with his 1.90m and a target player, which is useful for all teams in periods of a game. China has to keep focus on this type of player in the talent development and make sure that the talent programs are solid enough to create players for all 11 positions. As I see and experience the Chinese talent development right now, the country lacks strikers and creative players in the offensive part of pitch. This is a problem the football federation needs to take very seriously in order to find a solution.

MVP of the tournament

If we start from the bottom, Australia had a disappointing tournament. The classic Australian style is to use big and strong players, who lack technique and football intelligence. Only number 19 Mitchell Duke had some skills, scored goals and is young. For me he was the most interesting Aussie player.

From South Korea, I really like number 22 Yun Il-Lok – the best player in the tournament. He is in the David Silva from Manchester City mould, fast, creative, good on the ball, with the intelligence to find free spaces and an assister as well as finisher. He will be interesting to follow in the future. Top potential.

In the Chinese team – I liked number 10 Zheng Zhi in his new position, but also Yu Dabao and Sun Ke played a strong tournament. Let them play together with Wu Lei and Gao Lin in the offensive part of the pitch.

From the winners, Japan, number 20 Hideto Takahashi was very important for them as the playmaker – always coming down to receive the ball from the defence and distribute it forward with quality. Also number 21 Yūya Ōsako had some interesting skills, but the team and style of Japan was the main reason why they won the tournament.

The Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni has worked very professionally with the team, so everyone knows their role and the style of their play. An example is their central striker. Three different players had the role during the tournament, but still the moves were identical.

When Japan played the ball direct up to their central striker, he knew only to use one touch. Every time the Japanese striker got the ball, he would play the ball back to a teammate on the first touch. A clear pattern because Japan wants to keep speed and tempo in the game, which is necessary for their team to have success, so if the striker used two touch – he would lower the tempo. Japan did excellently in this way by being so consistent in their approach so they could change players without lowering the performance or changing their style.

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