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The Mads Davidsen Column: Analyzing CSL 2013’s winners and losers

The Chinese Super League 2013 is now over after an interesting season with Guangzhou Evergrande, as expected, the champions, while Shanghai East Asia were the surprise package of the year as the promoted team lifted the CSL’s quality of football.

The usual suspects

Head coach Marcello Lippi and Evergrande were outstanding this season with a perfect combination of Chinese organization and hard work combined with foreign flair and offensive quality. A team in total balance and with two full backs in number 5 Zhang Linpeng and number 32 Sun Xiang as some of the best full backs offensively and defensively in entire Asia. I like the team movement, the tempo, the flair, the quality of their possession phases, and the desire to keep scoring goals even when they are 2-0 ahead. Evergrande is for me the best and most complete team in Asia right now, and hopefully they will prove it this week by winning the Asian Champions League as well.

Shandong and Beijing also had solid seasons. Shandong head coach Radomir Antic has organized his team very well and off the ball, and are the best organized and have the best pressure phase of all 16 CSL teams. Remember that their previous coach, Dutchman Henk Ten Cate, had problems doing the same, finished 12th last season, and so very solid work from Antic gave Shandong second place in the table.

Beijing are on the other hand are perhaps the best team in the league when it comes to building up the play from their keeper. Their style with two full backs moving up, two wingers moving in and maximum space between their two central defenders to make it as hard as possible for opponents pressure is well-developed.

All their players are calm and everyone in the team can pass properly.Their concept is crystal clear and adaptable for the players, great work by head coach Stanojevic! And the signing of Peter Utaka from Dalian was the key element that secured the Champions League spot for Beijing. When the season started to close down, Utaka’s form went up and he was amazing in the last 8-10 rounds of the campaign.

Respect for the Shenhua and TEDA’s struggles

A large group of tightly-packed mid-table teams made this season interesting all the way to the end, with most never that far from relegation danger. Guizhou, Liaoning, Guangzhou R&F, Dalian, Shanghai Shenxin, Shanghai Shenhua, and Tianjin TEDA all overall had  solid seasons.

Guizhou finished fourth which is as well as could be expected with their current squad, while R&F looked much better under Sven Göran Eriksson and will be interesting to follow in the coming season.

Shanghai Shenxin got 10 points more than last season (from 30 to 40 points), which is very positive for a small budget club. City rivals Shanghai Shenhua started the campaign in disarray with their minus 6 point punishment, but they still managed to climb up – without playing good or structured football – and finished either. The story regarding Tianjin TEDA is the same a minus 6 point punishment, but a great autumn for them with number 11 Valencia as key player saw them secure 11th, so huge respect to these two teams for the fight and hard work to overcome points deductions.

A promoted team with vision

It has been a true pleasure to follow and analyze Shanghai East Asia this season. They started the season a bit rusty, but as soon as the players adapted to the CSL-tempo and the physical aspect of the league they improved all the way to finish ninth.

As a coach, I enjoy their structured concept where everything is prepared and trained again and again. I had the pleasure to visit their training ground as well, and I like the technical focus and their vision to play offensive football whilst wanting to take control of the game. A modern concept, 4-2-3-1 with fake wingers, full backs as the real wingers and with majority of players in the central areas of the pitch finding space in between the opponent’s lines, ready to run deep and punish the opponents.

Shanghai East Asia have been the surprise of the year – not only developing as a team, but developing football in China as an inspiration on how modern football is supposed to be played. Look at the big teams in Europe who have success winning titles (FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester United) – they play modern and offensive football. Defensive football doesn’t win anything in the long run.

The Shanghai club has their own academy as well where the next young players are ready to take over, when for example, Wu Lei hopefully makes his way to Europe. Also remember that a player like Zhang Linpeng from Evergrande came from this Genbao Football School – an institution which is a role model for all Chinese clubs for developing a strong youth system for the future.

To be prepared – for what?

Wuhan came up as a promoted team with big expectations, but went down with only 16 points. To me, this is not acceptable. When you play in League One, it is not about only going up. It is also about preparing the team, the staff, the club, and the surroundings ready for what is waiting for you in the CSL. And Wuhan failed big time here.

What is fun about going up if you are hammered back down again immediately? You have to develop a concept strong enough to get the amount of points needed and to pre-analyze; what is the style of football up there, how many goals are we supposed to score to stay up and can our style / squad deliver that or do we need to change something? It’s a big analytical job, but if you don’t do it – you will go down with 16 points and only three victories in 30 matches like Wuhan.

Changchun saved their spot in the final round after a difficult season, but they are a low budget club and as such these difficult seasons will come from time to time. Qingdao went down after a solid start, but a nightmare of an autumn. Their biggest mistake was to release star player Zheng Long to Evergrande. He was not only the key player in their style, but also their main goal scorer and assist player. A loss the team could not handle and that’s why Qingdao went down.

From number 2 to 13

Hangzhou and Jiangsu were also in relegation danger all the way to the end. At the beginning of the season, I liked Hangzhou as a modern club with a lot of young players and a modern style that develops Chinese players. Number 5 Shi Ke, number 8 Chen Zhongliu, and number 21 Xie Pengfei are all very interesting players for the future, but in the middle of the season the head coach Okada changed their concept and suddenly played more direct and simple.

Not the best idea as the results did not improve, plus the players’ development froze and Okada even stopped using some of their young talents in the starting eleven. A club like Hangzhou is not ready to fight for a top 4 spot, so they have to see themselves as a development club, and therefore their style of football, their patience with the young players, and daily improvement are crucial. Hopefully we will see Hangzhou back next season with young players and a modern style of football as well.

Jiangsu Sainty are by some length the biggest disappointment this season. For regular readers of this column, you might remember that back in late summer I analyzed the Jiangsu style and concluded that if the head coach Okuka did not change their simple concept  they would only slide further down the league table – which unfortunately is exactly what happened.

Their old fashioned style of football leaves no space for flair or players who can create magic and deliver chances or goals. A player like number 20 Sun Ke is on showing 70% of his potential level because he is stuck playing in the wrong system and concept. Last season Jiangsu had an offensive quality in one man as number 10 Christian Danalache scored 23 goals, but he was injured and never managed to reclaim his level this year. So Jiangsu were suddenly a poor offensive team too easy to read and close down, which resulted in a horrible season for them.

Best players of the season:

Goalkeeper – Wang Dalei (Shanghai Shenhua): A fantastic season for Wang Dalei. He directly saved at least 7-10 points for the team by pulling off world class saves. Also on the technical side; I have identified great improvement in his ability to catch more balls after crosses and set pieces, this is a keeper soon ready to be the number 1 for China.

Defender – Kim Young Kwon (Guangzhou Evergrande): Without doubt the best central defender in Asia. He has all the physical skills, developed to be tactically strong under Lippi and his technique is fantastic. He can hit a 40 meter pass reaching the target every time; he is a complete defender who can play in the best leagues in Europe.

Midfielder – Wu Lei (Shanghai East Asia): The most valuable player for any team this season. 15 goals in 27 matches just being 21 years old playing on a promoted team as a midfielder. His speed, timing, and finishing technic is at an European level, and I hope we will see this player in Europe very soon to promote Chinese football and help improve the national team as well.

Striker – Elkeson (Guangzhou Evergrande): Very difficult to not mention this fantastic player; 24 goals in 28 matches for the former Botafogo-player. Elkeson is also a very good combination player and a type who works hard and always delivers a solid performance – scoring or not. He is physically perfect and technically amazing and a gift for Chinese football as long as he is here.

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