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Wilson: Batista must go to let new Shenhua become CSL asset

It speaks volumes about Shanghai Shenhua that at the same time local headlines suggest the team’s head coach is to be offered a new two-year contract, large sections of the club’s support are calling for that coach’s head.

This peculiar discrepancy suggests many things, most obviously that the Shenhua boardroom’s criteria for a competent manager are very different to that of the fans, who are understandably upset by some dreadful results this season.

An online poll published today showed a whopping 11,353 voters, 89% of all those who responded, said Shenhua should change coach.

The former Argentina boss has overseen some of the most embarrassing scorelines Shenhua have ever suffered. A first-ever defeat at Hongkou, 3-0, to Beijing Guoan, a 4-0 drubbing away to Guangzhou R&F, a 5-0 aggregate CFA cup defeat to Jiangsu Sainty, a 3-2 home defeat to relegation strugglers Changchun, and a 3-1 home defeat to rivals Hangzhou are some of the calamitous episodes on show his year.

"Guoan 0-3, Sainty 0-5, what about face?"

“Guoan 0-3, Sainty 0-5, what about face?”

Individually those results could be forgiven. Indeed, following the 5-0 aggregate capitulation in the cup against Sainty last week, your correspondent resisted joining calls for Batista’s head, on the premise that 2014 was always going to be a horrible season for Shenhua and it was not worth basing any conclusions on it.

But following Sunday night’s 5-2 home capitulation to Tianjin, a side neck-and-neck with Shenhua in the table and therefore also with absolutely nothing to play for , your correspondent is officially adding his voice to those calling for Sergio Batista to resign, for the good of the club and for the game as a whole in China.

With Shenhua due to receive proper investment next season from Greenland, it’s essential that the club draw a line under the mis-management, corruption and amateurism of the past.

Sunday night’s result may have escaped the attention of most of the Chinese football world. But starting with a completely blank slate next year is Shenhua’s best bet capitalizing on its status a strong footballing institution for the betterment of the game in China as a whole.

The CSL is absolutely crying out for more quality and competition at the higher end of the table, and a strong Shenhua has much to offer the game here as a whole, particulalry in terms of culture and prestige – two things in short supply in the league.

For Batista himself, it’s absolutely fair to concede that the 1986 World Cup Winner has had the weakest squad of any Shanghai Shenhua head coach to work with. Thanks to Zhu Jun’s scorched earth policy of selling off the club’s most talented domestic players, new owners Greenland Group inherited an unimaginably threadbare group of players with no time to make any kind of adequate repairs.

However, it’s not really about results on the pitch.

Although Batista kept Shenhua up, that is more due to the lack of quality opposition in the nether negions of the CSL where the Hongkou side have languished for the past few seasons. Simply put there are enough teams even worse than Shenhua to save the Shanghai side from relegation.

That is not to detract from Batista’s achievement, it is merely to put it perspective. The lack of resources available to Batista underlined the need to maximize those available to him, but he failed to do so. Getting the best out of a limited squad is the mark of a good coach.

But the Argentine’s incredibly predictable team-selections made Shenhua one of the easiest sides to prepare for in the league. Were the reserve and younger players really that bad so that the head coach would rather play 30-something players out of position?

It seemed possible given Shenhua’s lack of depth and the 3-2 defeat the reserves suffered to a third division side in the cup last season. At the start of the season, Batista picked what appeared to be the strongest team.

However, as the season wore on, the likes of Wang Fei, Fan Lingjiang, and Liu Jiashen proved they were at least as good as 36-year-old chain smoker midfielder Jiang Kun and right midfielder played at right-back, Wang Changqing, another player on the wrong side of 30.

There seemed to be a very strict pecking order in the squad at Shenhua, as if the players were listed in strict order of who would get the right to play. Some, like Gio Moreno, were quite rightly always picked. Others, like the aforementioned Wang Changqing and Jiang Kun, would slot into whatever position became available due to injury or suspension.

No foreign strikers? Put midfielder Jiang Kun upfront. No-one at full-back? Put midfielder Wang Changqing there if not already picked. Don”t have a Chinese centre back? Put midfielder Xu Liang in there.

Similarly, the bench almost always consisted of Chen Poliang, the Taiwanese captain who almost never stared a game, Zheng Kaimu, Wang Fei, Geng Xiao Feng, Zhan Yi Lin were regulars on the subs bench. There was hardly ever any rotation, with Wang Fei, Fan Lingjiang, and Liu Jiashen only ever coming in when there were injuries further up the pecking order.

In short, certain players were always given a game regardless of their skill level or suitability for the first team position in question.

Yes, such things are always subjective. But as someone who has watched Shenhua for more than ten years, it really appeared to your correspondent that Batista, a man with a patchy managerial CV who is paid far more in China than he would earn in Argentina, plays to club politics.

What else could explain the fact that, three-times China capped keeper Gengxiao Feng, signed on loan from Shandong, suddenly became number two to long-standing Shenhua reserve goalie Qiu Shenjong, a player who, at 6ft tall, weighed in at a whopping 100kg at the start of the season?

Sure, Qiu lost a lot of weight and improved his performances greatly. But in your correspondent’s opinion, he really isn’t as good a keeper as Geng. Perhaps with Geng on loan, he has no longer term future at Shenhua therefore there is no reason to pick him. But the continual preference for players in their 30s and beyond no matter what did not look to be for purely footballing reasons.

Following the cup demolition of Shenhua by Sainty the previous week, Batista told reporters he would give youth a chance in the final two league games, since safety from relegation had already been achieved.

But then the headlines were saying, Shenhua would strive for as high a league place as possible and pick the best team available.That basically means the same old creaky first 11 which had failed to inspire before. What was there to lose by giving some of the fringe squad a chance to prove their worth? If they weren’t able to get a game in a dead rubber fixture, what was the point in employing them?

Similarly, tactics and strategy really don’t appear to be more complex than “give the ball to Gio.” There appears to be no plan, no real team work, the players don’t look like they know what they are supposed to be doing, and Shenhua’s rare moments of success are usually a result of luck or individual brilliance.

Paulo Henrique and Lucas Viatri, signed this summer, were brought to the club on Batista’s watch. Yet despite both being an improvement on what came before, the worst results of the season have also occured with these players in the team.

It strongly appears that Batista plays club favourites and club politics instead of making the best of the squad and at least trying to develop some younger talent. Your correspondent also has heard from multiple sources inside and outside that Batista has a very cosy arrangement with the former right hand man of Zhu Jun, Zhou Jun.

Zhou is still operations manager at Shenhua and, if you ever wondered why Shenhua almost always sign five new foreign players every single season, then someone taking cuts of transfer fees might just have something to do with it.

It’s hard to imagine that Batista, who has brought a raft of South Americans to the club, isn’t involved in that most murkiest of worlds, Chinese football club transfer payments and exactly who gets paid exactly what for player transfers.

Indeed, Batista’s own return to the club near the start of this season, after leaving mid-way through last season, was shrouded in mystery. No explaination was given for his sudden reappearance, the media speculated that the Argentine was still owed money from last year.

Yet, despite his coaching credentials being far from proven, Batista is now said to have been offered a two year contract, which only further deepens suspicion that Batista’s continued presence at Shenhua would not be for purely footballing reasons.

There are simply too many question marks surrounding Batista’s Shenhua career and being a better coach than the lord of anti-football, Shen Xiangfu, and beating the likes of Harbin and Shanghai Shenxin, really aren’t feats worthy of great admiration.

To conclude, 2014 been an utterly miserable season with barley anything worth carrying over into next. With that in mind it’s very hard to see what Shenhua would lose from starting afresh with a new coach.

Shenhua making fresh start on all fronts, coaching, management and playing staff, is desperately needed for the benefit of all.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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