With Shanghai Shenhua’s early-season vim having fizzled out, a trip to Henan with their impressive early-season home record might just be the last thing the Hongkou side need. Can Shenhua get their act together and succeed where Evergrande fell at the start of the month?
It was a script everyone had seen played out before – Tianjin a couple of weeks ago, Harbin among others last season – most of the CSL’s bottom half (Shenxin excepted) coming to Hongkou, essentially. Against sides who pack the defence and rely on set-pieces or swift counters to create their chances, Shenhua run out of ideas remarkably quickly – win, lose or draw the result is usually a tight, uncomfortable, and nerve-fraught game with Shenhua creating little outside moments of individual brilliance, and looking jittery on the few occasions their opponents do attack.
And so it was against Chongqing Lifan – one of the worst and most uneventful 2-2 draws this correspondent has witnessed. Shenhua looked flat-footed and bereft of ideas to break down the deep-lying Lifan defence; the two goals coming from a towering Gio Moreno header from a free-kick, and a somewhat scruffy medium-range effort from Cao Yunding. Following both goals, Shenhua lapsed into a fatal combination of apathy – not attempting to press the ball in midfield or push to extend their advantage – and neurosis – abandoning all composure and positioning when defendinig in their own box. A gleeful Emmanuel Gigliotti pounced twice to confirm what North Terrace News has always said – when it comes to reliable CSL goal-getters, you just can’t beat an unheralded Argentinean journeyman with a hit-and-miss record back home.
Understudies Fluff Lines; Stars Fail to Shine
With Paulo Henrique and Lv Zheng again missing through injury, coach Francois Gillot reverted to the old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation which had served Shenhua well prior to the more cautious approach offered in Beijing. Following the wishes of this very column, Gao Di was given the Henrique role – hassling defenders and making smart runs alongside the more static Tim Cahill up front – and the forgotten Wang Fei was given his first start of the new regime in his favoured wide midfield position. Both men, unfortunately, failed to grasp this opportunity – Gao made a couple of good runs, and Wang swung in one or two dangerous crosses, but both men ultimately wasted a lot of the ball and became more anonymous as the game progressed.
Saturday also marked another anonymous game for both Moreno and Cahill. Moreno’s season thus far has been something of a slow-burner – aside from a header, a penalty and an assist, the captain has contributed little of note. Whether it’s an attitude problem or a tactical issue is unclear; Moreno does tend to waste a lot of the ball when playing deeper, and leaves Wang Yun single-handedly running the engine room much of the time – Shenhua’s shape actually improved markedly with the introduction of Avraam Papadopolous to do his share of water-carrying alongside Wang Yun at half-time against Lifan, with Moreno pushed further forwards.
Questions are also beginning to be raised regarding the Cahill purchase, and how he fits into Shenhua’s side. The Australian is remarkably on-track to match the minimal on-pitch impact of Nico Anelka – admittedly without getting the manager fired or running first-team matters by proxy through bringing in a mate. It’s painful to watch, and you’d struggle to find two more different characters regarding attitude or workrate when comparing the Frenchman and the Aussie; Cahill runs tirelessly, is clearly a great motivation to his teammates, and continues to put in a shift in both penalty areas in dead-ball situations. Unfortunately the side is really not set up to play to either of Cahill’s strengths – lacking wingers to reliably set up chances for his aerial prowess, and lacking forwards to make space for his surging late runs – as such, Cahill is pressed into action as a makeshift hold-up target man, hardly the best use of the CSL’s 2015 marquee signing.
It’s arguable, actually, that Gillot did little wrong and was let down by his players – he selected a formation which had served well, with players in their natural positions, and switched things around after the break to remedy the ineffectiveness of Cahill and Moreno and shore up the center of the park. Even bringing on the hapless Zhan Yilin was an attempt to retain some natural width in Shenhua’s side – this struggle may well be easier to park at the feet of the club’s recent transfer policy and the players’ mentality – admittedly, both of these areas being something a successful coach can bring his will to bear on in the longer term.
Shenhua’s paper-thin squad – barely strong enough for a quality XI – is being badly found out with the absence of just a couple of players. Makeshift right-back Zhang Lu had a shocker against Lifan, but worse was to come when Wang Changqing replaced him. Leaving aside any other motivations for Wang’s dreadful defensive negligence, it has to be noted that the #7 simply can’t defend any longer, leaving his man unmarked multiple times, eventually culminating in the second equalizer. Zhang remains on the treatment list — predicted to miss two months due to the you-couldn’t-make-it-up injury of catching his studs in Hongkou’s golf divots, so it may be worth seriously considering a 3-5-2 – in a squad not blessed with width, putting more players in central areas may at least mask some of Shenhua’s current weaknesses.
Preview & Reality Check
Whether Henrique returns or not is key to Shenhua’s chances here; they’re simply a different, and much less threatening, side without the chunky Brazilian forward. The need to rush the striker back does need to be balanced against the danger of him breaking down again – if left with no options beyond Cahill and Gao up top for the remainder of the season, Shenhua’s chances of overcoming their recent slump and continuing to threaten the ACL places will vanish to near-zero.
Hanghai is a famously hostile stadium to visit – throw in a recent home victory over Evergrande and Shenhua’s traditionally rotten away form adding to their current confidence malaise and identity crisis, and the omens are set for further disappointment here. The 2015 Shenhua side are still coming together and will remain unpredictable for a little time yet – while there’s a sneaky suspicion that they might just pull together and nick another unexpected win here, it’s difficult to seriously expect anything other than a home win after more shaky Shenhua defending and mostly-impotent attacking here. 2-1 Jianye and a swifter return to mid-table than Shenhua may have expected a couple of weeks ago.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 5 W 3 D 0 L 2 GF 10 GA 5 GD +5 Pts 9
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 5 W 3 D 1 L 1 GF 10 GA 6 GD +4 Pts 10
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.