We’ve reached the half-way point in the 2015 CSL season and Changchun Yatai sit in 9th place, but they have areas to improve if they want a Top 8 finish.
Changchun’s season started in much the same way as it had in the last two seasons, with the North-East team lingering near the bottom of the league and desperate for a victory.
First-time manager Gao Jinggang’s team was struggling and it resulted in him effectively being moved back to his General Manager role with former Harbin Yiteng manager Marijo Tot joined and was made head coach.
Tot’s first three matches in charge of the club resulted in three consecutive victories and the future under the Croatian looks much more assured, in a similar fashion as to when Dragan Okuka arrived last season.
Marijo has employed a new, flexible 3-4-3 formation that can easily revert back to a 4-4-2 should the team find themselves behind in a match.
Pei Shuai, who is traditionally a defender, has been playing in the centre of the team’s attacking three, with a variation of Du Zhenyu and Szabolcs Huszti or Du Zhenyu and Moussa Maazou on either side of him.
Pei has been able to hold the ball up well in previous seasons and has become a good distributor of the ball for players with a better goal scoring touch, such a Huszti.
This attacking mentality that Tot has employed has the club with 25 goals in the league so far this season, with 12 of those goals coming during Tot’s 6 matches in charge.
While Yatai’s renewed confidence and goal scoring touch has been a delight to fans, they have still had to suffer through some disappointing defensive performances.
The team’s defence is largely unchanged from last season, with Anzur Ismailov, Sun Jie and Zhang Xiaofei being the team’s primary 3-player defensive line-up.
All three players have played for the team during the previous two seasons, which both saw Changchun suffer through a relegation battle.
This writer has often commented about how Changchun’s biggest weakness, alongside previously struggling in front of goal, has been the team’s defence.
Lü Jianjun, the team’s standout defensive performer last season, was let go prior to the season and Ma Xiaolei was brought him to fill the vacant Right Back position.
Ma’s first appearance for Changchun saw him sent off and subsequently only make 7 league appearances for the club.
Changchun have scored 1 goal more than they have conceded this season, largely due to the inflated goal scoring ration the team has managed in recent weeks.
If the club want to finish the season no-lower than 8th, they must bring in another defender to help the team’s depth and long-term performances.
Former captain, Zhang Xiaofei, has lost pace over recent seasons and is often beaten on the outside while playing in the 3-man defence.
Anzur Ismailov has great aerial presence and is often the one defender the team can rely on in set pieces and corners, but his biggest weakness is his passing.
Often opponents will scoop up errant balls that Ismailov has ambitiously tried to send down the pitch, leading to lost possession and, on occasion, more chances for the opposition.
Sun Jie is often an unheralded player for Changchun, often putting in average performances, but he rarely puts a foot wrong and is probably the club’s most consistent performer in defence.
Changchun should look to bring in a new player whilst keeping the three previously-mentioned players around.
A player that this writer is an admirer of is Nicklas Backman, who is currently playing for Dalian A’erbin in China League One.
Backman performed well against Changchun last season and is a Super League-quality player.
The difficulty with bringing in a foreign player such as Backman is the fact that Changchun would have to let another foreign player leave.
The only player the club should consider letting go is Akos Elek, who has sometimes been at fault for poor passes and an inability to regain possession.
Elek was obviously brought in to keep star player Huszti happy in the city but the performances have not been there and the midfield is arguably the strongest area of the team.
The other options for Changchun would be to bring an experienced Chinese defender in on-loan, much like they did with Zhao Peng last season.
Zhao failed to make an appearance for the club after suffering an injury, but it is reasonable to think that he would have played frequently for the club had he stayed fit.
If Changchun could lure a good, reliable Chinese defender to the club on a permanent basis then that would be a bonus.
But that might be difficult, with Changchun’s performances over recent seasons likely to be off-putting for some.
With Tot at the helm, the future is bright in the North-East.
But if Changchun have any hope of maintaining this league position they must look to address their defence, be it with a Chinese loan player or a new foreign import to provide more competition and reliability.
If they are able to do that, then the sky is the limit and Changchun are only a couple of victories away from earning a Top 6 finish this year.
A place that fans believe the club deserve to be once again, having won the CSL in 2007 and been in-and-around the Top 6 for many years before suffering through the last two seasons.