I try to be an optimist, there is much to be happy about Guoan these days, especially as they currently top the table. I should be very happy, I should be over the moon, but there’s a thought I couldn’t get over as I saw Evergrande giving playing time to youngsters against Guoan last week, where are Guoan’s youngsters?
Beijing’s youth program has long been one of the best in China, regularly producing top players, however in the side that faced Evergrande there were only three players who were homegrown and among them, only one has come through in the past 10 years. What’s worse, manager Manzano seems allergic to playing youngsters and the aforementioned Lei, who was a key part of his lineup last season, has been used only sparingly and lately only because of an injury to Lang Zheng.
Failing to produce its own youngsters (or not even giving a shot to those in the squad), Guoan has gone out over the past two seasons and bought two defenders, Li Yunqiu (24 years old) and Li Lei (23 years old). Li Yunqiu wasn’t given much of a chance last year (Li Lei was only purchased during the winter transfer window this year), but both he and Li Lei were given a decent number of starts at the start of the year, when Manzano’s focus was on Asia and he rotated players heavily for league matches.
A few players (Yu Yang, Yang Yun, Ding Haifeng, Zhang Sipeng) have left the club and are getting regular playing time elsewhere in the CSL while others like Wang Hao, Li Hanbo, and Li Tixiang while away on the bench. Players who once looked like they would have promising careers when they were closer to 20, and who were given a shot under the previous two regimes, now find themselves stuck on pause or searching for success elsewhere.
Of the other sides at the top of the table, Shandong and Shanghai SIPG feature a number of young players they developed while even Guangzhou Evergrande have used a couple of U23 players (even if they were bought after stints overseas). As Guoan prepares for the end of an era with the eventual retirement of Xu Yunlong and Shao Jiayi (and Dalian produced Zhou Ting), they’ve had to look outside the club to find talent.
For a club that openly derides the transfer market as being an out of whack bubble where prices are not in line with quality, it would seem that a strong youth program is all the more important. Beijing doesn’t need a full generation of players like Liaoning had in the late 90s or the East Asia/SIPG side today, it doesn’t even need a group of players like Guoan had coming through in 2004, it just needs a couple of youngsters who can break into the starting lineup. Manzano has brought hope back to Beijing, but for sustained success we need to see the hope extended to younger players.