League One Season Review – Part 2: Five mid-table sides heading in different directions
After looking at the division’s top six last weekend, WEF’s 2015 League One review continues by analysing the seasons of the five clubs who finished in mid-table. Like last time, we will give an overview of the season before looking at a defining game, the club’s player of the season and discussing what to expect this winter. Qingdao Jonoon, Xinjiang, Tianjin Songjiang, Wuhan Zall and Qingdao Hainiu may have finished close to each other in the table, but they each had unique seasons and seem to be heading off on very different trajectories.
Qingdao Jonoon 2015 position -7th 2014 position – 5th WEF pre-season prediction – 8th
Well and truly a season of two halves for Jonoon who found themselves in second place as late as round 18, only to plummet down the table by losing eight of their last twelve matches. That spectacular fall from grace pretty much coincided with the removal of Tomaz Kavcic from the head coaching role and his replacement by 33-year-old rookie coach Dragan Stancic.
Needless to say, the change didn’t work and Jonoon’s hopes of getting back into the Super League at the second time of asking had all but evaporated by mid-August. The club had less off-field problems than they did in 2014, but they are in serious decline on the pitch.
Jonoon’s round 20 away encounter with Dalian Aerbin came one week after a surprise 2-0 defeat to Tianjin Songjiang which had knocked them out of the promotion places. Meanwhile, Dalian had just ended a five game winless run the weekend before but remained in sixth, three places below Jonoon.
Jonoon looked to be on course for a hard earned point when Aerbin struck twice in the last 14 minutes to secure a 2-0 victory. The result kick started Dalian’s ultimately unsuccessful promotion push and sent Jonoon into free fall. They were hammered 3-0 at home by Beijing BG the following week and never recovered momentum.
Honourable mentions for their 2-0 win in the Qingdao derby against Hainiu, which attracted over 20,000 fans in round 2, and the humiliating 5-1 home defeat by unfancied Guizhou Zhicheng that came whille Jonoon still looked like serious promotion contenders.
Player of the Season
Slim pickings in this regard. Foreign attackers Deivdy Reiss and Ismael ‘Beko’ Fofana managed just eleven goals between them and midfielders Jorge Claros and Rogerinho both failed to impress in the first and second halves of the season, respectively.
So, in order to reflect Jonoon’s schizophrenic year, let’s make Zhu Jianrong their player of the season. The 24-year-old centre forward and winger produced a far from earth shattering four goals and two assists across the first fourteen games of the season before his form dipped. Interestingly, he was dropped as a regular in the starting line-up following round 18 which is exactly when Jonoon’s disastrous run began. Coincidence? Probably, but this illustrates how little Jonoon’s players have done to stand out this season.
The only other worth a mention for a memorable performance is former international centre back Zhao Peng who arrived from Super League powerhouses Guangzhou Evergrande prior to the season. On his round 1 debut, the 32-year-old scored an own goal and played an errant back pass which led to his side conceding another in a 4-1 loss to Harbin. He was substituted at half-time and never played again. The veteran has already been released this off-season, bringing to an end what must be the most disastrous playing stint of the League One season.
The wheels of change are already in motion thanks to the appointment of Su Maozhen as the club’s new head coach. The 44-year-old local boy made his name as a prolific striker with provincial rivals Shandong Luneng and as Chinese national team’s second highest ever goal scorer.
As a head coach, he cut his teeth at fellow Qingdao club Hainiu, who he guided to promotion from League Two in 2013 before quitting last season following a 6-1 defeat to Hebei CFFC (for more on that, see the Hainiu review below). Su is a popular local figure and did a good job with Hainiu, but he faces a tough task in restoring Jonoon’s top flight status.
Although Jonoon did enough in the opening portion of the season to show that they are a decent team in this league, the club still needs to turn around its perpetual decline. Over the last couple of years, the likes of Zheng Long, Liu Jian, Zou Zheng and Song Wenjie have left without being replaced.
Jonoon’s domestic core needs strengthening and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see three new foreign faces in 2016. Fofana has already left and it remains to be seen whether Rogerinho or Deivdy Reiss will be back.
Xinjiang 2015 position -8th 2014 position – 10th WEF pre-season prediction – 10th
2015 can no doubt be considered a successful year for Xinjiang as the club secured its first ever top half finish in the second tier and made it to the CFA Cup quarter-final – knocking Guangzhou Evergrande out along the way. Unfortunately, the achievements of Li Jun’s men were overshadowed late in the season when top goal scorer Cristian Danalache pulled out of a game against Hebei CFFC just two hours before kick-off.
The Romanian cited a nagging injury, but the club suspected foul play and the 24-goal striker was accused of faking, with the suspicion being he had been incentivised not to turnout by Xinjiang’s promotion chasing opponents. Nothing has been proved, of course, but the incident left a sour aftertaste to what had otherwise been a great year for the club.
On paper, Xinjiang’s playing staff is among the weakest in the division, but the key to their success is a well organised team and, above all, an excellent home record. Just three teams took more points than Xinjiang on their own soil this season and only champions Yanbian Changbaishan scored more than the Urumqi club’s 31 home goals.
Urumqi’s remote location makes travelling to the city a labourious and tiring process and Xinjiang have reaped the benefits against their visitors this season. However, Xinjiang also boast the worst away record in the division and won just once on the road in 2015.
Climatic considerations meant Xinjiang had to start the season with a run of away games to avoid playing in Urumqi’s frigid conditions. It’s no coincidence then, that the club were flirting with relegation until mid-way through the season when a run of consecutive home games helped them bolster their points haul and solidify their mid-table status.
Another one from round 20 where Xinjiang secured a comfortable 2-1 home victory over Wuhan Zall. This match was the last in a run of five straight home clashes and was Xinjiang’s fourth win during that stretch.
By that point, both of these sides were pretty much assured of a mid-table finish but this victory took Xinjiang above their foes and into the top half of the table. Danalache scored a brace, his fourth double in a row, to demostrate his importance to the side. It also emphasised how good Xinjiang are at home, a point punctuated when they went on to lose their next three away games in a row.
Player of the Season
Despite the late season shenanigans, it is impossible not to give this to Danalache. The centre forward’s 24 league goals accounted for 56% of Xinjiang’s total and he may well have held off the challenge of Yanbian Changbaishan’s Ha Tae-goon to finish League One top scorer had he not missed the final three games of the season. On top of that, he scored both the winning goals against Super League opposition in Xinjiang’s CFA Cup run.
With a relatively modest budget and an unglamorous playing staff, consolidation will be the name of the game as Xinjiang prepare for next season. The biggest headache facing Li Jun is how to replace Danalache’s goals now that the Romanian has been cast out by the club.
Brazilian attacker Rafael wasn’t the answer. Although he doubled his season tally with a hat-trick in the final game of the season, the former DC United player never made his mark in Urumqi and reports are that he won’t be back in 2016. With few other goals in the side, it’s important that the Xinjiang are able to find a reliable striker to fill at least one of those two vacant foreign player slots.
The club hasn’t been hugely active in the domestic transfer market over the last couple of seasons and that could remain the case this year, too. It would be nice to see some of the young Uighur players who comprise the bulk of the reserve squad break through into the first team.
Tianjin Songjiang 2015 position -9th 2014 position – 7th WEF pre-season prediction – 9th
Songjiang had a roller coaster year with the club going from being rock bottom relegation candidates to 2016 promotion favourites in just a few months. After losing six of their first eight games, Goran Tomic replaced Drazen Besek as head coach with the remit to save the club from relegation.
The Croatian did that by guiding the club to a respectable ninth place finish, but his achievements in the second half of the season were largely overshadowed by the circus surrounding new owners Quanjian. After withdrawing investment from Super League club Tianjin TEDA, Quanjian brought Songjiang and immediately began spouting rhetoric about guiding the club to AFC Champions’ League glory.
With Songjiang’s transfer quota for 2015 already used up, though, Quanjian’s massive wealth had no impact on improving Tomic’s squad as the former Beijing Baxy boss quietly went about leading them to safety. Only five teams earned more points than Songjiang over Tomic’s 22 games in charge and, with six games of the season remaining, he was rewarded by the new owners by being told that he was going to be replaced by former Brazil and Real Madrid manager Vanderlai Luxemburgo in 2016.
The weekend before Quanjian’s takeover was officially announced, Songjiang were still bottom of the table with sixteen games to go. Tomic’s first five games in charge had produced one win and four draws, but the Croatian had just fallen to his first defeat in Xinjiang the weekend before.
In round 15, fourth placed Dalian Aerbin came to the Tuanbo Stadium along with Quanjian’s owners who were spotted watching the game. An early Mario Lucio penalty was cancelled out by Aerbin’s Bruno Meneghel, but debuting Englishman Franck Nouble struck the winner which pulled Songjiang out of the relegation zone.
Songjiang would remain above the safety line for the rest of the season and soon all the stories surrounding the club would be about lavish banquets, helicopters and big name Brazilians. None of which would have been possible if Tomic hadn’t started steering the team away from the obscurity of League Two.
Player of the Season
Much of Songjiang’s resurgence was built on squeezing results out of tight games and, to that end, Colombian centre back Juan Bolanos played a key role in organizing the defence as team captain for much of the season. Songjiang’s player of the year, though, has to be Mario Lucio whose play on the left-wing provided creativity to what was otherwise a largely functional side.
The Brazilian contributed ten goals and five assists which accounts for over half of Songjiang’s meagre 28 strikes in 2015. He also worked hard defensively, although a lack of discipline saw him dismissed a league leading three times over the course of the season.
Big things are happening at the Tuanbo Stadium where Luxemburgo has already taken the reins and the club has officially changed its name to Tianjin Quanjian. All indications are that the acquisition of veteran Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano is a done deal, with the former international apparently set to make 5 million Euros next season.
Quanjian are also, at the time of writing, on the verge of completing the 5 million Euro signing of creative midfielder Jadson from Brazilian champions Corinthians. The 32-year-old grabbed twelve goals and provided a league leading thirteen assists this season, prompting South American football expert Tim Vickery to state that he has probably been the best player on the continent this year.
Mario Lucio and Bolanos have already made way and Nouble will likely be replaced by a bigger name in the coming months. Domestically, the only addition so far has been Hong Kong international centre back Jean-Jacques Kilama who came to prominence on the mainland with two fine performances against China in the recent World Cup qualifiers.
The Cameroonian born 30-year-old arrives from Eastern and won’t take up a foreign player slot on account of his Hong Kong passport. We can expect plenty more news coming out of Tianjian this winter as Quanjian splash the cash in their quest to gain promotion at the first time of asking.
Wuhan Zall 2015 position -10th 2014 position – 3rd WEF pre-season prediction – 4th
Zall were one minute away from the Super League in 2014, but they looked a lifetime away this year. Any optimism that may have been generated by a nervy opening day win over newly promoted Hohhot Zhongyou was quickly dispelled when the Hubei side lost 1-0 at home Tianjin Songjiang in round 2.
There was a brief revival of excitement in May when the club went on a three game winning streak which culminated in a 6-0 demolition of Shenzhen FC, but that was followed by a run of seven games without victory that knocked Wuhan out of the promotion race and cost head coach Zheng Bin his job. General manager Zheng Xiong took over from his namesake and sidelined many of Zall’s veterans in favour of much younger players.
Zheng Xiong’s team selection made it quite clear that results were no longer the priority and that was just as well as he only won three of his thirteen matches in charge. Just two points from their final five games saw Wuhan drop out of the top half and into a very disappointing tenth place finish.
The aforementioned three game winning streak generated rare levels of excitement among Wuhan fans and, following that 6-0 crushing of Shenzhen, the crowd swelled for the following weekend’s visit by Beijing Institute of Technology. Zall’s opponents had picked up just four points from their last seven games and were runaway holders of the worst defensive record in the division.
The stage was set, then, for another dominant home victory that would continue Wuhan’s gathering momentum. The hosts proceeded to squander a string of early chances before finally making the breakthrough midway through the second half when Brice Jovial headed in.
With twelve minutes remaining, BIT were awarded a soft penalty for a handball and Andres Marquez tied the game from the spot. There was a sense of injustice around the Xinhua Road Stadium, but Wuhan’s earlier wastefulness meant they had blown their chance of a fourth straight victory.
Indeed, Wuhan’s next win wouldn’t come for seven more weeks and, by the time it did, a different manager was in the hot seat. This game perfectly sums up what might have been had Wuhan’s players just had that extra bit of edge and confidence.
Player of the Season
On the domestic front, attacking midfielder Yao Hanlin once again impressed, although he was unable to quite reach the heights he did last year. 20-year-old midfielder Cheng Jin, who arrived on mid-season loan from Hangzhou Greentown, is also worth a mention as the most outstanding of the four or five players born in 1995 who regularly featured in Zheng Xiong’s starting line-ups.
Only three teams conceded fewer goals than Wuhan this season and a big reason for that is Ghanaian centre back Randsford Addo who marshalled an often very inexperienced back line with poise. However, despite the fact that Wuhan’s goal scoring ratio was the fourth worst in the division, striker Brice Jovial gets our nod for player of the season.
The one time Guadeloupe international bagged thirteen of Wuhan’s 30 goals this season, but what really made him stand out was his never say die attitude that often roused Zall fans to their feet and was sadly lacking among most of his teammates. The 31-year-old never failed to chase down a lost cause and, while he was far from deadly in front of goal, was the only Wuhan player who consistently looked like a scoring threat.
It is set to be a winter of massive upheaval in Wuhan as Zheng Xiong has already expressed his desire to make major changes before the coming season. It has already been announced that Jovial, Addo and Rafa Jorda won’t be back for second seasons, and the club may well take their replacements from Argentinian side San Lorenzo who announced a partnership with Zall towards the end of last season.
The Chinese playing staff looks set for an overhaul too, as Zheng has also stated he plans to use all five domestic transfers plus the extra three clubs are allowed to make for young players. This suggests there will be a total of eleven new faces in the squad next March, which could also mean the departure of some of the club’s veterans.
Centre back Ai Zhibo and midfielders Li Hang and Song Zhiwei all under performed this season and found their playing time increasingly limited as Zheng introduced more young players. It remains to be seen whether they return in 2016.
It will also be interesting to see whether Zheng will keep faith with many of the young players who were given opportunities towards the end of the season. Aside from midfielder Long Wei, who started to look more accomplished in the last few games, only Cheng Jin and Yue Xin looked ready to start at this level and they were both on loan from Hangzhou Greentown with no word on if they will return in 2016.
With Addo gone, the club also looks decidedly lightweight on the defensive front. It looks like being a busy winter for Zall, but we probably won’t know whether it has been a successful one until a few games of the 2016 season have been played.
Qingdao Hainiu 2015 position -11th 2014 position – 12th WEF pre-season prediction – 7th
On the pitch, this was a season of mid-table consolidation for a club that remained between eighth and twelfth in the table from round 3 onward. Off the pitch, though, it was a tumultuous year with Serbian midfielder Goran Gogic tragically passing away following a mid-season training session, and Su Maozhen resigning a few weeks later after a 6-1 hammering by Hebei CFFC.
Hainiu were in a season high eighth place when the 29-year-old Gogic suffered a cardiac arrest on the team bus at the end of a light practice. Unsurprisingly, the tragedy profoundly affected the club and, not least, Su Maozhen who, according to reports, was left distraught by Gogic’s passing.
In the month that followed, Hainiu picked up just two points from four games and Su stepped down to be replaced by caretaker Sun Xinbo. With the only manager they had ever had no longer in charge, Hainiu looked in serious danger of slipping into a relegation battle.
In fact, they failed to win any of the nine games which followed Gogic’s death, but they did manage to draw six of them and hard fought victories over promotion chasing sides Harbin Yiteng and Hohhot Zhongyou in rounds 24 and 26 were enough to steady the ship and guarantee Hainiu’s safety in their second season since being promoted from League Two.
With Gogic’s death having such a major impact on the club’s season, it’s impossible to look beyond the 1-1 draw with Hunan Billows that took place less than 24 hours after it happened. Strangely, the fixture was not postponed, but at least it gave Hainiu a chance to pay tribute to Gogic, which they did by celebrating with his shirt following Gao Xiang’s opener.
Hunan levelled in the first half, but their was another chance to honour Gogic in the second half when Hainiu goalkeeper Liu Peng saved a penalty. On a day when results didn’t really matter, it also seems fitting that this game ended in a draw given that it was Hainiu’s ability to avoid defeat, rather than win games, which ultimately kept them out of trouble.
Player of the Season
Hainiu had few stand out players in 2015, so let’s give this award to Dorde Rakic. The Serbian’s output of ten goals and one assist is far from prolific but he was a close friend of compatriot Gogic and so it’s impressive that he played in the second half of the season at all. The 30-year-old missed three games following Gogic’s passing, but returned and scored five goals in his last eleven appearances.
Things have been quiet so far for Hainiu where uncertainty remains over who will take charge in 2016. Sun Xingbo guided the club through their final eleven games of the season, but there is no word yet about whether he will take the job on a permanent basis.
The same goes for the playing staff with little news coming out of the Shandong peninsula of any changes in the offing. A recent high profile deal to open up a football school in conjunction with FC Barcelona is an indication of the club’s ambition, but they will need to strengthen their playing staff this off-season if they are to step above mid-table obscurity.
Author: Jamie McIlroy
Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall.
A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.
Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.