As the dust finally settles on a season which promised so much and ended delivering nothing more than crushing disappointment for Shanghai Shenhua, WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent Steve Crooks and founding editor Cameron Wilson run the rule over the good, the bad, and the Jiang Kun of the 2015 squad. As is traditional with end-of-season write-ups, prepare for some creative disagreement ahead…
Francis Gillot – 4/10 head coach – CSL record: Wins 12 – draws 6 – losses 12 – CFA Cup: Beaten finalists
Crooks: As something of a vocal anti-Gillot voice for much of the season, his post-final-whistle departure was pretty much the only palatable feature of the carnage of the cup final. At worst Gillot can be described as a fraud, at best as a man who refused to rock the boat. When his Plan A worked — i.e. have all your best players fit and in the starting XI, and hope they beat teams with inferior players — Shenhua did well. When it didn’t, his lack of a Plan B hamstrung the side awfully — an insistence on playing Tim Cahill as a lone striker when Gao Di was left benched, and his lack of first-leg substitutions coming back to bite when the side tired in extra time in the cup final second leg are just two examples of Gillot’s one-dimensional nature. Gone and not missed.
Wilson: Shenhua coaches rarely stay for more than one season, making their job a tough one – how much can really be achieved in a solitary season? Indeed, Gilliot has already joined the long list of one-season wonders at Shenhua. It’s useful to compare the Frenchman with his predecessor Sergio Batista. Shenhua scored seven more points this year than last, but Gillot had a considerably stronger squad at his disposal, particularly after the mid-season signing of Demba Ba and Mohammed Sissoko. All in all there wasn’t a big difference between this year’s Shenhua and last, Gillot did however manage three wins on the road, all outside of Shanghai, and probably got more out of the Chinese players in terms of fitness and potential, particularly Xiong Fei and arguably even Tao Jin. He also had to contend with a bad run of injuries and suspensions. However, his main downfall was relatively poor results over top sides – the 0-5 Shanghai derby defeat will linger in the minds of the blue two-thirds of Shanghai for quite some time, and the cup final defeat even longer.
1 – Geng Xiaofeng – 6.5/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 25 (2) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Improved on last year, and a deserved first-choice pick now. Geng is somewhere around the 5th-6th best keeper in China — fine for where Shenhua are right now, but perhaps a little short of where they need to be. Still prone to the odd confidence-sapping rick, but has excellent reflexes and is more commanding of his area than in the past. Will Shenhua win a trophy with Geng in nets? I want to like him a lot, but the answer is doubtful.
Wilson: Proved himself to be a decent CSL keeper this year despite pressure inside the club to make Qiu Shenjiong number one and being dropped inexplicably at the start of the season. Steady, generally a good shot stopper but positioning is suspect at times and doesn’t inspire confidence.
2 – Xiong Fei – 6.5/10 – Central Defender / fullback – Appearances: 20 (5) – Goals: 0
Crooks: A minor success story – Xiong grew over the season, as players finally given regular first team football tend to do (note to club: cf. Di, Gao & Fei, Wang). Xiong was little short of a liability initially – clearly lacking confidence, he was prone to making five-yard passes into touch and losing his man on crosses, but he toughened up and was keeping Papadopoulos out of the side on merit in the end – it was a genuine setback that he was unable to start the club’s final few games due to a nasty jaw injury.
Wilson: After years of rotting on the bench and in the reserves, Xiong Fei proved himself to be at least better than the numerous makeshift central defenders and rightbacks who have kept him out of the team in recent seasons. Francis Gillot deserves credit for getting the most out of this player. Already 28, Xiong Fei isn’t the long term answer to Shenhua’s defensive woes but he deserves extra points on account of having the character to bounce back after the sheer dross that got ahead of him in the past. Has a future at Shenhua as a squad player.
3 – Li Jianbin– 6.5/10 – Defender – Appearances: 33 (0) – Goals: 0
Crooks: As with a few other Shenhua players, I like Li a lot and rate him a little higher than many of the supporters do – equally, as with a few other Shenhua players, Li would be a better player if he could stay committed and switched-on all game every week. Three-quarters of the way to being a top-drawer CSL center-back, he really needs a strong, game-reading partner next to him to excel in the stopper role. Played better with Tao or Xiong than with Sunzu earlier in the season; two headless chickens together do not a defensive partnership make.
Wilson: One of several frustrating players at Hongkou, Li relies on his athleticism to compensate for his very poor decision-making. His overhead kick which ended in his boot smashing into Xiong Fei’s face on the last league game of the season a good example of his stupidity, plus his needless sending off in the first Shanghai Derby of the season. 90% of him is a very good defender, the remaining 10%, an accident waiting to happen. That said, his commitment and determination are commendable, perhaps with the right coaching he could blossom into a top CSL defender if its not too late.
4 – Avraam Papadopoulos – 3/10 – Central Defender – Appearances: 19 (5) – Goals: 1
Crooks: I was there when Papa scored! There was about a month of the season – marshalling the defence expertly at home to Guoan, scoring a late equalizer at Tianhe – when Papa looked like the experienced international defender Shenhua thought they had signed. For the remainder of the time, he was a genuine liability – up there with Mathieu Manset as one of the worst players seen at Hongkou in recent years, overseas signing or not. I actually have a lot of sympathy for Papa – he is clearly a committed footballer, whose body simply cannot do what it used to following a serious injury a couple of years back.
Wilson: Shenhua have a tradition of signing at least one medicore foreign defender every season and 2015 was no exception. Papa came with an impressive pedigree but looked to be carrying an injury due to the amount of mis-timed tackles and interceptions – no-one with his level of experience could perform so badly in some games without there being mitigating circumstances. He had spells of solid play, but one always feared a critical mistake was never far away. Having an Australian passport meant he was kept on mid-season as an AFC player whilst other foreigners made way, his signing caused a domino effect in terms of who could go and who could not.
5 – Wang Shouting – 4/10 – Defensive midfield – Appearances: 16 (10) – Goals: 0
Crooks: A backwards step for Wang – previously a reliably water-carrier, he was comfortably upstaged by Wang Yun this season and offers little other than wild lunges and speculative shots from range. Needs to knuckle down or be let go.
Wilson: Not fancied by Gillot at all in the first third of the season, Wang has always been a journeyman at Hongkou and this year showed clear signs of regression. Poor tackles and endless wasted possession, one of many players who need to be shown the door.
8– Zhang Lu – 6/10 – Midfielder / fullback – Appearances: 22 (3) – Goals: 0
Crooks: A good signing, even if he can look shaky defensively at times – perhaps not surprising given his natural position is further up the pitch. Could be a starter at right-wing in a re-jigged side if a defender is signed; would certainly be a great option to have as first reserve or an impact sub.
Wilson: Yet another victim of Shenhua’s crazed transfer policy, midfielder Zhang spent much of the season at rightback, before being displaced by Xiong Fei, ironically a rightback who was displaced by right-midfielders and midfield play makers before. Zhang looked comfortable on the ball and has a determination about him. Should really see more time in his natural position, perhaps that can happen next season. A solid squad player for the future.
9 – Demba Ba- 8/10 – Striker – Appearances: 16 (0) – Goals: 12
Crooks: The best striker in the CSL for my money – when he’s in the mood, and with even the most meager of service (two of Demba’s goals were direct assists from Geng Xiaofeng), Ba is simply too good for any defence in the league, with the possible exception of Hengda. Has to stay, and has to be given service – if so, there is no reason Ba shouldn’t score 20 goals next season, provided a real football coach comes in and can keep the #9 motivated and tactically engaged.
Wilson: Drogba mark II except younger, paid, and able to hang around longer. His home debut against Beijing Guoan was one of the most memorable of any Shenhua player for quite some time. Explosive and athletic, the long-legged Senegalese is one of the best strikers in the league, and his performances are to match for the most part.
10– Gio Moreno – 7/10 – Attacking Midfielder – Appearances: 30 (0) – Goals: 7
Crooks: A curious case – Gio was genuine star power in much worse sides than Shenhua’s 2015 vintage, and kept the side’s league placing semi-respectable almost single-handedly at times. Possibly the classic example of someone who thrives only as the biggest fish in a small pond – Gio was hugely disappointing since the arrival of Ba and Sissoko (one rather important wonder-strike aside) and showed few signs of developing an understanding with any of his co-stars. Neither the player nor the captain he was previously; 2016 will be a big year for Moreno, who remains potentially the most naturally-gifted footballer playing in Asia.
Wilson: Gio continued in his inimitable vein this season, frequently changing colour from the sublime to ridiculous with the ease of a frightened chameleon. His overhead kick in the cup edition of the Shanghai Derby was one of the best goals scored anywhere in world football this year, yet his performance in the cup final was at the opposite end of the scale. Gio has yet to learn that the gulf between him and the rest of the squad is quite a bit less than it was a couple of seasons ago and he needs to play as a team player. Really not fit to be captain in any shape or form, yet his genius lights up the entire league on a fairly regular basis.
11 – Lv Zheng – 6/10 – Right winger – Appearances: 22 (9) – Goals: 3
Crooks: See Li Jianbin – another player I want to rate more highly, if only he could stay focused. Some great dribbling and quality finishes were interspersed with wasted possession, missing an open goal, and running down countless blind alleys over the season. Almost identical goal & assist stats to golden boy Cao Yunding – both need to up their game’s consistency and live up to potential if the side are to succeed in 2016.
Wilson: Another player in the “frustrating” category, Lv often shows good close control and speed, alongside a good first touch. However, his shooting ability is appalling, this season he missed several chances when it looked easier to score. Also not a great crosser of the ball which isn’t good if you are a wide player, and badly lacking in football intelligence. Nevertheless, Lv definitely improved the squad this year and had some very good games – another solid squad player.
12 – Paulo Henrique – 7/10 – Forward – Appearances: 11 (1) – Goals: 6
Crooks: Wait, you mean the Liaoning player? The Demba Ba fanfare and cup-final trauma have almost completely erased the fact that Henrique was absolutely crucial to Shenhua for the first half of the season – when fit and in the team, the side could live with anyone – without Henrique it was back to watching long balls bounce slowly back off Tim Cahill. I didn’t really rate Henrique in 2014, but he added some real determination and end-product, and can consider himself a little unfortunate to have disappeared – while Ba is a clear upgrade, there were other areas of the side which needed fixing more.
Wilson: Scoring a hat-trick on the opening day of the season against Shenxin, the thickset Brazilian would score three more for Shenhua including another in the second game against Shenxin before being shipped out on loan mid-season to make way for Demba Ba. As such Henrique became yet another victim as he was sucked into Shenhua’s inescapable transfer black hole. This was unfortunate as his running both off and on the ball gave Shenhua a much-needed attacking dimension which was largely absent after his departure. Arguably the best foreigner of the first half of the season, a combination of Shenhua’s perverse recruitment policy and AFC player rule meant he had to go. Presumably will be released after returning from loan.
13 – Stoppila Sunzu – 5/10 – Central defender – Appearances: 13 (0) – Goals: 1
Crooks: One of those players who looked a lot better than he actually was. For an international center-back, Sunzu has disturbingly little ability to read the game or mark – his game is all about lung-busting runs and last-ditch tackles, which isn’t really the mark of the pedigree center-back. Unable to organize himself, let alone a multi-lingual defence, Sunzu was not really missed followinig the mid-season transfer window.
Wilson: Another victim of transfer circumstance, he was loaned out mid-season as Shenhua attempted to buy their way out of trouble again. A talented defender yet one who would benefit from playing alongside someone more solid than Li Jianbin, he probably needed more time to settle in, there was no time for an African international in his prime at Shenhua.
14 – Mohamed Sissoko– 7.5/10 – Defensive midfielder – Appearances: 14 (1) – Goals: 1
Crooks: A proper ball-winning midfielder. There is absolutely no nonsense with Mo Sissoko – he wins the ball, he keeps it, he lays it off. Not the man to look to for creativity, but there are many others to do that – a key cog in the machine if Shenhua are to continue to improve. Gets a bonus point for his great celebration after absolutely nailing a penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out.
Wilson: Added bite and practical functionality to Shenhua’s midfield, his telescopic legs seemed to suck balls out of the air and onto the deck in milliseconds before recycling them or pulling out a pass no-one else saw to create chances or move the play on when other players would still be struggling to hold the ball or make anything other than a backwards pass.
17 – Tim Cahill– 7.5/10 – Attacking midfielder – Appearances: 34 (0) – Goals: 12
Crooks: 2015-era Tim Cahill is a real curate’s egg of a player – he is either scoring goals (and quite a lot of them), or contibuting absolutely nothing meaningful. Never stops running or trying, and you can’t argue with the goal haul, but Shenhua fudged a big decision in extending both Cahill and Moreno’s contracts – you can perhaps carry one non-contributing star-power #10 for their moments of brilliance in the CSL, but you really can’t shoe-horn two of them into a side and expect it to work.
Wilson: An odd season from Tim to say the least. He did little of note for most of the first half of the season, before suddenly scoring every week just when it looked like the club was thinking of moving him on. A real team player, his fighting spirit engaged the fans and pulled the squad out of apathy in some games, but he was powerless to stop Shenhua playing like absolute gash in most of their away games. However, his courage, persistence, experience and most importantly goals, can’t be ignored.
18 – Gao Di – 4/10 – Forward – Appearances: 10 (14) – Goals: 2
Crooks: I like Gao a lot, but 2015 has been a year to forget – admittedly not necessarily the player’s own fault, unless something went on between him and Gillot which we aren’t privy to. A willing trier when inevitably deployed on the left wing as a substitute, Gao is a right-footed penalty-box poacher who plays off the shoulder of the last defender. Don’t expect him to beat a man with trickery or bang in a left-footed cross — it’s not his game. Didn’t help himself with an awful first-half performance in the home game against Chongqing when he was finally given a go in his best position – it really can’t be good for a player’s confidence to then immediately hook him and push him further and further to the fringes. Hopefully 2016 can be a comeback year under a better coach.
Wilson: A very disappointing season for last season’s bright spark Gao Di, he wasn’t even on the bench towards the end of the season and spent a grand total of 45 minutes playing in his natural position this year. Not fancied by Gilliot, Gao has the talent to play a full-time role in Shenhua’s attack somewhere next season. Another solid squad player with a good career ahead of him if given the chance.
19 – Zheng Kaimu – 4/10 – Defensive Midfielder – Appearances: 3 (4) – Goals: 0
Crooks: We learned last year that Zheng can’t play center-back; but the opportunities for a fourth-choice defensive midfielder aren’t great. Needs to be sent out on loan or trusted in the team – there is a quality midfield destroyer in there, but it’s only going to come out with regular first team football and trust.
Wilson: It’s sad to see Zheng slowly get less pitch-time each year after his breakout season under Jean Tigana three years ago. This season he barely played enough games to be included in this ratings piece, there’s little can be said for him other than it’s not going to get easier for him to break into the team as time goes on. Another player who suffers from confidence problems after not being given enough first team opportunities.
20 – Wang Yun– 8.5/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 33 (1) – Goals: 3
Crooks: It’s no secret that NTN has a bit of a thing for Wang Yun. The workrate, the range of passing, the winding-up of the referee and opponents – what’s not to love? I was pleased to be proved completely wrong about Wang’s quality and commitment to the cause. NTN’s player of the season – however he really, really needs to be taken off dead-ball delivery since it just isn’t working.
Wilson: A real revelation and this correspondent’s player of the year, Chinese or foreign, he made many who criticized his signing eat their words with masterful and solid performances in midfield week in week out. Solid technique, always alert and looking for the pass, it’s a tragedy for Shenhua that Wang is already 32 – why couldn’t he have been signed years ago? It’s probably no coincidence that his former team, Shenxin, finally got relegated the first year without him. His only real weakness is his relatively poor set-piece skills.
21 – Jiang Kun – 1/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 1 (7) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Last season was clearly a freak – Jiang Kun’s mini-renaissance is well and truly over. How someone so patently over the hill could be first-choice sub when chasing the game on numerous occasions says something very bad about the club hierarchy, the first-team coach or, in this case, both.
Wilson: After reinventing himself last season as an elder statesman able to bring some degree of nous to a squad lacking any kind of depth whatsoever, Jiang should have had the common sense, and good grace, to go out on a high at the end of last year. However he stubbornly continued to moonlight as a professional footballer, making regular cameo appearances off the bench in games where the result was already beyond doubt, depriving youth players of desperately-needed pitch time. Should have retired at least three seasons ago, his skills are still there but the body gave up long ago, the presence of a chain-smoking 38-year-old on the same pitch as multi-million pound glamour foreign signings next season would be deeply embarrassing for all concerned.
22 – Qiu Shenjiong – 6/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 11 (0) – Goals: 0
Crooks: A reliable and passionate back-up, and a man who bleeds blue. A comforting presence on the bench – partially since few CSL clubs can call upon a better reserve, and partially since it means he’s not in the starting line-up.
Wilson: “Big Bull” continued his rebirth as a strong and confidence-inspiring custodian this season and didn’t do anything particularly wrong other than just not being quite as good a keeper as Geng Xiaofeng is when he plays to his potential. Very much an ideal backup keeper, one imagines Qiu will hang around Shenhua until such times as he retires from the game. Being relatively young for a keeper at 30, he may be a fixture in the Shenhua squad for years to come if he can stay motivated.
23 – Bai Jiajun – 8/10 – Fullback – Appearances: 32 (1) – Goals: 1
Crooks: Bai is as Bai was – a season of quality defending, goal-line clearances, endless running, and neat link up-play. Hit his quota for stupid annual sending-off pretty early on at Shanghai stadium; hopefully a fixture in the side for years to come, and almost all of his team-mates should look to Bai as an example of commitment and consistency.
Wilson: Always dependable and completely committed in the tackle despite being probably the shortest guy in the league, Bai has his hot-headed moments but by and large his tenacity is something Shenhua badly need at left back. It’s a pity they can’t clone him because they have needed the same at right-back for years.
28 – Cao Yunding – 6.5/10 – Attacking Midfielder– Appearances: 22 (3) – Goals: 3
Crooks: Oh, Cao. For the first month of the year you were the “Chinese Maradona” we have always wanted you to be – after coming back from injury you were the lazy, selfish waster you have been for the last couple of years. Needs to know that his first-team place is not a birthright. It’s telling that the only really good football Cao has played in the last few years was in angry substitute performances under Batista and in the first month of a new coach’s tenure; it’s almost as if the boy’s motivation is holding him back from being a regular star performer.
Wilson: In the first half of the season, Cao was back to his best, pulling back the years to his emergence on the scene with Shenhua back in 2011, with form that led to rumours of a China call-up. However, the second half of the season didn’t go so well and injury and inconsistency plagued Cao once again. For this correspondent at least, Cao definitely improved this year, even if it was two steps forward and one back, and let us not forget he’s not naturally a left winger which is how he is played these days. However he’s forged a very good understanding with Bai Jiajun on the left which has plenty of potential for development, leaving Shenhua’s left side in relatively good shape compared to other areas.
29 – Fan Linjiang– 3/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 5 (4) – Goals: 1
Crooks: A big step back. Is he a left-back? Is he a central midfielder? Didn’t really appear to be either in his reserve appearances this season; needs to show us whether last season’s passable jack-of-many-trades or this season’s competent-at-none is the real Fan Linjiang.
Wilson: I’m afraid it looks like Fan just doesn’t have what it takes to play at CSL level. Appeared something like 15 times last year, and looked alright but this year he was seldom seen even though he appears to be a favourite in the club having been there since he was a youth, and being a local. The reality however for Fan is that he turned 26 this year and really it would be in his own interests to continue his professional career elsewhere if he is serious about playing football.
30 – Tao Jin – 6/10 – Defender – Appearances: 8 (1) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Wow – Tao Jin does exist and is not some odd Shanghainese squad-list rumour. Furthermore, he’s a half-competent center-back and can’t really be faulted much for his performances when pressed into action due to injuries and Papadopoulos during the latter third of the season. A solid back-up but perhaps not first-team quality, certainly if Shenhua have real Asian Champions’ League ambitions.
Wilson: Relatively speaking, a remarkable season for the forgotten man of Hongkou. First drafted into the Shenhua squad as a 21-year-old in 2006, until the start of this season, Tao had only appeared in less than 20 games for Shenhua, so his tally of eight starts this season represents something of a breakout year for Tao at the ripe old age of 30. Whilst he looked off the pace in his rare appearances in previous years, this season he actually looked like a reasonably solid defender for a man of his age with so little first team football under his belt – indeed he almost scored with a header during Shenhua’s infamous cup final defeat to Jiangsu Sainty. Last year we pondered why he remained at the club given his abject lack of first team football, and why the club held onto him. Now he leaves observers scratching their heads even more given that actually did a good impression of a solid central defender this year – why has he been used so little up until now?
All player stats include CSL and CFA cup games
What do you think? Generous or harsh? Leave your thoughts below.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015