CSL Season Preview: Can Yanbian keep the dream alive?
With their opening game less than 24 hour away, WEF takes a closer look at CSL new boys Yanbian Fude and whether we can expect another miraculous year from them in 2016.
Believe in Miracles
Yanbian’s 2015 was, to put it bluntly, unbelievable. The boys from the Korean Autonomous Prefecture did the unthinkable by cantering to the League One title and earning promotion to the Super League in the process.
What made Yanbian’s achievement so remarkable was the fact that they finished 2014 well bottom of the League One table and were only spared relegation because Chengdu Tiancheng and Shaanxi Wuzhou went bust. When South Korean manager Park Tae-ha took over the club in early 2015, he was expecting to cut his teeth in management in the backwaters of China League Two. Yet, by the middle of October, he had guided a disciplined, fit and fast breaking team into the top flight to complete one of the most sensational turnarounds in Chinese football (or probably any football’s) history.
As Guangzhou Evergrande showed by winning the 2011 Super League in their promotion season, it’s not unfathomable for Chinese clubs to make rapid progress, but that is almost always reliant on heavy investment. There was no such prolific spending in Yanbian and six members of the squad which tanked so spectacularly in 2014 were in Park’s preferred starting XI last year.
Importantly, though, three of those five changes saw the introduction of foreign forwards, Ha Tae-goon, Steve and Jailton Paraiba who terrorised League One defences with their pace in attack and bagged an impressive 52 goals between them (half scored by centre forward Ha). Behind them were a workmanlike trio of midfielders who pressed their opponents mercilessly and the dominant centre back duo of Cui Min and Zhao Ming.
It wasn’t all about out-running opponents, either. As a 34-pass goal scoring move the team pulled off against an admittedly dreadful Beijing Institute of Technology side shows, the players also know how to knock it about a bit.
Park looked back to his homeland to bring in reinforcements for 2016 and has found some good ones in the shape of Kim Seung-dae and Yoon Bit-garam. Attacking midfielder and winger Kim has been drafted in from the club Park used to play for, Pohang Steelers, and recently demonstrated he will have no problem threatening Chinese defences when he scored on his international debut against China in last August’s East Asian Cup.
Yoon, on the other hand is a former international who should add a bit more quality to the centre of midfield where he will be joined by Chi Zhongguo. The highly rated Chi left Yanbian for Shanghai Shenxin after his home town club were relegated to League Two, but suffered more disappointment as Shenxin dropped out of the Super League in 2015.
Midfielder and right-back Cui Ren followed exactly the same route as Chi and will also be seeking to avoid a third straight relegation. Another Yanbian native coming home is attacking midfielder Han Guanghui who was by far the best player on Beijing Insitiute of Technology’s sinking ship and captained China at last year’s World University Games.
Serbian centre back Nikola Petkovic will strengthen the middle of the defence, while Han Xu has been brought in from Beijing BG to provide some depth in the position. Significantly, the club also secured the permanent signing of Steve who had been on loan from Hangzhou Greentown last season.
Despite their excellent 2015, there was hardly a great demand for Yanbian’s players and they’ve managed to keep the vast majority of their squad in tact. But to make room for their new foreign signings, the club took the slightly harsh decision to let Jailton Paraiba go. The diminutive Brazilian was a joy to watch on the wing last season and the good news is that he will remain in China with newly promoted League One club Dalian Transcendence.
There is no doubt that, on paper, Yanbian’s squad is the weakest in the league. Indeed, it looked to be among the weakest in the second tier last season and their additions, while solid, have hardly set the world alight. However, we can expect the team to be compact, extremely hardworking and very efficient on the break.
The pace of Steve and Kim will threaten any defence and Ha proved last season that he is a clinical finisher. Their midfield is packed with hard working water carriers who will run through walls to cover up each other’s technical deficiencies and the centre of defence should be solid with Petkovic and Han adding to the already impressive pairing of Cui and Zhao.
Aside from a general lack of quality, the team does have obvious weaknesses, though. There is little in the way of creativity in the middle of the field and this may make it difficult for them to break to weaker teams who come to Yanji and simply sit back.
Full back is another area of concern. Neither Jiang Hongquan on the right, nor Wu Yongchun on the left looked particularly reliable last year and, while Cui Ren could replace one of them, he is coming off of a season that saw him barely getting into the first team of the Super League’s worst side. Opponents may find it tough to play through the middle against Yanbian, but they could get a lot of joy down the flanks.
Expect the team to play a defensive minded 4-3-3 that looks something like this Chi Wenyi; Cui Ren, Cui Min(Zhao Ming), Petkovic, Wu Yongchen; Pei Yunwen(Piao Shihao), Yoon Bit-garam, Chi Zhongguo; Kim Seung-dae(Steve), Ha Tae-goon, Han Guanghui(Li Xun).
Leaving out either Petkovic or Yoon could be an option which allows Park to play all three foreigners in attack, and we may see the club take advantage of their added depth at centre back to switch to five man defence in more difficult fixtures.
With their underdog status, packed crowds expected for home matches and an intriguingly remote location, Yanbian will be a lot neutrals’ favourites this season, but they will also be most people’s favourites to go down. The parallels with Harbin Yiteng circa 2014 are obvious, but anybody who writes Yanbian off as an easy three points for an opponent is in danger of looking as foolish as those who predicted them to be battling against relegation in last year’s League One.
Park’s men will certainly find life tough in the top flight and they could be on the end of one or two heavy defeats at the hands of the division’s heavyweights. But their tenacity, hard work and fitness levels are higher than many clubs who were dwelling in the bottom half of last year’s Super League and Yanbian will be competitive in the majority of games they play, and probably every match at home.
Whether that’s enough to keep them in the division remains to be seen, but we’re in the predictions game here and this article says that Yanbian will stay up this season and win many friends along the way. Tomorrow’s opener away to Shanghai Shenhua is the beginning of what promises to be a memorable year for the Yanbian faithful and anyone else who wants to tag along for the ride.
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.