For relatively new Beijing Guoan fans, its hard to imagine the club not in the top 3 (or at the very least battling for an Asian Champions League spot). Over the past 10 seasons, Guoan have finished in the top five every year, and typically somewhere among the top three, however this season has gotten off to a disastrous start, with the club only earning six points in six matches and currently sitting in 13th place, precariously close to the relegation zone.
What makes Beijing’s struggles an even greater surprise is that, on paper at least, it appears that the team got stronger in the offseason with four new foreign acquisitions. There are a number of issues that are causing the team’s struggles beyond the obvious, a lack of goals, having only scored four times in six matches (and three coming against Hangzhou). New manager Alberto Zaccheroni is sitting in an extremely hot seat right now and needs to have a huge May to keep his job. As painful as it is to think about (and watch), I’m going to lay out what some of the key problems.
With LeTV investing heavily in the team, they are looking for results in their first year in charge of the team, but so far everything they’ve done has worked against them. They are likely to be far more antsy about changing things up than the old leadership would have been.
An even bigger factor is that despite their on-field success, Guoan has its fourth manager in the last six seasons in charge of the side. With each manager brings significant tactical changes and significant demands in putting together the right roster. The foreigners have a significant impact on the roster and the only one that was Zaccheroni’s own pick was Burak Yilmasz who, due to injury, has played less than 100 minutes this season. This has led to serious issues on the tactical side (more on that later) and forced the Italian boss into a difficult position.
Despite the high expectations of LeTV, Guoan failed to support those by bringing in domestic players to cover some obvious weaknesses and made things even harder with the sale of players like Chen Zhizhao and Li Yunqiu. Perhaps they will help to restock the side when the transfer window reopens toward the end of June, but at that point it will likely be too late for Zaccheroni.
Yilmasz, Kleber, Yu Dabao, Piao Cheng, Lei Tenglong, Zhou Ting, Song Boxuan, Lang Zheng. A pretty impressive list right there, however unfortunately for Guoan, all of those names have had to miss at least one match due to an injury. That, on top of the lack of roster moves (mentioned above), have left Zaccheroni hamstrung when it comes to putting together the team. Yilmasz was his hand picked player and was going to head up Guoan’s attack. Against Hangzhou, we saw what he was capable of, but due to injuries, he’s been out of the side for all but two matches. Tough enough to miss your main striker, but his backup has been injured and another possible option, Yu Dabao, has been out since picking up an injury with the national team at the end of March. This has forced the manager to look down to an end of the bench he never thought he’d have to before the start of the season and of course has significantly impacted the next factor.
Square pegs, round holes/Tactics
Missing so many options up top, the manager has been forced to turn to unconventional options like Zhang Chiming and Li Hanbo, even 17 year old Shan Huanhuan was thrown out for a trial by fire when he got considerable time to face off against five time league champs, Guangzhou Evergrande. An injury to Song Boxuan early in the first half against Changchun meant that Zaccheroni was forced into an early substitution and was left with few reliable attacking options on the bench, significantly impacting tactics, with Zaccheroni ultimately choosing to rotate his players around and use Renato Augusto out of position as the lone striker.
For tactics to work, it takes all eleven players to be on the same page and working together. Injuries have meant players haven’t had time to come together as they should but the bigger issue is the kind of players the manager has.
Guoan is used to having an attacking midfielder who sits just behind the striker, but Augusto, whether by his own choice, the manager’s urging, or his lack of confidence in his teammates, regularly goes far back to get the ball and push forward. Kleber’s lack of speed means that Augusto’s skills at delivering that final through ball can’t be fully utilized.
Another example is Zaccheroni’s decision to keep Xu Yunlong out of the side at the start of the season for younger options. This led to a disorganized back four and Beijing lacking a real leader on the pitch. Previously, without Xu on the pitch, Darko Matic could play that position, but his replacement by Ralf in the offseason, meant as an upgrade but so far lacking impact, means nobody has the seniority or has stepped up into that position.
Many fans have complained about Zaccheroni’s failure to make substitutions until very late in the match, but with his lack of options on the bench, he can’t fully be blamed for that. What is questionable are moves like taking Kleber off three minutes into the second half against Chongqing or doing a like for like switch of Kleber for Yilmasz against Liaoning instead of pushing for the win.
Does Zaccheroni not understand the Chinese game? Does he lack independence from the front office in decision making? Was he out of management for too long? Does the roster not fit his system? All of these are serious questions, but right now the fans are focused on placing all the blame on him, whether justified or not.
It’s widely know that Zaccheroni was not the club’s first choice (more like the third or fourth choice) and how patient the new management team will be is anyone’s guess. The Italian isn’t totally without blame for where things currently stand, one has to wonder if his winter training program was designed well enough or if he spent enough time understanding the players in his side.
He’s regularly juggled the team around and played people out of their position. The most insane was against Evergrande where he played with only three (young) defenders at the back, without an organizing presence like Xu Yulong and played both Zhao Hejing and Zhang Chengdong on their weaker side as wings. Fortunately he scrapped that and has been playing a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation in most other matches.
There is no doubt that Zaccheroni deserves part of the blame for where the club currently sits, but the percentage of that blame is much lower than what most fans have leveled on him.
Where do we go from here?
Guoan sits in a very tough position, struggling in the league and facing an insanely tough month of May. Jiangsu (2nd), Shanghai SIPG (3rd), and Hebei (5th) visit the capital while Beijing will travel to Shijiazhuang (who are very strong at home once again) and Shandong, a top side going through similar struggles, at the end of the month. There is also a CFA Cup match in Xinjiang, in many ways more difficult travel-wise than a trip abroad.
With that schedule ahead, it’s very possible Guoan may come away with only a handful of points this month, which would likely lead to the firing of Zaccheroni, but it’s time to recalibrate expectations. If the front office dumps Zaccheroni, the most likely replacement is going to be Wei Kexing, not a big foreign manager. While the club currently sits precariously close to the bottom of the table, they have played one game less than everyone else (though it is against Hebei) and a win in that match would put them squarely in the upper half of the table, where most expected them to be at the start of the year.
Having sold off or loaned a host of young players who they didn’t want to promote to the first team, it’s time to give a real look to the youngsters they kept. Zaccheroni is known as a manager who can bring through younger players and it would be good to have him in charge to get the best out of players like Shan, Du Mingyang, Li Lei, and Li Hanbo. Once Guoan is solidly clear of any relegation danger, this can be the rebuilding year the club needs if it is to mount a serious title challenge in the future.
Most importantly, he should focus on the CFA Cup match against Xinjiang. Last season, Gregorio Manzano had a clear path to the cup, but took the match against Beijing Enterprises Group too lightly and it led to Guoan being bounced from the competition and was directly connected to his firing. With no trophies in the last six seasons, fans are getting impatient and a good cup run could help assuage the anger.
The ship needs to be righted quickly. Zaccheroni hasn’t lost the locker room (yet) and the situation isn’t that desperate (yet), but if something doesn’t change soon, things could get ugly fast.