League One mid(ish)-season review – Part 1: A fairytale brewing in Guizhou and only half of the “Big 4” show up
After a long hiatus, WEF’s regular League One round-up returns to bring you all the goings-on in China’s second tier. As fans of this column will know, there’s a lot to catch up on, but both of you can relax as we’re going to bring you mid-season reviews (3/5th-season reviews doesn’t have the same ring to it) on each of the 16 sides over the next few days, before providing a weekly round-up for the end of season run-in. Today’s review looks at the current top four which includes a couple of huge surprises and plenty of interesting stories. (Standings correct as of July 21st at the end of round 18)
Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng
It would have been very hard to find anybody who thought Guizhou would even make the top half before the season began, let alone be leading the table with 12 games remaining. Last season they confounded expectations by securing survival with a few games to go, but a poor late run meant they finished just a point above the drop zone.
Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. – 13th, Pts – 30
2016 – Pos. – 1st, Pts – 36
- The club’s total 0f 36 points in 18 games is already more than they’ve ever achieved in League One
- Since Li Bing took charge in round 4 they have only lost twice and are averaging 2.33 PPG
- Their average attendance has climbed from 1,871 last season to 10,520 in 2016
With Guizhou Renhe relocating from Guiyang to Beijing in January, there was some optimism that crowds would be increased from the 1,871 average they got last season, but few anticipated those swelled numbers would be watching anything more than a fight against relegation.Their winter transfer activity could be politely described as uninspired. 36-year-old Hong Kong international centre back Festus Baise came in as their ‘marquee’ signing on the back of two decent performances in World Cup qualifying matches against China. Brazilian attacker Mazola was a last minute desperation pick-up after other signings fell through, and further additions Tang Xin, Fan Yunlong and Liang Yanfeng had spent their careers as League Two journeyman or CSL reserves.
The story so far…
Guizhou are, without doubt, the Yanbian
Changbaishan Funde of 2016. Last year the Yanji based minnows confounded all expectations by storming to the League One title just one year after finishing bottom of the table, and this year it’s Guizhou’s turn to stun the second tier. With 18 games played, the club sit two points clear at the top of the table and have a four point cushion over third placed Dalian Yifang.
Things started badly for them, though, as they picked up just one point from their first three games and decided to demote manager Chen Mao to assistant coach and replace him with Li Bing. That spurred the club to go on a ten game unbeaten run, including a seven match winning streak, which saw them catapult to second in the table.
One point from their next three games made it appear as though the hot streak might be over and that they’d soon plummet down the table, but they’ve since won three on the bounce to pull themselves to the summit of what consistently proves to be China’s most unpredictable league.
There’s nothing complex about the way Guizhou play and that has proven key to their success. Perhaps taking inspiration from Leicester City’s Premier League success, Li Bing has put them in a basic quick counter-attacking 4-4-2 which uses the pace of forward Iminjan Ilhamjan and power of strike partner Yves Ekwalla Herman to put fear into every defence they face.
Ilhamjan is relentless runner who leads from the front by chasing down every long ball and lost cause, while Herman wins almost all his aerial duels. On the right-wing, Mazola’s pace and work ethic almost matches Ilhamjan’s and he offers a serious goal threat to keep defences honest.
With a combined age of 73, it’s not surprising that the centre back pairing of Iban Cuadrado and Festus Baise lack pace, but both veterans fight hard and rarely make defensive mistakes. Baise even had a spell in the midfield, where he partnered the ball playing Wang Jun who has started every game of what has been an excellent season for him.
Full backs Jiang Liang (right) and Tang Xin (left) have also had exceptional seasons so far, with Tang in particular looking absolutely immaculate defensively and raising question as to why he has spent his career either toiling in League Two or rotting in the Guangzhou R&F reserve team. It could be argued that Tang has been the best in his position in the division this season and the same could be said for goalkeeper Su Boyang who has been excellent since breaking into the first team after spending the first four games of the season on the bench. Su has conceded just eight goals in his 14 appearances this season and has produced a string of fine saves while remaining almost error free.
Player of the season
There is no doubt that Guizhou’s success so far this year has been a team effort and, as is clear above, there are plenty of players who have shone in 2016. However, it’s Ilhmajan who has best epitomised Guizhou’s season by overcoming an inferiority in talent through sheer hard work.
If Guizhou can be compared to Leicester City then Ilhamjan is their Jamie Vardy. The 30-year-old Xinjiang native was working as a sports teacher and playing amateur football until the age of 26 when Guizhou plucked him out of obscurity as a League Two club. This season, the workhorse has set the tone for how Guizhou play by chasing down everything and harrying the opposition every time they have the ball.
His output of five goals and two assists is nothing to write home about and he can go through periods in some games where every pass he plays seems to miss the target, but he’s been an integral part of what has so far been a triumph of the collective will, rather than the individual.
Three weeks ago, it looked like Guizhou were in big trouble and destined to start slipping down the table. They’d managed just one point in three games and it seemed as though teams were starting to work them out by sitting deeper and ceding possession to neutralise their counterattacking threat. But Guizhou have also adapted and proven that they weren’t just on a fluky run.
Their last two games have seen them defeat then table-toppers Qingdao Huanghai and then produce a late demolition job to hammer Zhejiang Yiteng 4-1 with four goals in the last 20 minutes. They have been fairly lucky with injuries this year and a shortage of depth could see them in trouble should a few of their starters encounter fitness problems. But they seem to have partly addressed that problem by bringing in Guangzhou Evergrande youngsters Liang Xueming and LiuHao on loan until the end of the season.
With a resurgent Tianjin Quanjian hot on their heels, as well as the theoretically vastly superior squads of Dalian Yifang and Beijing Renhe within six point of them, it’s going to be difficult for Guizhou to keep the wolf from the door until the end of the season. However, considering what they’ve achieved so far, and learning the lessons of Yanbian’s 2015, it would be hasty to say they won’t be there or thereabouts at the end of 30 games.
To say that pre-season expectations around Quanjian were high would be to deal in dramatic understatement. Never has there been such spectacular hype around a League One side whose new ownership stated in no uncertain terms that they intended to be Asian champions by 2018, and possibly sooner if they won this year’s CFA Cup.
Tianjin Quanjian – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. 9th, Pts. 36
2016 – Pos. 2nd, Pts 34
- Despite massive investment over the winter, Luxemburgo managed fewer PPG in the league (1.33) than predecessor Goran Tomic (1.45)
- The 18 points Cannavaro has taken from six games in charge is two more than Luxemburgo managed in 12 matches
- Luis Fabiano is L1’s top scorer with 15 goals in 17 games despite going on a 5 game scoreless run between rounds 3 and 7
As soon as last season finished, perpetual mid-table strugglers Tianjin Songjiang were renamed Quanjian and the club’s fabulously wealthy owners set about building a star-studded squad with former Real Madrid and Brazil manager Vanderlai Luxemburgo at the helm. No expense was spared as Luxemburgo’s Brazilian compatriots Luis Fabiano, Jadson and Geuvanio were added to the playing squad along with current and recent Chinese internationals Sun Ke and Zho Xuri. Liaoning Whowin’s Zhang Lu soon became the most expensive Chinese goalkeeper in history and a host of highly rated youngsters such as Liu Yiming, Zhang Xiuwei and Yan Zihao were plucked from Europe where they’d been honing their skills.
More prescient observers pointed out issues with the defence where the addition of Hong Kong international Jean-Jacques Kilama at centre back didn’t instill a great deal of confidence, but there was a feeling that, with Fabiano up front, Sun Ke and Geuvanio on the wings and Jadson pulling the strings in midfield, Quanjian would have more than enough firepower to steamroller sides as they marched to their inevitable title.
The story so far…
Things couldn’t have started better for Quanjian with 3-0 and 5-2 away victories over Qingdao Huanghai and Zhejiang Yiteng, respectively, and many had all but awarded them the title two games in. The wheels started coming off almost immediately, though, when they were held to a surprising 1-1 draw with Hunan Billows in their opening home game.
The side recovered to earn altogether more narrow victories in their next two matches, but then things took a spectacular turn for the worst as they went on a six game winless run which saw them slump down to eighth in the table and cost Luxemburgo his job. With Quanjian’s owners being what they are, it was no surprise they went for a big name to replace the aged Brazilian and Fabio Cannavaro was given the job amid a swarm of publicity.
The former Italy centre back’s previous stint in management in China had been an unsuccessful half season spell with Guangzhou Evergrande, but his appointment has ushered in a remarkable turnaround in the club’s fortunes. The World Cup winner has overseen six wins from six in the league and the club has climbed from eighth to second in the table over that period.
The team is packed with talent that is better than almost any on show in the rest of this division, but they are very attack heavy. The main problem under Luxemburgo was a sense of over-confidence where it looked like they thought they could just show up and win without having to try.
That was no doubt compounded by their big victories in their opening two matches and it’s telling that during their six game winless run they took the lead four times only to squander it and pick up a total of one point. Their complacency was no more evident than when they took a 1-0 first half lead away to Wuhan Zall and then all ran over to the bench to show their unity with the beleaguered Luxemburgo. There was a sense of inevitability that they would lose their lead and they duly did in a 1-1 draw.
Since Cannavaro took over they’ve looked better motivated and a far tighter unit defensively. Kilama has been consigned to the reserves under the Italian and the centre back partnership of club veteran Liu Sheng and youngster Liu Yiming have performed well under his watch. Midfielder Zhao Xuri has also greatly stepped up his performances since his former Evergrande boss took over, having looked like a below average League One midfielder earlier in the season.
It’s hard to deny, though, that it’s their attacking prowess that continues to carry them through with the Brazilian trio of Fabiano, Jadson and Geuvanio proving good enough to be difference makers in almost any game. Nowhere was that more evident than this past weekend where Quanjian toiled away to hapless basement dwellers Hunan Billows, only for two individual moments of brilliance from Fabiano and one from Geuvanio proving enough to give them a flattering 3-0 win.
Player of the season
Many eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the 35-year-old Fabiano was signing for Quanjian with many thinking it would be mistake for both club and player. The move was easy to dismiss as a waste of money for Quanjian for a player way past his best and a cynical money-grabbing move by a veteran on the verge of retirement.
There may be some truth in both of those assertions but, ultimately, Fabiano has done exactly what Quanjian are paying him to do, which is find the goals to fire them into the Super League. With 15 strikes from 17 appearances, the former Sevilla hitman is the league’s top scorer and, significantly, continues to show the same passion and hot-temper that he became well known for earlier in his career.
Because of the language barrier, it was clearly a mistake for Luxemburgo to make him captain at the beginning of the season and that role has since been given to Zhang Lu, but not a game goes by when the former Brazil international doesn’t get into an argument with a referee of opposition player in a demonstration that he does, for 90 minutes at least, genuinely care.
The most important thing, though, is that his goal scoring instincts look as sharp as ever. His knack for perfectly timing his runs is more than most League One defenders can cope with and he still manages to find the net when the team as a whole is playing badly.
Given their recent run, it’s hard to imagine them not going on to achieve the promotion the owners so strongly desire. The most worrying thing for those teams around them is that they’ve now scored 15 goals in their last four games and have also shown evidence they can grind out wins while not playing well.
Given what happened earlier in the season, it would be complacent to suggest they will just streak to the title without a hiccup, but with Cannavaro organizing and motivating them better the hiccup probably won’t be big enough to permanently derail their momentum. Of course, there is also a danger that come the end of season run-in opponents with nothing to play for will have a tendency to roll over for them – either through a lack of motivation or some other incentive. As it stands, though, they should be plenty good enough to go up without having to rely on such things to carry them through, so we will hopefully be spared some of the suspicious shenanigans which dogged last season’s promotion run-in.
Since earning promotion from League Two in 2013, Qingdao Hainiu had spent two seasons stewing in mid-table and it seemed wise to expect more of the same this season. New owners Huanghai Pharmaceuticals ushered in a name change, but not the excessive investments seen at other clubs such as Tianjin Quanjian.
Instead, Huanghai seemed to focus on promoting their links with Barcelona. Aside from a football school opened in affiliation with the Catalan giants, the Shandong side appointed former Barca youth team coach Jordi Vinyals as manager and recruited foreign players Yuri Fonseca and Marti Crespi who had spent many years plying their trade in the Spanish leagues.
Qingdao Huanghai – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. 11th, Pts. 33
2016 – Pos. 3rd, Pts. 32
- With 12 games to go, Huanghai are one point away from matching last season’s total which is the largest in their history
- Only Tianjin Quanjian have scored more than them, and only Hunan Billows have conceded less
- Since losing on the opening day, Huanghai have gone 10 home games unbeaten (W8 D2)
Changing the clubs home strip from yellow to a blue and red Barcelona knock off seemed to be jumping the shark, but at least it was clear what kind of philosophy the club was trying to introduce. That being said, domestic signings Fan Lingjiang, Godfred Karikari, Bari Mamatil and the aged Jiang Kun were hardly considered to be enough to push them on to the next level and another year in mid-table seemed to be on the cards.
The season so far…
There couldn’t be a more disappointing way to start the season than with a 3-0 home hammering by Tianjin Quanjian, but things quickly turned around as the club embarked on a run of six wins in a row between round four and nine and sat at the top of the table by the end of round 12. That unlikely climb took everybody by surprise, but things truly started getting weird in the subsequent weeks when an unexpected 0-0 home draw with strugglers Wuhan Zall was followed by a 5-0 drubbing away to Beijing Renhe.
Things suddenly swung the other way in round 15 when they tonked promotion rivals Dalian Yifang 5-2 but then proceeded to get battered again by Quanjian – this time 5-1. A 2-0 defeat by Guizhou Zhicheng two weeks ago finally saw Vinyals’s men drop off of top spot and they currently sit in third while seemingly heading in the wrong direction.
There was justifiably a lot of cynicism over Huanghai’s efforts to adopt the Barca model of play, but with Vinyals at the helm they’ve really gone for it and play the most entertaining football in the league. They play out from the back, are happy to keep the ball, but are also willing to try and create chances rather just have possession for possession’s sake.
Their good run started with Dorde Rakic leading the line in front of Yuri Fonseca who played in a free role just in behind, but the Serbian forward missed six weeks of the season with a broken collarbone leading Fonseca to take on the striking duties. Rakic’s return actually coincided with the 5-0 demolition by Beijing Renhe and, since then, Vinyals has struggled to accommodate them both in the team.
It seems that teams have worked out how to play against them by out-muscling a lightweight midfield, putting a man on Fonseca and getting their forwards in behind a vulnerable defence. In recent weeks, either Fonseca or Rakic have been left out in order to bolster the midfield, but Vinyals has yet to work out a way to turn results around while maintaining the same style of play.
Player of the season
Probably have to give it to Fonseca whose ability to drop deep from forward positions and link up play was something many teams were having difficulty dealing with earlier in the season. Since then, a combination of a drop in form and the opposition working him out has led to several poor displays, but they wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for him.
Remarkably, the team’s top goal scorer is centre back Marti Crespi who has banged in seven goals from set pieces this season and he has also proven pivotal in their build-up play by being a ball playing defender who has the composure to pass it out from the back. Defensively, however, his lack of pace has been exposed several times as part of a back four whose total number of 31 conceded goals is only topped by basement dwellers Hunan Billows.
It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to Godfred Karikari who works incredibly hard down the left wing. The Hong Kong international has missed five games through suspension this season and certainly isn’t the most creative winger in the world, but he bombs tirelessly up and down the left flank in a way that is matched by few in the division.
Things don’t look too good for the remainder as the club’s recent form has seen them pick up four points from their last five games and conceded 15 goals in the process. Now that teams are starting to wok out how to play against them, the shortage of quality among their players is becoming apparent.
Significantly, the first half of their season was also heavy on home fixtures with ten of their 15 games being in Qingdao. Huanghai have managed two wins at relegation fighters Hunan Billows and Dalian Transcendence, but have lost their other five away matches while managing to score two and concede 15. Eight of their last 12 matches are on the road, so their away form will need to turn around significantly if they are to stay in the promtion fight.
That being said, pre-season expectations weren’t that high and there are lots of positive signs for the future. It looks like the team could well slip down to fifth or sixth, but as long as the owners remain patient with Vinyals and their current way of doing things they could legitimately be building a platform for long term success. It looks like this year is just a season too soon.
When the Yifang group took over Dalian Aerbin in the second half of last season there was relentless talk about restoring China’s football city to greatness and putting it back into the top flight where it belonged. That didn’t quite happen last year, as Aerbin fell just short when they missed out on second by finishing two points behind Hebei CFFC.
Dalian Yifang – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. 3rd, Pts. 58
2016 – Pos. 4th, Pts. 32
- A quirk in the schedule meant their first five games of the season were played in Dalian
- They haven’t had the full compliment of three foreign players in their starting line-up since the second game of the season
There was a lot of controversy surrounding that promotion run-in last season (although it has subsequently gone very quiet} but there was a feeling that with some decent signings over the winter the newly named Dalian Yifang would be promotion favourites in 2016. However, despite the positive words coming out of the club, they had a fairly poor transfer window that didn’t instill confidence for the following year.
Key members of the 2015 campaign Bruno Meneghel and Nicklas Backman departed and their crop of new signings failed to inspire. Romanian international midfielder Constantin Budescu was the most exciting looking signing, while fellow foreign recruits Nyasha Mushekwi and Mohamed Bangura were underwhelming given the quality of the foreign players being added by the league’s other top teams.
Domestically, veteran centre back Cao Xuan was brought in from Hangzhou Greentown as a replacement for Backman, and Li Zhendong arrived from promotion rivals Beijing BG to add depth to the midfield. All-in-all, the squad looked no stronger than last season, but that didn’t stop the Chinese media from placing them into the “big four” of promotion favourites along with Tianjin Quanjian, Beijing Renhe and Beijing BG.
The story so far…
After failing to achieve promotion last season, Swedish manager Mikhael Stahre was under a lot of pressure to go one better this year. A slow start of four points from the opening three games was not a disaster, but problems with two of the new foreign recruits were immediately apparent. Budescu didn’t look fully fit, while Bangura just didn’t appear good enough for the first XI and Yifang were soon taking to the field with just one foreign player in the shape of Mushekwi.
Despite that, the team continued to grind out results without ever quite achieving the consistency needed to fire themselves into the top two. The summer transfer window saw the introduction of Liberian international Sekou Oliseh in place of the injured Budescu, but a 5-2 defeat by league leaders Qingdao Huanghai in round 15 seemed to be the final straw for Stahre who was fired a week later with the club sitting in third place – one point behind the promotion places.
Stahre was replaced by former Atletico Madrid B head coach Milnko Pantic who won his first game in charge away to perpetual walkovers Hunan Billows before seeing his team get demolished 3-0 away to promotion rivals Beijing BG last weekend.
Yifang have had to spend most of the season so far with just one foreign player in their side, but luckily for them that foreign player is centre forward Nyasha Mushekwi who has scored 13 times this season. The Zimbabwean has spent the majority of the year being flanked by very able wingers Sun Bo and Wang Jinxian but, under Stahre, it was ultimately the use of long balls over the top which gave the powerful Mushekwi the most joy.
Budescu’s injury left the team devoid of midfield creativity and there are signs that Pantic is trying to rectify that by moving Wang Jinxian into the number 10 role while putting new signing Oliseh on to the left wing. This is part of Pantic’s effort to play less direct football, but whether or not this bares fruit remains to be seen.
What Pantic does have it his disposal is one of the best defences in the division where the centre back Cao Xuan and Wang Wanpeng and right-back Zhu Ting have helped make up a solid defensive unit whose only weakness is at left back.. There are signs of that cracking, though, as they’ve conceded ten in their last four games, having conceded 11 in the previous 14, and Pantic need to restore that solidity if he is to guide them back into the CSL.
Player of the season
It’s hard to look beyond Mushekwi here, as he has contributed nearly half of the club’s 27 goals this season. He’s actually missed his fair share of sitters, too, but he’s quick and powerful and you’d always fancy him to beat a centre back to a long ball over the top. It will be interesting to see how he copes should Pantic continue to instill more of a slow passing style.
It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to wingers Sun Bo and Wang Jinxian who have both performed well this year. Sun was electric in the first six or seven games of the year before slowly dropping off, while Wang has kept Bangura out of the side and has given several full abcks a torrid time this year.
The heavy defeat to Qingdao Huanghai was embarrassing, but the decision to replace Stahre half way through the season with a guy who has no experience of Chinese football could prove to be a mistake. The fans were never fully satisfied with the Swede, but Pantic comes into a situation where he needs to get results quickly in a league with which he has absolutely no familiarity.
Yifang will probably be somewhere near the top two come the end of season shake-up, but Pantic’s inexperience in the division, the pitfalls of adapting to a new playing style and the recent vulnerabilities shown by the defence suggest a team that might fall a little short of promotion for the second year running.
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.