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League One mid(ish)-season review – part 2: Beijing teams struggle but signs of revival in Shenzhen

After looking at the top 4 in our last League One mid-season review, we now take a look at the fortunes of the teams placed between 5th and 8th over the first 18 rounds of the season. This includes two capital city clubs who are falling short of expectations, a Shenzhen side on the road to recovery and one team who are exactly where they expect to be. (all info accurate as of July 21st – prior to this past weekend’s round 19.

Beijing Renhe

Pre-season expectations

The early phases of Renhe’s pre-season were occupied with sealing the club’s relocation from Guiyang to Beijing before the CFA’s moratorium on switching cities came into place on January 10th. Deciding that the recently relegated club’s future lay with bright lights of Beijing, rather than the provincial charms of Guiyang, Renhe’s ownership opted to move a significant distance for the third time in a ten year journey which has seen them travel from Shanghai to Xi’an to Guiyang to Beijing.

Beijing Renhe – Quick Facts

2015 – Pos. – 15th (CSL), Pts – 29

2016 – Pos. – 5th, Pts – 30

  • Renhe have take 24 point from 9 home games for a league high average of 2.67 PPG
  • On the road, Renhe have picked up 6 points from 9 matches with o.67 PPG – only three clubs have a worse record
  • Recent history is against Renhe winning promotion as only one of the seven teams relegated over the last four has managed to get back into the CSL (Henan Jianye – 2013)

Many justifiably questioned the wisdom of uprooting the club from a city where they had been drawing over 15,000 fans a match to become the third team in a market where the second team was struggling to attract an average crowd of 5,000. However, it was hard to doubt that a strong second tier squad gave Renhe a decent chance of giving the Super League it’s first ever Beijing derby in 2017. It’s easy to forget that among all the transitions from Inter Shanghai to Shaanxi Chaanba to Guizhou Moutai to Beijing Renhe, that the “franchise” had actually been in the top flight since 2002 – a longevity only bested by Beijing Guo’an, Shanghai Shenhua, Shandong Luneng and Tianjin TEDA.

It’s also easy to forget that this team was competing in the AFC Champions League in 2014 and looked to have built a stronger squad for the coming season by the time the rigmarole over their move to Beijing had died down. The return of Belgian-Taiwanese right-back Xavier Chen and useless South Korean centre back Park Ju-sung to their home countries was not a major loss, and the departure of Brazilian attackers Hyuri and Ricardo Santos should have been off-set by the big money capture of Nikica Jelavic from West Ham United.

The pick up of three centre backs – Yi Teng on loan from Guangzhou Evergrande and veterans Sun Jihai and Wang Qiang – clearly showed that the was trying to rectify their main weakness from 2015, and the maintenance of a slew of decent domestic players such as Zhang Chenglin, Rao Weihui, Zhu Baojie, Chen Jie and Wang Gang was complimented by the decision of Bosnian midfield duo Zvjezdan Misimovic and Sejad Salihovic to stick around.

Of course, the other major factor which made Renhe strong favourites for an immediate return to the CSL was the appointment Wang Baoshan as manager. Having previously guided Chengdu Blades into the top flight, the 53-year-old took Chonqing Lifan to the 2014 League One title and a mid-table CSL finish the following season to solidify his credentials as a top manager at this level.

The story so far…

Bizarrely enough for a team who has absolutely no historic connection with their new home city and attracts a crowd which officially numbers an average of just over 5,000 per match (more likely around 3,000 as per WEF correspondent Adem Ali), Renhe’s major issue this season has been the remarkable disparity between their home and away form. Despite playing in front of sparse, often elderly crowds in a city that is relatively easy for opposing teams to reach, Renhe’s home record of eight wins and one defeat at the crumbling Fengtai Stadium easily makes them the best home side in the division.

Misimovic taking apart Qingdao Huanghai earlier in the season

Misimovic taking apart Qingdao Huanghai at the Fengtai Stadium

Away from Fengtai it’s an entirely different story with the team picking up a paltry six points from nine road matches, with the solitary victory coming from an injury time winner against Wuhan Zall. Wang Baoshan has often put the team’s inconsistency down to injury troubles which have variously seen Misimovic, Wang Qiang, Zhang Chenglin, Rao Weihui, Salihovic and Sun Jihai miss game time, but a simple glance at the fixture list makes it clear their failure to put a run together is part of the home-away paradigm.

As it stands, Renhe are four points adrift of the promotion places and six points short of league leaders Guizhou Zhicheng. The irony of an unfancied side based in Guizhou topping the division ahead of Renhe will be lost on nobody and it’s poignant that their only dropped points of the season at Fengtai have come at the expense of Zhicheng.

The team

Injuries have dogged the side throughout the season, but for the majority of the year Misimovic has been relied upon to provide the creativity for an otherwise surprisingly workmanlike side. There have been other flashes of brilliance from Wang Gang on the right-wing and the occasional fabulous long shot from Salihovic, but Jelavic has only managed to make his physical attributes count for seven goals and the team as a whole has flattered to deceive.

Indeed, Jelavic has only managed as many goals as Qingdao Huanghai’s Spanish centre back Marti Crespi and it’s no coincidence that all of his strikes, and two of his three assists, have come at home. Similarly, their defence has been very tight at Fengtai – conceding 5 in 9 games – but has been far looser away. Their total of 15 goals conceded still makes them the second stingiest in the division, though, and reflects the essentially conservative nature of their 4231.

Player of the season

Jelavic’s seven goals are nothing to write home about, while Misimovic has looked absolutely unplayable in some games (namely the 5-0 demolition of Qingdao Huanghai) and overweight and languid in others. With a rare combination of height, bulk and speed, Wang Gang has really excelled at this level on the right-wing, but his final output has been lacking with just two goals and four assists.

Nikica Jelavic has only managed a disappointing 7 goals this season

Nikica Jelavic has only managed a disappointing 7 goals this season

Instead, Renhe’s player of the season so far is Yi Teng who has quietly gone about being a commanding centre back in a season where Wang Qiang, Zhang Chenglin or Sun Jihai were expected to be the stars in the position. English Football Hall of Famer Sun has missed the entire season through injury/media work, while Zhang has been preferred at left back when he’s been fit. Wang has been Yi’s partner for most of the season but has looked far more ill-disciplined and error prone than his less experienced sidekick.

The most impressive thing about Yi this season has been his physical composure. He has shown enough strength to compete with foreign centre backs and is yet to make “the terrible mistake” that is pretty much expected of every centre back two or three times a season at this level. The 26-year-old has shown some vulnerabilities in recent matches, but not enough to undo a season that looks like proving that, at 26, he is worth more than just being a perpetual Guangzhou Evergrande loanee.

Prospects

It’s relatively simple – improve their away form without showing a significant dip in home displays and they’re in with a very good shot at promotion. However, one major issue of note could be how they use former Swedish international Guillermo Molins who they signed from Malmo to replace Salihovic.

With Salihovic deputising at left-back for the injured Zhang Chenglin for several games, it was clear that the Bosnian’s midfield services were no longer sought after by the club, but the problem comes from how Molins fits into the first team. The Uruguayan born player has been a winger for much of his career, so it was reasonable to assume that he would replace either Wang Gang or Rao Weihui on one of the flanks.

Renhe manager Wang Baoshan has a lot to think about in the coming weeks

Renhe manager Wang Baoshan has a lot to think about in the coming weeks

Worryingly for Renhe fans, in Molins’s full debut last weekend he was played as a strike partner for Jelavic, while the team switched to a 532. This game was away to relegation fighters Dalian Transcendence and they lost 3-1 as part of a shambolic performance.

The worry is that with Sun Jihai due for an imminent return from injury, Wang Baoshan is trying to switch to the five man defence which best suits the near-40-year-old icon. That’s how Wang accommodated him into his Chongqing Lifan side last season and he may be prepping something similar going forward.

Conversely, there could be a realisation that the 532 formation was an absolute mess and Molins will be moved out to the wing. Should that happen, all that may separate Renhe from an immediate return to the CSL is the ability to win four or five games away from home.

Shenzhen FC

Pre-season expectations

Shenzhen’s fall from grace continued in 2015 as they flirted with relegation in a far more dangerous way than they had in any of their previous four years in League One. Ultimately, the inaugural Super League champions finished two points above the drop zone, although they had secured survival a couple of weeks earlier.

Shenzhen FC – Quick Facts

2015 – Pos. – 12th, Pts – 31

2016 – Pos. – 6th, Pts – 30

  • Shenzhen are the only current League One 1 side to have previously been CSL champions
  • Shenzhen is the largest Chinese city without a Super League team

Having had three different managers in 2015, the club got a safe pair of hands in the shape of new manager Tang Yaodong who had previously guided Henan Jianye to promotion in 2013. Perhaps, more importantly, new investment also ushered in a period of financial stability in which players could expect to get paid on time and generous win bonuses would provide extra motivation.

The signing of Franco-Brazilian Helton was expected to improve defensive solidity, while Aboubakar Oumarou’s acquisition from Serbian club Partizan looked like it could add a real dynamism to the attack. The club also made several domestic signings , the most notable of which was veteran midfielder Xu Liang.

34-year-old veteran Xu retired under a cloud from Shanghai Shenhua at the end of the 2014 season, but his creative abilities clearly had the potential to do a job in League One. The signing of Brazilian born recent Hong Kong international Paulinho was expected to add another level of creativity to the attack, while Zhou Yajun was signed to start in goal after spending an undeserved year in the Henan Jianye reserves.

Prior to the March 12th season kick-off, it looked as though Shenzhen would have what it took to comfortably beat the drop, but lacked the stuff to climb above mid-table in what would be a re-building year.

The story so far…

The team surprised many when they took ten points from their first four games and found themselves in second place early on. They then lost four from their next five to slip down to seventh before recovering with three wins from four.

Veteran midfielder Xu Liang (20) was an integral part of Shenzhen's early season form

Veteran midfielder Xu Liang (20) was an integral part of Shenzhen’s early season form

After round 12 the team was in an impressive fourth place, but they then took one point from their next three games without a single goal scored. At some stage during this run the ownership clearly decided they wanted to take the next step and chase promotion this season and it seemed that, despite his previous achievements, Tang didn’t cut the mustard.

The tipping point came when the 54-year-old went against the ownership’s wishes at a post-match press conference by stating he wanted to keep the club’s all-time leading goalscorer Babacar Gueye on the books through the summer transfer window. That was the catalyst for Tang’s exit and the surprising option to replace him was former Dutch international midfielder Clarence Seedorf, while sometimes Jamiacan international striker Deshorn Brown was brought in as the somewhat underwhelming replacement to replace Gueye.

The team

They’ve played a 4231 under both managers and the roles of Oumarou and Xu Liang have been pivotal. Oumarou has been an absolute monster down the left wing where he has bullied opposition right-backs with his physical strength and speed.

Conversely, Xu’s mobility is limited, but his set pieces, through balls and lofted passes have been exceptional for most of the year and it has generally seemed that when he’s played well, Shenzhen have, too. The addition to Helton to the defence has greatly strengthened it, as has the transition of Geng Xiaoshun from shambolic centre back to vaguely competent right-back.

It’s also worth noting that the 33-year-old Li Fei is going through somewhat of a career renaissance as he took advantage of a long term injury to Paulinho to establish himself as a dynamic attacking midfielder. There have been significant adjustments under Seedorf which will be addressed below, but it’s remarkable how much of a turnaround Tang Yaodong was able to instill while only really introducing three new outfield players to the 2015 first XI.

Player of the season

The player of March/April was unquestionably Xu Liang with Li Fei a close second. In the early stages of the season, Xu was a creative whirlwind who could also level an accurate long shot or pinpoint set-piece but, while he’s probably remained one of the best Chinese creative players in the division, his levels have dropped since he missed most of May through injury.

Oumarou goes on a familiar rampaging run against Wuhan Zall

Oumarou goes on a familiar rampaging run against Wuhan Zall

Li Fei has been there all year, but it does look like his legs have faded and he’s looked less and less like a dynamic workhorse as the season has progressed. Oumarou, on the other hand, has grown and grown as the season has gone on and is an absolutely devastating left-winger when he is on his game.

The Cameroonian set the tone for the kind of year he was going to have when he absolutely bullied Xinjiang right back Xu Qing on the opening day, but he has regularly dominated the opposition since the season began. It’s really not a massive surprise that the only two games that Oumarou has missed this season have been lost, and his nine goal haul underplays his overall impact on the attack.

Prospects

With the team four points off the promotion places a year after battling relegation, the appointment of Seedorf looked like the hiring of a big name for the sake of him being a big name. The Dutchman’s managerial career had consisted of one failed spell at AC Milan and it was hard to see how he would be able to apply that limited experience to a League One promotion chase.

His reign is just two games in, but it seems clear that Shenzhen are not going to be scared to attack under his watch. The biggest sign of that are the unfettered performances of right-winger Cai Jingyuan. The flair player had only started eight of 16 games under Tang Yaodong, but has started both matches ahead of the more defensive Tan Binliang since the Dutchman took over and has looked like the genuine attacking threat that he did last season, rather than just an extra body to support the defence.

Seedorf is till tweeking his ideal first XI, but things should definitely be interesting and Deshorn Brown’s hat-trick on his home debut last week is a positive sign. Shenzhen look like they could have a decent run at the promotion places, but it’s hard to see them having quite enough to make it to the Super League this season. A finish anywhere between third and eighth wouldn’t be a surprise, though,

Beijing BG

Pre-season expectations

When the Enterprises Group took over Beijing Baxy in 2014, their stated goal was promotion within two years. Last year, the club missed out by four points thanks to an inconsistent season, and Serbian coach Aleksander Stanojevic was kept on under the premise that he would be able to guide the club to the CSL in 2016.

Beijing BG – Quick Facts

2015 – Pos. – 4th, Pts – 56

2016 – Pos. – 7th, Pts – 29

  • BG’s manager Aleksander Stanojevic is one of only three in the division to have remained consistently in charge since the end of last season
  • Four of BG’s regular first-teamers (Yan Xiangchuang, Xu Dong, Bu Xin and Liu Yi) have been signed from Zhejiang Yiteng within the last two seasons

To help the former Beijing Guo’an boss, Nigerian hitman Leke James was brought in from Aalesunds FK and some serious domestic strengthening took place. For the second year in a row, Harbin Zhejiang Yiteng were raided with 2015’s breakthrough centre back Liu Yi and electric left-winger Bu Xin both coming in to strengthen BG’s squad.

The addition of veteran midfielder Yu Tao from relegated club Shanghai Shenxin bolstered the team further, but it was obvious that Stanojevic was disappointed that the club was unable to get their stuff together in time organize a replacement for Colombian striker Carmelo Valencia.

Given the strength of their first eleven, BG were justifiable promotion favourites, but there was a worry about squad depth which has proven to be very prescient.

The story so far…

Their 2016 has really not been that different to their 2015 with the fundamental issue being a lack of consistency. They’ve only managed to achieve two wins in a row twice and haven’t claimed full points from three on the trot all season.

In terms of patterns, there is no obvious rhyme or reason to BG’s failure, but they have had some serious injury and suspension issues. James, Valencia, Bu Xin, Yu Tao and Wang Changqing have all missed varying periods of the season through injury, while Montenegrin centre back Nikola Vujadinovic served a six game suspension for a spitting incident in Xinjiang after he had been accidentally stamped on.

Whatever their excuses, BG currently stand five points adrift of the promotion places having played an extra game.

The team

At the outset of the season, they looked like they’d be a very attacking side. James and Valencia would lead the line in a 442, while Yan Xiangchuang and Bu Xin would provide significant attacking ooomph from the right and left wings, respectively. In reality, though, Stanojevic was always reluctant to play such a balls-out line-up and actually started the season in a 532 formation that seemed destined for failure.

Yan Xiangchuang has been excellent this season

Yan Xiangchuang has been excellent this season

Initially, the 532 looked like it was going to be abandoned, but with James and Valencia being injured and Bu Xin not being trusted to do defensive work, Stanojevic has felt he’s had no choice but to play it in recent games. That’s actually meant more of a 5311 with the unfancied Jin Hui playing as striker and Yan Xiangchuang tucking in behind him. It’s interesting to note, though, that with James back to fitness and new signing Rubin Okotie in the squad, Stanojevic stuck with same line-up with James on the bench in last week’s 3-0 hammering of Dalian Yifang.

Another key reason for the adoption of the 532/5311 is the collapse of Liu Yi’s form following the suspension of Vujadinovic. The 27-year-old appeared to be one of the breakthrough stories of 2015 after starring for Harbin Yiteng. However, his performances became more and more erratic after Vujadinovic left the team and he currently looks to be the fourth choice centre back after the Montenegrin, Tang Jiashu and Wang Cun,

Player of the season

This is an easy choice as veteran Yan Xiangchuang has excelled while those around him have struggled. The 29-year-old has only missed 14 minutes of action all season has been an ever-present while all their other stars have fallen by the wayside. He’s the joint top scorer with six goals, and his driving runs have been a threat all season – be they from the right-wing or in-behind the striker as they have been in the last month.

It’s rare that a Chinese player is so obviously the outstanding player in his team, but Yan has continued to prove that he probably should have spent the last two seasons plying his trade in the CSL.

Prospects

Rubin Okotie scored on his debut for BG but there are questions over how he and Leke James will fit into the same team

Rubin Okotie scored on his debut for BG but there are questions over how he and Leke James will fit into the same team

As it stands, BG are five points adrift of the promotion places having played an extra game. That doesn’t make them look like promotion candidates, but given all the injury and suspension issues they’ve gotten through, it’s hard to rule them out of being one of the main contenders in the final run-in.

One of their main problems is whether or not Stanojevic has the guts to play James and Okotie up front while giving the likes of Bu Xin and, especially, Yan Xiangchuang the freedom to attack from deeper positions. It’s a delicate balance, but Stanojevic’s conservative nature hasn’t seemed well-suited to BG’s playing personnel over the last year and a half. If the Serbian can work it out without making his own defence too porous, BG could be the serious promotion contenders their owners expect them to be. That’s a big if, though.

Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard

Pre-season expectations

Since Hubei Huakaier moved from the backwater of Huangshi to Urumqi just a month before the 2014 season kicked-off, Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard have been consistent mid-table occupiers with no sign of moving. In 2014 they finished tenth, before climbing up to the dizzy heights of eighth a year later.

Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard – Quick Facts

2015 – Pos. – 8th, Pts – 39

2016 – Pos. – 8th, Pts – 27

  • Xinjiang have earned 6 points in 9 away games this season – only 2 fewer than they got in 15 away trips last season
  • Last season’s top scorer Cristian Danalahe netted 24 times – this year Fajic and Itparicia lead the way with just 4 in 19 games
  • Having been in charge since the club’s inception in December 2011, Li Jun is the longest serving manager in the division

Romanian striker Cristian Danalache netted 24 goals of the club’s 43 goals in 2015, but he was booted out amid controversy towards the end of last year and was replaced by Bosnian Nusmir Fajic. The club also brought in Brazilian midfielder Rudnei, while 35-year-old Brazilian born Hong Kong international Itparicia was picked up to add some flair to the attack.

Ultimately, though, it was expected that Xinjiang would play out a third straight season as a mid-table side based on an excellent home record and a poor away showing that is a consequence of Urumqi’s remote location.

The story so far…

They’ve probably been the most predictable side in the division this year. No surprise that an opening run of four away games – scheduled for climatic reasons – only yielded one point, but as the home fixtures piled up so did the points total and league position. Interestingly, this year the difference between their home and away performance hasn’t been as pronounced as in previous season, but it’s telling that 21 out of Xinjiang’s 27 points this year have come at home.

For anyone who has ever crossed time zones on their way from eastern or central China on their way to Urumqi, it’s obvious why away teams would be exhausted by the time they arrive there. Apart from their home-away record, there isn’t much of an obvious pattern to Xinjiang’s results, and their season has pretty much proceeded as expected.

The team

The way they play football isn’t pretty. It’s a very basic 4411 with the straightforward plan that a long ball up to Fajic will be knocked down for Itparicia who will create some magic. Wingers Abdul’eziz Abdulsalam, Tong Xiaoxing and the ever-improving Shewket Yalqun have all provided a decent outlet, but the team’s real solidity stems from their defensive work.

The two banks of four they sit back with are very well disciplined and it’s interesting that Zhou Heng has pushed Brazilian Rudnei out of the first team as the midfield partner of Wang Kang. It is fundamentally a workmanlike team who are drilled enough to play a style that harvests the points they need for a mid-table finish.

Player of the season

Fajic celebrates a rare goal for Xinjiang

Fajic celebrates a rare goal for Xinjiang

Fajic has played the role of targetman well, but his five goals in 15 appearances is well short of what they’d have hoped for pre-season. Itparicia went through a phase where here he scored three spectacular long-range goals within a matter of weeks, but his consistency has been lacking over the duration of the year.

Ultimately, this kind of team’s player of the year so far should be a workhorse, and while veteran centre back Cai Xi is a good candidate, it’s midfielder Wang Kang who has bee the ever present engine in a team that works their proverbials off. You’re seldom likely to see Wang play a defence splitting pass or score a screamer, but the 26-year-old’s defensive work is excellent and he is always tidy with the ball.

Prospects

Not much, really. At this stage of the season Xinjiang are pretty much the division’s only team who look safe from relegation, while having little hope of getting promoted. A mid-table finish looks assured and there’s probably not that much for them to look forward to over the next 12 games. Mission accomplished.

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.

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