League One mid(ish)-season review – part 3: A satisfied Meizhou joined by disappointing Zhejiang, Wuhan and Hohhot in the bottom half of the table
WEF’s League One mid-season (now 2/3rds season) review returns for a third installment to look at how the clubs placed between 9th and 12th in the table are getting on. Obviously, it’s self-evident from their positions that none of Zhejiang Yiteng, Meizhou Hakka, Wuhan Zall or Hohhot Zhongyou are doing that well, but some sides will be more happy with their current direction than others. You can check our two previous reviews here and here, and come back at the weekend for the final part before we start weekly round-ups of all the goings-on in the final ten rounds of the season. (All information accurate on August 3rd at the end of round 20)
The main story surrounding Yiteng this winter was their departure from Harbin following a very public falling out with their hardcore supporters over match-fixing allegations. With supporters convinced that Dalian-based company Yiteng had encouraged the team to deliberately throw a game against Dalian Aerbin towards the back end of last season, the relationship with fans seemed to be irreparably damaged and the owners made no secret of their desire to move cities before the CFA’s January 10th deadline. Chengdu was mooted as the likely destination, but Shaoxing in Zhejiang province emerged as the surprising location for Yiteng to try and re-establish their club..
Zhejiang Yiteng – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. – 5th, Pts – 47
2016 – Pos. – 9th, Pts – 29
- After moving from Harbin to Zhejiang this winter, Yiteng’s avergae attendance has dropped from an average of 20,477 in 2015 (2nd highest) to 2,912 in 2016 (2nd lowest)
- Yiteng’s foreign players Adam Hughes, Rodrigo Paulista and Ricardo Steer have missed a total of 10 games between them through suspension this season.
- Because of security concerns surrounding the G20 to be held in Hangzhou, Yiteng will play their next two home matches in Dalian which is around 1,000 KMs away from Shaoxing
Abandoning a fanbase that had consistently turned out in numbers of 20,000+ to move to a city with no discernible professional football culture seemed like a strange move, but it was done swiftly and the club stated it’s aim this season was to return to the CSL where they spent a solitary season in 2014. Having looked like serious promotion contenders in 2015 until a late season slump saw them drop to fifth, that seemed like a reasonable goal, and the appointment of 2014 League One manager of the year Goran Tomic appeared to be a wise decision.
Tomic had guided Beijing Baxy (now Beijing BG) to a very impressive fourth place finish in 2014 and was hired by Tianjin Songjiang eight games into the 2015 to guide the club to safety while they sat bottom of the league with four points. Tomic duly obliged but, just as had happened in 2014, he was jettisoned by new wealthy owners and looked to be an excellent acquisition by Yiteng to replace the incumbent Duan Xin.
Tomic’s main obstacle seemed to be an ever depleting playing staff that shed more regular starters during the winter transfer window. Star winger Bu Xin, rock solid centre back Liu Yi and utility player Han Xu all departed for pastures new and replacements Ye Weichao, Hao Qiang and Li Gen all seemed to be downgrades.
On the foreign player front, Colombian striker Juan Nunez exited to be replaced by returning playmaker Rodrigo Paulista. Meanwhile, defensive midfielder Adam Hughes and striker Ricardo Steer returned for their fifth seasons with the club. Indeed, Steer renewing his contract was actually marketed by Yiteng as one of their five new signings for the season in a move that demonstrated their own self-awareness that they’d had a very poor transfer window.
So while promotion may have been the stated goal, and Tomic’s appointment offered hope, an upper-mid-table finish seemed like the most likely outcome.
The story so far…
In a season that has so far seen ten clubs change their managers, Zhejiang set the trend by getting rid of Tomic after just two games. Personal reasons were cited, but a 2-0 defeat away to Dalian Yifang and a 5-2 home mauling at the hands of Tomic’s former club Tianjin Quanjian were enough for the club to pull the trigger and bring back Duan Xin as the “temporary manager” who is still in charge four months later.
Between rounds three and 15 the club took a respectable 26 points to make themselves look like serious promotion contenders, before going on a five game losing streak to plummet down to mid-table. A win at home to second-placed Qingdao Huanghai this past weekend has righted the ship, but any faint promotion hopes appear to be gone.
Whatever Tomic’s aims for the team were meant to be, they couldn’t be much more basic than the football they play under Duan Xin. The default setting is to use bruising midfielder Adam Hughes to break up play and then launch a long ball up to Steer who will knock it down for either Paulista or one of the wingers to make something happen.
The club has suffered a lot of suspensions this season, but it’s notable that when Hughes was going through a five game enforced absence for a brutal forearm on Shanghai Shenxin’s Ye Chongqiu during a fiery game in June, Duan opted to variously play incompetent reserve centre back Yu Tao, left back Li Xudong or Steer himself at DM rather than a less combative midfielder who could actually pass the ball. Steer also suffered a three game suspension earlier in the season for a punch on Beijing BG’s Nikola Vujadinovic and in his absence the smaller, pacier Ji Xiaoxun played up front, meaning the team was forced to play down the wings rather than hoof the ball straight to Steer every time.
As the suspensions indicate, Zhejiang rely a lot on their physicality which is complimented by Paulista’s finesse. They also have half a very good defence with left-sided centre back and left back Li Xudong generally being outstanding all season, while right-sided centre back Hao Qiang and right back Li Jian look more vulnerable.
Player of the season
Wang Dalong and Li Xudong have both defended solidly all season, while Adam Hughes has been a valuable component in the side while he hasn’t been sidelined courtesy of the CFA. However, it’s hard to look beyond Paulista who has single-handedly carried the team’s attack at times.
The Brazilian, who returned to Yiteng this winter after an unsuccessful season with Guizhou Zhicheng, scored 8 times between rounds 3 and thirteen, including some key late winners and equalisers. A drop off in output coincided with the club’s five game losing streak but, while it is disappointing that he hasn’t been able to keep it up, they would be a lot further down the table without the points they picked up during his hot streak.
Honourable mention to 18-year-old Liu Yue who, in his debut season, has been the one consistent performer a rotating cast of wingers that has also included Ji Xiaoxun, Li Jiahe and Lv Yongdi.
They’re now at the stage where promotion looks beyond them, but they’re basically only one win away from being guaranteed to avoid relegation. That means the remainder of the season will likely be spent either playing aggressive spoilers as they did when they defeated Qingdao Huanghai last weekend, or rolling over without a fight as they did when they got hammered 4-0 by Tianjin Quanjian three weeks ago. Whatever approach they take to a specific match, the final outcome will likely be an uninspiring mid-table finish.
The Guangdong based club won promotion last season as League Two champions in just their third year of existence. They play in Wuhua which makes them the first ever team in a county-level city to participate in League One and the name Hakka (Kejia in Chinese) is a reference to the ethnic minority group which predominates in the region.
Meizhou Hakka – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. – 1st (L2 South), Pts – 30 (from 14 games)
2016 – Pos. – 10th, Pts – 26
- Mezihou’s Wuhua Country Stadium officially holds 6,800 fans which makes it the smallest in the division by quite some distance
- Their 6-0 victory over Hunan Billows in round 5 is the biggest margin of victory for any team this season
- Coming into last weekend’s round 20 fixtures, Meizhou were the only team in the league without an away win, but they defeated (poor old) Hunan Billows 2-0 to end that run
Following promotion, the ownership stated that they were aiming for a top ten finish, but few anticipated they would be doing much more than taking part in a relegation dogfight. At least seven of the players who led them to promotion were either cast-offs from Guangzhou Evergrande of had been picked up from the now defunct Guangdong Sunray Cave.
Several regulars from the promotion campaign such as Yang He, Ji Jun, Peng Shaoxiong, Sun Yifan and Cao Tianbao departed the side, while the new domestic signings were hardly awe-inspiring. Winger Ouyang Xue struggled at relegation fighters Guizhou Zhicheng in 2015, while the capture of Taiwanese-Turkish striker Onur Dogan was intriguing, but looked like a big risk.
Goalkeeper Luo Zuqing and Hong Kong international defender Lee Chi-ho looked like more certain starters, but none of these arrivals appeared they would take the team to the next level. The signing of Sierra Leonean centre back Gibril Sankoh was a decent pick up given that he was in the Henan Jianye side that won promotion in 2013, but the jury was out on unknown Brazilian striker Japa and Gabonese international midfielder (and serious contender for best name in the league) Merlin Tandjigora.
The appointment of Luc Nijholt as manager was also an uninspiring choice as the Dutchman hadn’t had a head coaching role since departing Stromvogels in his native land in 2008. A season playing for Swindon Town in the English Premier League and nine months as an assistant to Hank ten Cate at Shandong Luneng in 2012 didn’t offer much hope, especially given that that season was the worst Luneng had endured in the CSL era (until this year, at least).
The story so far…
Meizhou surprised everybody by going on a five game unbeaten run at the start of the season that was capped by a 6-0 demolition of Hunan Billows. They then went on to pick up 11 points from the next 13 games to sit in twelfth after 18 games. At that point, Nijholt resigned for “ personal reasons” – which in the opaque world of League One could mean almost anything – and general manager Cao Yang took charge having previously led the side in their maiden season in 2013.
Since then they have won two in a row and in recent weeks have looked like turning around a pattern which saw them perform well at home, while being a defensive shambles away. With Jieyang airport being a two hour bus ride away from the stadium and a destination that not many cities have a direct flight too, an away trip to Meizhou was already going to be difficult. Given that they’ve hosted afternoon kick-offs throughout the summer in temperatures around 35C, it’s no big surprise that teams have struggled when playing away to Hakka. Conversely, though, the team usually faces long difficult away trips and have struggled when the climate hasn’t weakened their opponents.
Earlier in the season they were extremely open and participated in a lot of high scoring matches. The team is loaded in attack and light in defence so that’s no surprise, but they have tightened up in recent weeks, while the attack has also been blunted a little.
Despite having a questionable first touch and generally lacking quality, Japa has become the division’s third highest goalscorer and a big reason for that is his supporting cast. For much of the season, the trio of Gao Zhilin, Yu Jianfeng and Dogan have played behind the Brazilian from left to right and have helped make Meizhou one of the division’s most exciting attacking teams.
Meizhou’s 30 goals have only been bettered by four other teams this season and until round 10, at least, they played a swashbuckling style where they attacked relentlessly without much emphasis on defending. That has changed as Sankoh’s individual performances have improved and the team in general has taken a more conservative approach.
In recent games, Zhu Zhengrong, who was signed on loan from Shanghai SIPG in the summer transfer window, has replaced Yu Jianfeng as the central attacking midfielder and the team has had an added dynamism as a result. Prior to Zhu’s arrival the team’s main attacking impetus came down the wing, but they now have a bit more going for them when it comes to playing through the middle.
Player of the season
Japa’s goal haul is impressive, but he offers almost nothing beyond finding the back of the net and has been the beneficiary of a dangerous trio playing behind him. Among that threesome, the one constant has been Gao Zhilin who has played all but eight minutes of the season on the left wing and has been a menace to opposition right-backs throughout the year.
The 25-year-old, who was released by Guangzhou Evergrande at the end of the 2014 season, managed four goals and five assists in the first thirteen games of the season and his personal drop-off in output coincided with the team’s four game losing streak. Unafraid to run at defenders and with an end product to match, there’s a decent argument to say that Gao is the best Chinese left-winger in the entire division this year and Meizhou may struggle to keep hold of him for the 2017 season.
They probably need two or three more wins to secure survival and have enough home fixtures left to guarantee that. Whether they can achieve their goal of a top ten finish remains up in the air, but they’ve been defensively tighter in recent matches and that gives them a much better shot at attaining a mid-table finish.
Meizhou’s recent approach is not as enjoyable for the neutral, but it seems to have improved results and they will likely be safe with at least two or three games to spare.
In their near eight year existence, the club’s only season in the CSL came in 2013 and it ended with a total of 16 points from 30 games and instant relegation. The following year they were just an injury time penalty away from an immediate return to the top flight, but last season marked a year of serious decline where a tenth place finish was very much deserved.
Wuhan Zall – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. – 10th, Pts – 36
2016 – Pos. – 11th, Pts – 25
- Constructed in 1954, Wuhan’s Xinhua Road Stadium is not only a Communist relic, but is also the oldest stadium in the league
- Wuhan currently have three players – Yang Chaosheng, Wang Rui and Wang Junhui – on loan from Guangzhou Evergrnade
- Ke Zhao’s 8 game suspension for a nasty tackle on Xinjiang’s Abduleziz Abdulsalam is the longest dished out to any player in China this year
The club’s official pre-season goal was to earn promotion to the Super League, but few believed they had the players to achieve it. On the foreign signings front things looked OK as the club followed last season’s pattern of picking up three players who already had experience in China. However, the trio looked better than the crop of last season with 2014 League One Golden Boot winner Guto being picked up from Chongqing Lifan; attacking midfielder Michael Barrantes arriving from relegated Super League side Shanghai Shenxin; and the acquisition of Icelandic centre back Solvi Ottesen after his release by the ostentatious Jiangsu Suning seeming like a savvy move.
The main problem was a domestic squad that appeared inferior to several of clubs in the league thanks to a combination of aging veterans of the 2012 promotion vintage, youth team products born in 1995 and loanees from the CSL reserves. Probably under the orders of the club’s frugal ownership, manager Zheng Xiong seemed obsessed with developing youth at the expense of results and, while recent under-23 internationals Yang Chaosheng and Wang Rui looked like decent temporary pick-ups from Guangzhou Evergrande, it wasn’t the kind of winter that gave fans any optimism that a run at promotion was realistic.
The story so far…
A mediocre start saw Zall placed seventh after five games but they then went on an eight game winless run (five draws and three defeats) that saw them sink as low as 13th in the table and perilously close to the relegation places. That spelled the end for Zheng Xiong as he was given the bullet despite turning the run around with two consecutive 1-0 victories before the season’s midway point.
It was clear that the decision had already been made to get rid of Zheng and was only made public when the club had sealed the signature of former Juventus centre back and manager Ciro Ferrara to take chage. The 49-year-old former Italy international’s managerial career had been undistinguished and had apparently come to an end in December 2012 when he was sacked by Sampdoria. However, Ferrara was resurrected by Wuhan and has since overseen two wins and two defeats from four matches.
As an unpromising mix of declining veterans, unready youth team products and young CSL loanees, it’s not a surprise that the team has struggled on the field this season. Wingers Yao Hanlin and Luo Yi are the most notable survivors from the Super League side and both have struggled to reach their previous levels this season. As the 2014 player of the season, Yao’s performances in particular are on the wane and the attack has struggled as a result.
Barrantes was drafted in from Shanghai Shenxin to add midfield creativity, but he was poor over the first ten games of the season, before a non-coincidental upswing in form following the birth of his child. Guto, on the other hand, was a sad shell of his former self as he looked to have lost more than just a yard of pace and lacked composure in front of goal.
21-year-old loanee Cheng Jin had a breakthrough season in the midfield, but he returned to parent club Hangzhou Greentown in the summer transfer window, which somewhat invalidated all the effort Wuhan had made to bring him through. The main problem, though, was Zheng Xiong’s style of play as the one time general manager preferred to keep the ball at all costs without really encouraging his men to play forward passes.
Subsequently, Wuhan supporters have often been subjected to long periods of play where their team knock it around in their own half without ever looking like making an incisive, defence-spitting pass. As a result of this, only Hohhot Zhongyou’s matches have featured less goals than Wuhan’s over the course of the season so far. The team’s away record is also abysmal with only six points taken from 10 road games this year.
Player of the season
When discussing the team, the one thing that wasn’t mentioned was the defence and that’s because at times the four man back line has essentially been Solvi Ottesen+3. While his old teammates wowed the world in France this summer, the former Icelandic international has been an ever-present defensive rock in Wuhan that has anchored a frequently changing mishmash of players.
With veteran centre back Ai Zhibo falling out of favour and left back Ke Zhao serving an eight game ban earlier in the season thanks to a horror tackle on Xinjiang’s Abduleziz Abdulsalam, there were times that Ottesen had to marshal a defence comprised of three players born in 1995 and he consistently stepped up to the plate. The 32-year-old lacks pace, but he is strong in the air, possesses impeccable positioning and doesn’t suffer the same morbid panic that otherwise excellent predecessor Ransford Addo endured whenever he had the ball at his feet.
Ferrara’s record since taking over is two home wins and two away defeats, which doesn’t mark a radical change from the team’s time under Zheng Xiong. There are two key differences, though, with the first being the signing of striker Samuel Johnson to replace Guto. The Liberian international’s debut at home to Shenzhen in round 19 will go down in legend as he managed to get an opposition centre back sent off within seven minutes, scored twice and went on a scintillating run from his own half that would have ended with an assist had Huang Fengtao’s finishing been better.
The other positive change, is that the tam seems more willing to attack directly under Ferrara in a way they seemed incapable of under Zheng. As an away defeat to Qingdao Jonoon this past weekend shows, this may not be especially beneficial on the road, but it should be enough to turn some home draws into wins. That probably won’t be enough to take Wuhan into mid-table, but should be sufficient to see them avoid the relegation play-off places with a couple of games to spare.
Zhongyou surprised many in 2015 when they went on an excellent mid-season run to put themselves in promotion contention. A string of poor late season results ultimately saw them fall a hefty 17 points short of the top two, but a sixth-place finish was still an excellent achievement just one year after promotion from League Two.
Hohhot Zhongyou – Quick Facts
2015 – Pos. – 6th, Pts – 43
2016 – Pos. – 12th, Pts – 29
- Hohhot failed to score in their first seven games of the season and have managed just one goal in ten away matches this season
- Their 19 matches this season have featured a paltry 31 goals for a league low average of just 1.63 GPG
- Manager Wang Bo took over in January 2014, which makes him the second longest serving boss in the division after Xinjiang’s Li Jun
Indeed, not only was last year Zhongyou’s first in the second tier, it was also their first in Hohhot, having relocated from Taiyuan the before the season started. In a season when a miracle at Yanbian Changbaishan saw the club go from bottom to top in a single year, Hohhot’s achievements were somewhat overlooked. However, there is no doubt that manager Wang Bo had done a fantastic job to guide a collection of domestic players who were basically either rejects or loanees picked up from Guizhou Renhe’s reserves.
Summer acquisitions of the likes of Quan Lei, Luo Hao, Nizamidin Afanti, Wang Bo (veteran Liaoning Whowin centre back – not the manager signing himself) and Zou Yucheng didn’t seem to offer a significant upgrade on the current squad, but the signing of veteran playmaker Nenad Milijas looked like it might add a little more creativity to their game.
The former Serbian international helped steer Hebei CFFC towards promotion in 2015 and he was set to join returning foreign China veterans Dori and Jonas Salley. All in all the club looked like they’d have a team capable of consolidating their place in the division, but would likely slip four or five spots down from their 2015 placing.
The story so far…
Like Xinjiang, Zhongyou have to start their season with a series away matches due to the climate in their home town being too inhospitable for football to be played in April and May. This meant that a slow start was expected, but few could have foreseen just how bad that opening was going to be.
Their record after five straight road games read as five defeats with zero goals scored and although they managed a scoreless stalemate at home to Tianjin Quanjian in round 6, the Mongolians had still not scored after seven games and were marooned at the bottom of the table with just one point. The drought ended the following week with a 3-2 victory over Meizhou Hakka, but two further losses meant that Zhongyou were rock bottom of the table with just four points from ten games.
But Wang Bo’s men have completely turned things since then and have picked up 20 points in their last nine matches, while only losing once in the process. That run has seen them climb up into 12th position, but it hasn’t been pretty. Only basement-dwellers Hunan Billows have scored less than Zhongyou’s tally of 14, while the 17 goals they have conceded make them tied as the second stingiest defence in the division. Indeed, the 31 goals scored in Hohhot’s 19 matches this season is ten less than contests featuring any other team.
One of the reasons for the lack of goalmouth action in Hohhot’s games this season is the way Wang Bo sets the team up. While Beijing BG and Hunan Billows have adopted five man backlines in recent weeks, Zhongyou are the one club in the league to consistently play a 5-4-1 this season. With full-backs that are often reluctant to cross the half way line, especially away from home, this has meant a very conservative set-up which has been reflected in the scorelines.
One of the biggest problems earlier in the season was Wang Bo’s constant tinkering as he would frequently shuffle players around into different positions within the starting XI and then make erratic tactical substitutions as early as 30 minutes into games. This meant the team never got into a rhythm and a serious issue was the manager’s preference for playing Dori on the wing rather than up front. This meant a rolling cast of strikers which included winger Afanti, full back Li Chengguan and, most bizarrely of all, strolling playmaker Milijas.
It was no surprise that the languid Serbian struggled up front, but he actually had difficulties in his natural position too. The 33-year-old failed to fit in to Zhongyou’s system and the accuracy of the long passing and set pieces that made him stand out so much for Hebei a year ago seemed to have disappeared. With the club looking to sign an out-and-out foreign centre forward in the summer transfer window, Milijas’s days may have been numbered if hadn’t been for the even more erratic and ill-disciplined displays of grizzled Australian Jonas Salley. The 34-year-old, who captained the side last season, struggled at both centre back and defensive midfielder and the club announced plans to move him on in the summer before the transfer window even opened.
His replacement was Senegalese centre forward Andre Senghor who had been without a club since leaving Shenzhen FC at the end of last season. Senghor is hardly among the divisions top strikers, but he gives them a proper targetman centre forward. This allows Dori to play on one wing with the exciting Wang Yunlong having staked a place on the other after returning from a long term injury. With Milijas returning to some semblance of form, Zhongyou do look more dynamic in attack in recent weeks, although they are progressing from a very low point.
Player of the season
On paper, Milijas should be there best player, but his performances haven’t matched his potential. Given the dearth in goals, it would also seem inappropriate to suggest their player of the year would be an attacker, and so we have to turn to the defence to find one.
Goalkeeper Hang Fangteng has mostly had a decent year, but has made at least three shocking mistakes that have cost the team goals and points. Deng Hanwen has been reliable at right-back while veteran former China international full back Jiao Zhe has brought leadership into the centre of defence.
However, it is Mao Kaiyu who has really stood out in the centre back role this season. The 25-year-old has put in consistently solid performances while being a constant feature of one of the league’s stingiest back lines. The former Tianjin TEDA reserve has played every minute of the season so far and has chipped in with with three key goals to put him just one strike behind the club’s top scorer Dori. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mao, who spent most of his career on loan in the lower leagues before signing for Zhongyou at the beginning of 2015, make the move to a bigger club soon.
Their form over the last nine games has been very good, but six of those contests have been at home and the team is about to take to the road again having played five straight in Hohhot. They currently sit two points clear of the relegation play-off places with a game in hand and some improved performances under their belt, but a terrible away record means the club will likely be reliant on picking up enough points from their six remaining home games to survive.
Zhongyou have managed just one win and a solitary goal from ten away matches this season, and that came against the truly awful Hunan Billows. With no obvious indications that such form will improve, the club will need to pick up at least three or four wins from their six remaining home games to be sure.
Upcoming home ties against promotion chasers Beijing Renhe, Guizhou Zhicheng and Qingdao Huanghai make it look like that might be a difficult task, but a comfortable final three games in Hohhot against Hunan Billows, Dalian Transcendence and Xinjiang should earn them enough points to just about avoid an end of season relegation playoff with a League Two side.
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.