League One Team of the Season – 2016: Choosing the Best XI Players from Another Exciting Year
Yet another compelling and unpredictable League One season is over and it’s time to pick through the remnants in an attempt to make sense of it all. In the first in a series of post-season articles, we present our team of the the season. This team is based on League One foreign quota rules – meaning only three overseas performers will be selected – and the players are chosen as part of a realistic 4-1-4-1 formation – no 3-4-3 with three full backs and four wingers here. All the players are picked based on their performances over the course of the 2016 season, not reputation or performance in previous years. Promoted sides Guizhou Zhicheng and Tianjin Quanjian lead the way with three and two players, respectively, and there’s a nice even spread of representation from Beijing Renhe, Dalian Yifang, Dalian Transcendence, Shanghai Shenxin, Beijing BG and Meizhou Hakka across the rest of the side.
Su Boyang – Guizhou Zhicheng: Appearances – 26; Minutes Played – 2,340; Goals Conceded – 21; Clean Sheets – 10
When the season kicked-off with Chen Mao in charge of relegation favourites Guizhou Zhicheng, Su was on the bench behind first choice goalkeeper Wang Zhuo. But just three games into the season Chen had been replaced by Li Bing and Su found himself in the starting line-up one match later after Wang picked up an injury. From that point on, there was no looking back for the 27-year-old product of Beijing Guoan’s youth system as he kept a rehabilitated Wang out of the side and played every remaining minute of Guizhou’s remarkable promotion campaign.
Su conceded just 21 times across 26 matches and kept ten clean sheets in the process. The truth is, the fantastically well organized defence just in front of him meant that the number of saves he had to make was limited, but that’s part of what made Su stand out in 2016. His concentration was impeccable and he made some excellent stops when he had to. He also had a command of his penalty area which is rare among goalkeepers at this level and his constant communication with his back four no doubt made their job significantly easier. Like Yanbian’s Chi Wenyi has done this season, Su really has the potential to catch the eye on a larger stage as he embarks on his first ever CSL campaign.
Honourable Mentions – Tianjin Quanjian’s Zhang Lu should be the best goalkeeper in the league according to his price tag and he has produced some fantastic saves this year. One too many errors, though, compared to Su. Beijing BG’s Dong Lei made more saves than any other goalkeeper this season in a much improved year, and Zhang Lie, who plays across the capital with Renhe also had a generally solid 2016.
Zhu Ting – Dalian Yifang: Appearances – 30; Minutes Played – 2,700; Goals Scored – 1; Assists – 2
As we’ll see below, there have been plenty of standout left backs in League One this season, but things have been a little lighter on the right back front. Very few top notch performers in the role means we’ll go for experience in the shape of Zhu who, contrary to past behaviour, kept his head in the Dalian defence while all around him were losing their’s.
Zhu’s performances can’t be described as much more than consistent, but he played every minute of the season and rarely put a foot wrong. As veterans such as Cao Xuan, Wang Wanpeng, Sun Bo, Zhu Xiaogang and Eddie Francis dropped out of the first XI under Milinko Pantic’s tumultuous eight game mid-season reign, Zhu Ting remained a constant and was still there providing an element of continuity as performances started picking up under Pantic’s successor Sergio Cardenas.
Honourable Mentions – Wuhan Zall’s 21-year-old youth team product Ming Tian won the CFA’s young player of the year in a decision that was greeted with a mixture of pride and surprise in Hubei given his regular struggles with the fundamentals of defending. Hohhot Zhongyou’s Deng Hanwen, who is the same age as Ming, actually looked better across the whole season as right wing-back and Guizhou Zhicheng’s Jiang Liang had a good season going forward, but not as much success on the defensive side of things as teammate Tang Xin (more on him below).
Festus Baise – Guizhou Zhicheng: Appearances – 28; Minutes Played – 2,492; Goals – 6
In some ways, including Baise in the team at centre back is cheating. That’s not because he’s a Nigerian born Hong Kong passport holder, as League One rules means he doesn’t count towards the foreign quota. Instead, it’s cheating because he spent about half the season playing as a no nonsense defensive midfielder and only the other half in the centre of defence.
In either role, though, Baise did a phenomenal job of suring up the joint best defence in the league and showed an incredible amount of fight in every match he played. The 36-year-old displayed no signs of being effected by his advancing years and helped epitomise Guizhou’s fairytale season.
The Hong Kong international made his name on the mainland alongside Jean-Jacues Kilama when the two worked together to twice keep China goalless in the previous round of World Cup qualifying. That earned both pre-season moves to League One clubs, but it was Kilama who was expected to make the biggest impact with big spending Tianjin Quanjian.
However, by the time the two sides met in the penultimate weekend of the season, Baise had proven to be an indispensable member of a promotion chasing side, while Kilama wasn’t even in Quanjian’s 18-man match-day squad. The stoppage time winner that Baise scored that day effectively secured the club promotion, while cementing his status as a hero in Guiyang.
Honorable Mentions – The decision to go with a trio of foreign attackers means there is no room for the league’s best central defender, Iban Cuadrado. The 37-year-old Spaniard was almost flawless this season as he marshalled the league’s joint stingiest defence in what looks like being his last season in China. Wuhan Zall’s Solvi Ottesen may have missed out on a call-up to Euro 2016, but also had an excellent season in a leadership role. Cuadrado’s compatriot Marti Crespi’s ball playing exploits made him ideal for Qinagdao Huanghai’s possession based game, but his lack of pace was exposed far too often to be considered the league’s top defender.
Yi Teng – Beijing Renhe: Appearances – 29 (3 as sub); Minutes Played – 2,359; Goals – 0
With their relegation in 2015 being largely a result of a shambolic defence, Renhe made sure to bring in plenty of reinforcements at centre back prior to their attempt at securing an immediate return to the top flight. The arrival of veterans Sun Jihai and Wang Qiang made all the headlines, but it was Yi Teng’s loan move from Guangzhou Evergrande which provided the defensive stability they needed.
The 26-year-old’s career has stalled somewhat since he moved to Evergrande in 2013, with loan moves to Liaoning Whowin and Hangzhou Greentown providing mixed results. 2016 could prove to be a breakthrough year, though, as the Guizhou native showed the physical attributes required to cope with foreign forwards and the positional sense of a veteran.
Renhe having the fourth best defensive record in the league was largely down to him and, while there was the occasional error, he was the most consistent Chinese centre back in the division. A deal is reportedly already done for Yi to sign with Guangzhou R&F next season and, if it is finalised, he will prove a valuable addition at Yuexiushan should he be able to carry this form back up a level.
Honourable Mentions – Zhejiang Yiteng’s Wang Dalong and Hohhot Zhongyou’s Mao Kaiyu have both had stellar seasons and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either of them move on to bigger things over the winter. Sometimes, Xinjiang’s Cai Xi looks like the best Chinese defender in the league, but every five games or so he has the kind of shocker that can’t help but make you wonder whether there is something more going on than just a sudden drop in form.
Tang Xin – Guizhou Zhicheng: Appearances – 23; Minutes Played – 2,022; Goals – 0
There were a lot of outstanding left backs in League One this season, but none of them were as good at defending as Tang. The 26-year-old is a real old-fashioned full back in the sense that he is a defender first and foremost and seldom ventures across the halfway line.
There are plenty of left backs in the league who cause more havoc in the opposition half than Tang, but his defending was immaculate all season and he was rarely beaten by an opposition right-winger. In fact, it’s hard to recall a single goal coming against Guizhou down their left hand side when Tang was on the field this season and that’s largely down to the Beijing Guoan youth product’s excellent positioning and anticipation.
Before moving to Guizhou, Tang had spent two years stewing in Guangzhou R&F’s reserves and it will be interesting to see if he can build on this season and kick-on as a regular in the CSL. With his reluctance to attack, it’s understandable why many teams would have little interest in Tang, but he suited Guizhou’s conservative counterattacking style perfectly in 2016 and will be hoping for more opportunities in the coming years.
Honourable Mentions – The left back position is far more stacked than right back, with several players having very good seasons. Qingdao Huanghai’s Fan Lingjiang bagged nine assists this season and demonstrated a fantastic left-footed delivery throughout the year. He was a bit light on the defensive side, though, and Beijing BG’s Xu Dong and Zhejiang Yiteng’s Li Xudong are both more balanced players who wouldn’t look out of place at a bottom half CSL side.
Han Xu – Dalian Transcendence: Appearances – 30; Minutes Played – 2,682; Goals – 1; Assists – 3
There are actually quite a lot of pretty good Chinese defensive midfielders plying their trade in League One, but there was not one single player who consistently stood out across the season. Watching any particular Dalian Transcendence game in 2016, you’d be forgiven for failing to really notice Han, but what becomes apparent the more you watch them is that he is a consistently good player who was a major reason the newly promoted side were able to survive their first ever season in League One.
Despite having a defence packed with slow, error-strewn players, Transcendence managed to finish the season with just 36 goals conceded in 30 games and many of those goals were down to individual mistakes rather than fundamental defensive problems. The primary reason for their relative stinginess was the defensive midfield axis of Han and Zhang Gong who did an excellent job of protecting their vulnerable back four.
Zhang has already earned a move to Super League club Guangzhou R&F on the back of his displays in 2016, but it was Han who proved to be the real anchor in what otherwise had the potential to be a leaky side. The versatile 28-year-old moved to Dalian having previously spent the entirety of his career with Zhejiang Yiteng and can play in either full-back position or anywhere across the midfield.
This year, he made the holding role his own, though, and played all but 18 minutes of the league season. And it’s not just on the defensive side of things that Han flourished as he completed more passes than any other League One midfielder this season and, although he did next to nothing in the final third, his composure and defensive work allowed his team to grind out results against several teams who were far superior to them on paper.
Honourable Mentions – Tianjin Quanjian’s Zhao Xuri is without doubt the biggest name who played DM in League One this season, but he failed consistently perform. After a slow start to the season under Vanderlai Luxemburgo, Zhao went on a seven game hot streak where he was outstanding after Fabio Cannavaro took the reigns, but injury and suspension derailed the rest of his campaign.
Among the other Chinese guys playing in that role, Beijing BG’s Lv Peng is the best and really should be looking for a move to the CSL with the club missing out on promotion. Shanghai Shenxin’s Ye Chongqiu, Beijing Renhe’s Chen Jie, Qingdao Huanghai’s Ma Xingyu, Xinjiang’s Wang Kang and Hohhot Zhongyou’s Yin Lu also all had good seasons.
Biro-Biro – Shanghai Shenxin: Appearances – 29 (1 as sub); Minutes Played – 2,546; Goals – 18; Assists – 8
The 21-year-old pint-sized Brazilian arrived in the winter with high expectations having had an outstanding 2015 in the Brazil’s Serie A with Ponte Preta. The lightning-quick winger had a bit of a slow start to life in Shanghai by scoring just three goals in his opening eleven matches, but the club’s decision to sack South Korean manager Kim Sang-ho and appoint Englishman Gary White totally changed Biro-Biro’s fortunes.
He managed a remarkable fifteen goals and eight assists in eighteen games under White as he flourished within the side’s new swashbuckling, counter-attacking style. Opposition defence’s struggled to live with Biro-Biro’s speed as the side looked to get the ball to him as quickly as possible after recovering the ball in their own half. The mid-season arrival of Brazilian playmaker Davi also assisted his compatriot’s improved output, but it is clear that a settled and confident Biro-Biro was too much for most teams to handle.
Of course, the number of goals can’t be attributed to his speed alone and there was also a marked improvement in his finishing in the second half of the year. Standing at just 5 foot 4 inches, the youngster even managed to find the net with his head on several occasions and, if he can continue this momentum into next season, there won’t be a single defence who will be happy about seeing Shenxin on the fixture list in 2016.
Honourable Mentions – Biro-Biro is one of a quartet of Brazilian right-wingers who shone in League One this season as Tianjin Quanjian’s Geuvanio, Dalian Transcendence’s Jailton Paraiba and Guizhou Zhicheng’s Mazola all had memorable seasons of their own. As the most expensive signing in League One history, Geuvanio was unplayable at times, but was a little too inconsistent. There are few sights more terrifying for a left-back than Jailton Paraiba’s short stocky frame hurtling towards them, but his finishing remains the biggest weakness in his game. Mazola ended the season with eleven goals, but is more of a persistent workhorse than a genuinely gifted winger.
Jadson – Tianjin Quanjian
Pre-season, it was widely accepted that Tianjin Quanjian’s new signing Jadson was going to be the best player in the division and, although he didn’t quite live up to that hype, he did have a very good year as he helped steer his new club towards the Super League. Having just come off an outstanding season in his homeland with Corinthians, the 33-year-old playmaker didn’t dazzle quite as much as anticipated, but still showed enough quality to make him just about the best creative midfielder in the league.
Depending on which source you consult, he produced as many as fifteen assists this year, but that does’t tell the whole story as some of his best passes saw him spring Quanjian’s wingers and full backs who were then able to set up goals. Jadson was all over the field and no midfielder played more passes than him in 2016. His completion percentage isn’t as impressive as some other midfielders in the division, but that’s because so many of his balls were in an attacking direction against heavily packed defenses.
There is no confirmation yet on whether the former Brazil international will remain with Quanjian in 2017, but if he does he will comfortably be able to hold his own in China’s top flight. In fact, with an improved cast of players likely to be built around him, he could easily be one of the top creative midfielders in next year’s CSL.
Honourable Mentions – The only other real contender for Jadson’s crown is Beijing Renhe’s Zvjezdan Misimovic who also bagged fifteen assists and would have had more if teammate Nikica Jelavic hadn’t squandered so many chances. Despite clearly carrying a few extra pounds this year, the veteran Bosnian was still more than a cut above the average League One midfielder, but never quite dictated games as consistently as Jadson did.
The only Chinese player who could really be considered for this creative midfield role is Xu Liang, who came out of retirement to play for Shenzhen FC this season and started the season in excellent form. Unfortunately, injuries took their toll on the 34-year-old and he wasn’t able to replicate his early displays later in the season.
Yan Xiangchuang – Beijing BG: Appearances – 29; Minutes Played – 2,551; Goals – 7; Assists – 11
It could be considered partial cheating to put Yan into the team as an attacking midfielder as he spent about half the year playing on the right wing, but it would also be a travesty to leave him out after another outstanding season at an otherwise struggling club. Yan bagged seven goals and eleven assists over the course of 2016, despite playing for an underachieving team that looked tactically confused and devoid of motivation for much of the season.
The explanation for the 30-year-old’s frequent changing of position lies in manager Aleksander Stanojevic’s failure to settle on a fixed formation as he constantly switched between a 5-3-1-1 and a 4-4-2. In the latter line-up, Yan featured on the right-wing, but he moved in behind the striker when they played five at the back.
The former Beijing Guo’an man shone in both roles and his assist count would have been even higher if not for the wastefulness in front of goal of teammates Carmelo Valencia, Rubin Okotie, Jin Hui and Chen Haowei. Yan was able to beat the full-back and fire in an accurate cross when on the wing, and thread intricate passes while playing through the middle. As team captain, his performances did finally start dropping off a bit across the last five or six games of the season when promotion was already gone, but he still did enough to be considered the best Chinese player in the division this season.
Honourable Mentions – There really are no Chinese attacking midfielders who were anywhere close to Yan’s levels this season.
Gao Zhilin – Meizhou Hakka: Appearances – 24; Minutes Played – 2,146; Goals – 5; Assists – 7
The former Guangzhou Evergrande prospect gave some indication why the Super League giants signed him in 2011 with an excellent first season in China League One. Having been one of the stars of League Two over the last three seasons with home town club Meizhou Hakka, the 25-year-old was able to step up a level to be one of the most dangerous wingers in the league.
Statistics of five goals and seven assists don’t quite do Gao’s season justice as he gave many an opposition right-back nightmares with with his fearless dribbling. Indeed, despite the fact he missed the last six games of the season through injury, no Chinese player made more dribbles than Gao in League One this season and, although they didn’t always end with an accurate shot or pinpoint shot, his ability to stretch defences was a big reason Meizhou were the fourth highest goalscorers in the league, despite being a newly promoted club.
Honourable Mentions – If you asked a casual fan who the best Chinese winger in League One is, they’d all reply Sun Ke. The current international made a real name for himself with three goal in last years Asian Cup and was, without doubt, the biggest domestic star playing in the second tier this season. An eight goal haul may indicate a successful season to match the hype but five of those strikes came in games that Quanjian won by three goals or more and speak more of a player who benefited from being part of a prolific attack. The truth is, as his three assists suggest, Sun was often a bit part player in the Quanjian team as the club’s Brazilian trio of Jadson, Geuvanio and Luis Fabiano took on the lion’s share of team’s attacking play.
Elsewhere, Qingdao Huanghai’s Hong Kong international winger Godfred Karikari really caught the eye with his tireless work down the left flank, but struggled to find an end product consistently enough. Dalian Yifang’s 20-year-old winger Wang Jinxian is also a real prospect and managed eight assists in just twenty starts across the season, but is still a little on the raw side.
Luis Fabiano – Tianjin Quanjian: Appearances – 28; Minutes Played – 2,487; Goals – 22; Assists – 4
When you’re picking the striker of the season, the easy option is to always look at the top of the goal scoring charts and there’s no reason not to do that here. At 36, former Brazil international Fabiano won the League One Golden Boot with 22 strikes, which put him three ahead of nearest rival Nyasha Mushekwi of Dalian Yifang.
Lured to the Chinese second tier by Quanjian’s seemingly bottomless buckets of cash, it would be easy to presume that the one-time Sevilla hitman would phone-it-in aftr he travelled across the Pacific from Sao Paulo for one last big payday. However, for the 90 minutes he was on the field at least, there was no doubting the veteran’s commitment as he regularly raged at referees and opposition defenders. More importantly, though, he showed no signs that his instincts were fading and was able to produce the goals needed to fire Quanjian into the Super League.
There were plenty of games this season where Fabiano seemed to fade in the background before suddenly producing a perfectly-timed run and neat finish to turn the tide of the contest. There were few long range efforts or solo dribbles, but those instinctive movements proved just as difficult for defenders to legislate for.
With his job done, it has already been announced that Fabiano won’t be returning to Quanjian in 2017. Given his age and the club’s ambition, that’s no big surprise, but it will also come as a relief to CSL centre backs who would not fancy trying to contain the wily veteran.
Honourable Mentions – The only other strikers who really came close to matching Fabiano were Dalian Yifang’s Nyasha Mushekwi and Meizhou Hakka’s Japa. Mushekwi’s nineteen strikes largely came courtesy of the Zimbabwean international’s physical prowess which allowed him to overpower defenders while chasing on to long balls and power headers into the back of the net. Japa arrived in China with little fanfare and wasn’t expected to be much more than a typical Brazilian journeyman. Despite a nine game mid-season drought during which he sometimes looked truly awful, the 30-year-old still managed to bag 18 goals across the season thanks to some ruthless finishing and accomplished supporting cast.
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.