It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times again. 4th place, preliminary AFC Champions League qualification and a decent cup run see the club hit their pre-season targets – but the truly electric mid-season burst of the team, and subsequent collapse to the finishing line, leave as many questions as answers.
Founding Editor Cameron Wilson joins North Terrace News for a typically no-holds-barred fan’s-eye evaluation of Shenhua’s runners and riders in 2016.
Gregorio Manzano – 6/10 head coach – CSL record: Wins 12 – draws 12 – losses 6 – CFA Cup: Beaten semi-finalists
Wilson: A step up on his predecessor Gillot, Manzano oversaw a modest improvement in Shenuha’s fortunes – won the same number of games as last year but drew six more instead of losing them, as well as the impressive feat of finally beating Evergrande, and remaining unbeaten at home. It’s tough to say much more than that, as on the one hand, he did have a better squad to work with, and on the other, the loss of Demba Ba was a major blow even if Martins filled the gap as well as could have been expected. But throwing in the towel before the second leg of the cup final even started against Jiangsu will long stick in the throat of this correspondent – Manzano thought the Nanjing side’s two goal 1st leg lead had wasn’t worth overcoming. History now shows that was a pointless sacrifice given Shenhua’s abysmal end to the season with one win in seven. It could even be argued that winning the CFA cup was an easier route to the ACL group stages than finishing 4th and having to go through two preliminary rounds, but it’s all academic now. However, for continuity’s sake, it would have been worth keeping him on, but he’s not quite the coach that those who advocated him for the China job think he is. Let’s see who Shenhua bring in to replace him.
Crooks: It’s very difficult to know how much of an impact Manzano had on Shenhua’s results – whether winning or losing, he picks the same team week-in-week out and leaves them to it. No tactical changes, no differentiated approach, and no real style of play other than letting the players get on with it. Maybe this hands-off approach is what the CSL, and Shenhua in particular respond to – although unbalanced, the squad has quality, and have pretty much finished where they should have. It’s tempting to wonder what an actual football manager could do with this squad – you know, one who trains players to gameplans, takes the opponents into account, and tried to change things based on players’ form and match situations – but Shenhua haven’t had one of those for many years. Manzano is at least less actively bad than his predecessor.
1 – Geng Xiaofeng – 5/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 3 (2) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Did little wrong when picked, was rarely picked due to Manzano having written him off before taking the job and insisted Li Shuai was his man. Odd – Geng is essentially the same goalkeeper as Li, being a great shot-stopper capable of some true howlers.
Wilson: Geng barely featured this year due to Li Shuai being heavily favoured instead. Not a great deal can be said about his performances this year as they were so few, and why this was so given Li Shuai’s regular stream of points-losing errors.
2 – Xiong Fei – 6/10 – Central Defender / fullback – Appearances: 18 (2) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Arguably Shenhua’s first-choice back-up in defence, particularly at right-back. Limited going forward, but perfectly dependable for about 10 games a season – got to play a few more this year due to some injury crises at the back.
Wilson: Another modestly good year for Xiong who now looks like a solid squad player after two proper seasons in the first team. At 29 it’s much too late for him to develop further but as we said last year, he’s reached his potential after spending the first five years of his Shenhua career rotting in the reserves.
3 – Li Jianbin– 8/10 – Defender – Appearances: 21 (0) – Goals: 2
Crooks: I’ve always been a fan, and this is the year Li truly stepped up to his potential. Alongside the calmer head of Kim Ki-hee, Li took on the all-action role in a solid center-back pairing, consistently throwing himself in the way of danger. Good enough to remain a first-choice CSL center-back for years, but does need to cut out the petulance still – some needless late sendings-off led to awkward suspensions.
Wilson: One of the season’s most improved players. Li has always had the makings of being a really solid defender and this year he cut out the silly mistakes and rash tackles to form a really solid partnership with Kim Kee-hee. The signing of Bi Jinhao likely spurned him on as there was little competition for his place previously.
4 – Kim Kee-Hee – 7.5/10 – Central Defender – Appearances: 33 (0) – Goals: 1
Wilson: The South Korean international added much needed quality to the Shenhua back line. However Kim at times looked unable to cope with all the problems caused by Shenhua’s constantly-changing defensive line-up this year and was prone to the odd gaffe. Overall though a quality player the fans will hope to see at Hongkou for seasons to come.
Crooks: A little harsh, I feel – one or two very costly gaffes aside, Kim looked the solid center-back Shenhua hoped they’d signed at the start of the year. Formed a great partnership with Li, and is definitely a keeper for 2017 – center-back is one area that Shenhua really don’t need to worry about.
5 – Wang Shouting – 3/10 – Defensive midfield – Appearances: 5 (6) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Played well against Guoan on the last home game of the season, but otherwise looked like age had caught up with him – never the quickest, Wang looked to have lost sharpness and often saw the game passing him by. Not good enough to be a reliable back-up, and certainly not a game-changer off the bench.
Wilson: Not quite the worst player in the squad but the journeyman midfielder contributed little this year other than stopping younger players getting some valuable experience. Should be released asap.
8– Zhang Lu – 6/10 – Midfielder / fullback – Appearances: 14 (14) – Goals: 0
Wilson: Suffered this year from a lack of stability and constantly being played in different positions. Definitely a good player to have in the squad with determination and spirit, his second season at Shenhua was a let-down during which he spent more time on the bench than he would have liked.
Crooks: I’d give him 7/10 as a right-back, and 5/10 as a winger. Watching him bomb forward from full-back, Zhang looks like he should be the alternative to Lv Zheng, yet he consistently plays dreadfully when deployed further forward – coming on to try and change a must-win game against Henan late in the season, Zhang managed to give the ball away every single time he received it. Somehow got a China call-up earlier than Cao Yunding this year.
9 – Demba Ba- 8/10 – Striker – Appearances: 21 (0) – Goals: 17
Wilson: A bittersweet season for Demba, ran amok during the first half of the season and managed to finish joint-second top scorer in the league despite breaking his leg in the Shanghai derby halfway through and missing a few penalties. Something of a question mark hangs over him unfortunately as regards how he will play after his recovery next season, however the Senegal international has come back from injuries before and an expectant Hongkou faithful are waiting.
Crooks: When fit – and hopefully he does come back fit next year – Demba is the best striker playing in Asia. A one-man wrecking ball of pace, power and silky technique – was far too good for CSL defences until that horror injury. No more penalties in future, though – just think how different things could have been if Shenhua had taken a deserved 2-0 lead in that early-season Shanghai derby…
10– Gio Moreno – 7/10 – Attacking Midfielder – Appearances: 27 (3) – Goals: 8
Crooks: The long, raking passes; the spectacular goals; the scything slide-tackle attempts, and the surprising aerial prowess for a South American #10. 2016 was pretty much classic Gio – slotting into the side and creating the bullets for Demba and Oba to fire home, although still not a consistent performer – but then Gio never was nor never will be. Clearly cares about the side and his role as captain, and Shenhua should continue to build around Gio in 2017 – he even remarkably scored a goal with his right foot this year.
Wilson: Gio was a more balanced player this season, the wasteful hollywood passes fizzing out of play or extravagant shots from unlikely positions seemed a bit less – perhaps Manzano tempered him somewhat through sharing a mutual language. Still one of the few players in the CSL who can win a match completely on his own with a moment of individual brilliance. Pretty much a part of the furniture at Hongkou now, and most would agree, some reluctantly, that that is a good thing.
11 – Lv Zheng – 5.5/10 – Right winger – Appearances: 24 (4) – Goals: 2
Crooks: I want to like Lv Zheng – he has a lot of great attributed for a winger. Lightning quick, decent dribbling skills, a natural tendency to drift wide and look to receive the ball – and yet he’s such a frustrating player much of the time. Capable of some great instinctive play, once given a split-second to think, the doubts or brain fade begin to creep in – wastes more of the ball and more good openings than any other forward in the squad. Should be an impact sub option from the bench rather than a starter, but Shenhua really don’t have anyone better until the transfer window opens.
Wilson: Had pretty much an identical season to last year. Good skills and quick feet, but poor decision making ability and finishing. Good player to have but Shenhua need better on the right flank.
13 – Fredy Guarin – 2/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 30 (0) – Goals: 4
Crooks: The positives – takes a good nerveless penalty, and on live viewing his late winner against Jiangsu looked a screamer rather than a wickedly-deflected sighter. The negatives – everything else. Not since Nico Anelka has Hongkou seen a player arrive with such a strong pedigree and reputation, and proceed to spend a season putting in performances which would be below-par for a China League One journeyman, let alone a footballer of Champions League pedigree. 2016 Guarin has either seen his ability to play football nosedive off a cliff, or genuinely doesn’t care one jot and is just here to pick up a big paycheck and lark around with his buddy Gio without even pretending to look like he’s trying. Neither option is a positive reflection on the man.
Wilson: Shockingly poor season for someone who was playing in Inter Milan’s first team last year. Mis-placed passes, first touch of an elephant, caught in possession time after time. Had the occasional flash of brilliant passes but not enough to compensate for a plain bad season. Should be replaced with someone who takes it more seriously.
16 – Li Yunqiu– 6.5/10 – Right back – Appearances: 9 (0) – Goals: 0
Wilson: New signing finally appeared to have solved Shenhua’s long standing right-back problem before his season was cut short by injury early on, but we didn’t see quite enough of him to get a proper idea of what kind of player he really is.
Crooks: What he said. We can but hope for an injury-free 2017.
17 – Obamafei Martins – 8/10 – Striker – Appearances: 17 (14) – Goals: 15
Crooks: Made a genuine case to be considered the second-best striker in the league once he got a regular starting berth in Demba Ba’s enforced absence. Quick, a powerful finisher off either foot, and with a prodigious leap – Martins has a lot of great attributes and led the line well. Question marks remain over just how he and Ba can be integrated in the same side, and he did fade and go missing a little towards the end of the season, but overall was every bit the quality signing fans expected.
Wilson: Didn’t start a league game until mid-way through the season after Demba’s injury, the pint-sized hitman not only deputized admirably for him, but his lack of strength and athleticism compared to Ba forced the team to play as a, well, team. With his agility and razor-sharp finishing, Shenhua’s back-up striker not only filled a hole but propelled the team to an amazing run to beat the top three teams in the league at home.
18 – Gao Di – 4/10 – Forward – Appearances: 3 (14) – Goals: 1
Crooks: Like Li Jianbin, Gao is a player I’ve liked ever since his first game for Shenhua. Unlike Li, he hasn’t been able to hold down a spot in the side, and hasn’t really helped himself with some pretty poor performances when selected. Gao is a natural striker, and is wasted when played as a winger – but his late-season performances at center-forward were pretty anonymous too. Clearly needs a manager’s trust and a run of games to prove himself – either Shenhua try playing two up top next year and Gao is first back-up for Ba and Martins, or it’s time for a mutually-beneficial parting of ways.
Wilson: You have to feel for Gao Di – his pitch time and goals scored have decreased every year since joining three years ago and it’s extremely debatable whether, as that rare beast – a Chinese bona-fide striker – that it’s his fault. His solitary goal this year came in the cup against a second division’s reserve side. A striker of some genuine ability with an acute sense of where the goal is and a good finisher, it’s hard to see him ever cutting it at any CSL team with championship pretensions, due to his lack of ability to play out wide and many clubs’ preferences for big name foreign strikers.
19 – Zheng Kaimu – 4/10 – Defensive Midfielder – Appearances: 2 (6) – Goals: 0
Wilson: Like Gaodi, the story of Zheng’s Shenhua career is one of early promise and then year-on-year regression. A first team regular as a 20-year-old under Jean Tigana in 2012, Zheng played just 214 minutes of first team football this year, roughly half of that in the CFA cup – a competition in which Shenhua traditionally try out fringe players more. Difficult to see his fortunes changing at Shenhua in the coming season.
Crooks: It’s not rocket science, is it – players get better with regular football, and worse without it. Quite how Zheng is behind Wang Shouting in the pecking order is a little worrying – perhaps needs to work harder to impress in training and his substitute outings.
20 – Wang Yun– 7.5/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 11 (17) – Goals: 0
Wilson: Was always going to feature more on the bench this season as the team beefed up it’s midfield with Qin Sheng. Again, a good player to have on the bench and at 33 his best years are behind him although he is still very much a classy midfielder who makes a positive impact any time he appears.
Crooks: As much as I love Wang Yun, I’m pulling the average rating down a little here – he was my 2015 player of the year, but had more of a bit-part role here. Clearly a superior footballer to Guarin, his partnership with Qin Sheng never quite worked out as well as it should do in theory. A fantastic first-reserve option for the position, and as committed as they come. Should never ever be allowed near a set piece delivery again.
22 – Qiu Shenjiong – 4/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 2 (0) – Goals: 0
Crooks: The best third-choice keeper in the league.
Wilson: A couple of cup appearances was all “big bull” got this year which is a shame as it’s become increasingly obvious that there is not much to pick between any of Shenhua’s keepers.
23 – Bai Jiajun – 8/10 – Fullback – Appearances: 29 (1) – Goals: 1
Crooks: Bai is always in with a shout for player of the year in any given season – that Duracell bunny like energy, that creative synergy with Cao Yunding where they look like they’re just having fun out there, that all-in commitment every week. That Bai has never played international football, particularly for a side so chronically short on confidence, vim and creativity, is scandalous.
Wilson: Always a consistent and committed player, Bai really came into his own this year with his partnership on the left flank with fellow Genbao graduate Cao Yunding. Reliable but still prone to the odd silly outburst and red card.
25 – Wang Lin – 3/10 – Defender – Appearances: 11 (2) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Ever seen a wardrobe play right-back? Slow, immobile, unable to pass a football. The right flank continues to be Shenhua’s problem position. When deputizing for Bai Jiajun on the other flank, Wang showcased perhaps the biggest gulf in quality between first-choice and understudy in the squad.
Wilson: A pointless signing, the man who has a conviction for match fixing in Singapore in 2009 was brought back to Shenhua at the start of this season. His main contribution was, like a few others, keeping younger players from getting much-needed first team experience.
26 – Qin Sheng– 8/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 29 (1) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Signing of the season for Shenhua, undoubtedly. An actual defensive midfielder, Qin thunders into tackles, made more interceptions than anyone in the league, and has a great knack for knowing when to recycle possession gently and when to go for the spearing diagonal pass. Takes a mean long-throw too, which gave the side some early success. The only two downsides are a propensity to pick up lots of yellow cards – something of an occupational hazard for the role – and some very suspect stamina, meaning he’s substituted more games than not. Those fan shirts with ‘General Qin’ emblazened on the back are on to something, though.
Wilson: Gillot decided not to sign Qin last season but this year Shenhua got their man and this industrious midfielder gave Shenhua some real bite and flexibility in the middle of the park, making Gillot look a fool for not securing him. Compared on twitter as Stevie Gerard-esque by a UK viewer watching the first ever CSL game to appear live on Sky Sports, there were times when the juxtaposition was not such an outlandish one and was always in the thick of the action. A key contributor to the team’s success this season.
27 – Li Shuai– 3.5/10 – goalkeeper – Appearances: 31 (0) – Goals:0
Crooks: First things first – if there was a competition for oldest-looking man on the planet, Li Shuai would have it locked down. Maybe it’s all the worrying he does about those increasingly-frequent bloopers – a good shot-stopper and a bit more proactive than Geng at coming off his line to attack crosses, Li had a solid enough first half of the year before going into freefall. Frequent goal-costing, game-changing mistakes – from dodgy footwork in Yanbian through to suspect positioning and reactions against Jiangsu, through to an inability to keep out a gently bobbling ball at his near post. Li’s confidence – and that his defensive unit has in him – is clearly regressing, and at Li’s age it’s difficult to see things turning around.
Wilson: Really, why was he signed? Not the worst keeper in the world but if you are going to spend one of only five domestic transfer slots on a goalkeeper when you already have two reasonably solid custodians, you’d better be getting hold of someone who is clearly a cut above what you have. Li was anything but and the fact he was automatic first choice despite a string of pretty bad mistakes which cost the club points, really reeks of the stink of club politics. At 34, five years older than the man he replaced, Geng Xiaofeng, his performances were no better and definitely did not merit being practically an ever-present.
28 – Cao Yunding – 8.5/10 – Left midfielder– Appearances: 32 (2) – Goals: 5
Crooks: Player of the season for me. I’ve been one of Cao’s harshest critics in the past – he’s a player of such obvious ability and rare creativity, and it’s been so frustrating to see him live off a reputation of turning up two or three times a year. Well, not any more – Cao was Shenhua’s most incisive player week-in week-out and added the regular end-product of goals and assists to his repertoire. Links up brilliantly with Bai and clearly has the trust of his big-name international team-mates. As with Bai, it’s an utter mystery that a player with qualities so lacking in the national side hasn’t played a minute of football for his country until just now.
Wilson: Finally he did it. Cao lived up to his obvious potential having re-invented himself as some kind of hybrid left-winger/left midfielder who likes to dribble his way to the byline and make low incisive crosses into the box or put early through balls to forward partners which take out entire defenses. A player of genuine vision and creativity, his record of nine assists speaks for itself and ranked him second highest in the CSL in such a category. He finished the season on a high with a much deserved national team debut in which he was unlucky not to score.
30 – Tao Jin – 5/10 – Defender – Appearances: 11 (4) – Goals: 0
Wilson: Tao continued his bizarre career this year by making 11 starts, his highest ever total for one season, despite have only made around 20 appearances in his entire 10-year Shenhua career before. He also kept China’s most expensive domestic signing ever, Bi Jinhao, out of the team in 2016. A very worrying development, considering Tao is a reasonable but very limited defender who is really just a squad player at best, as it suggests that players who have skanked around doing nothing at Shenhua for years finally get a game once they are in their 30s even if they really deserve it or not. Utterly baffling how this guy was completely off the radar 3 years ago when Shenhua’s squad was a lot weaker than it is now.
Crooks: Bizarre is indeed the word. Perfectly competent for a fourth or fifth-choice centre-back, you would hope Tao won’t be needed as often in 2017 – presumably a good reliable character to keep around the squad.
32 – Xu Junmin– 5/10 – Forward – Appearances: 2 (3) – Goals: 0
Wilson: The club’s top youth prospect (well, he’s already 22) played a grand total of 18 minutes of CSL football this season, but at least got a couple of starts in the cup. Looks agile and keen and appears to have some potential, but we really didn’t see enough of him to comment further and it’s uncertain if this will change next season.
Crooks: I’ve barely seen Xu play – there is a lot of hype around him, perhaps partially since it’s a while since Shenhua brought through a youth prospect of their own. At an age where he really should be making an impact in 2017 – particularly with such limited options ahead of him – but club politics and management may impact those chances.
32 – Bi Jinhao – 5/10 – Defender – Appearances: 7 (1) – Goals: 0
Crooks: Don’t write Bi off just yet – he’s young enough, and clearly has the physical attributes to succeed in the CSL. Had a shaky start and got injured just as he was starting to look a bit less skittish. Clearly never gained Manzano’s trust, and saw Li and Kim forge a solid partnership in his absence – Bi and his confidence remain something of an enigma, but given that he’ll have had a year to get used to new surroundings and that price tag, could come back strongly next year. For the time being, the jury is very much out – but given that value-for-money and financial fair play are an abstract and irrelevant concept in the CSL, let’s not use the price tag alone as justification to put the big man down.
Wilson: Pretty much a disaster for all concerned. Bi was signed for a record domestic transfer fee as a defender to shore up Shenhua’s leaky backline. However he looked unconvincing and injury struck early on in the season for what seemed like an awful long time – it was never clear if he was not fit or just not picked – perhaps that was intentionally left vague. By the end of the season he had fallen so far down the pecking order he was reduced to playing in games against lower league opposition in the cup or end of season matches. Starting his career as a striker, his career goal tally failed to hit double figures before he was converted to a defender two years ago by former Shenhua boss Jia Xiuqian at Henan and got a China call-up. At 25 he still has time to prove he was not a huge dud but seeing Tao Jin get in the middle of defence ahead of you is enough to dent anyone’s confidence.
All player stats include CSL and CFA cup games
What do you think? Generous or harsh? Leave your thoughts below.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015