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League One 2016 Review- Part 1: 2017 CSL sides Guizhou and Quanjian in focus, along with Huanghai and Renhe

The 2016 Chinese domestic season may be gone, but it is far from forgotten as WEF’s comprehensive review of the League One season shows. Part One features the top four sides, including Tianjin Quanjian and Guizhou Zhicheng who will be gracing the Chinese Super League in 2017. Qingdao Huanghai and Beijing Renhe’s seasons will also be discussed. As well as anaysing how each side performed during a crazy season, we will also look at which game best defined their year, which player performed best for them in 2016 and what they need to do before everything gets going again in March 2017.

Tianjin Quanjian     

2016 position – 1st         Pl 30 W 18 D 5 L 7 GF 61 GA 27 GD +34 Pts 59

2015 position – 9th       Pl 30 W 9 D 9 L 12 GF 28 GA 33 GD -6 Pts 36

2016 season grade – B

Overview

Having undergone a massive amount of pre-season investment as part of their transformation from League One strugglers Tianjin Songjiang into a side with ambitions to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, Quanjian were overwhelming favourites to win promotion to the Super League in their first year under new management. Ultimately, the first place finish means this season has to go down as a success, but struggling over the line as part of a three-way tie with two clubs with vastly inferior resources can’t have been what the ownership expected this year.

Tianjin Quanjian – 2016 in numbers

 

  • Despite massive pre-season investment, Vanderlai Luxemburgo managed just 1.33 points per game in his 12 matches which was less than predecessor Goran Tomic who had 1.45
  • Fabio Cannavaro had a very impressive 2.39 PPG over his 18 matches in charge and a win percentage of 78%
  • Quanjian’s league winning total of 59 points is the lowest in League One since Shanghai Tellace (now SIPG) in 2012 but their goal tally of 61 is the joint highest in L1 history (with Guangzhou Evergrande 2010)


With former Real Madrid and Brazil manager Vanderlai Luxemburgo at the helm, the season couldn’t have started better when a 3-0 demolition of Qingdao Huanghai was followed by a 5-2 mauling of Zhejiang Yiteng as part of a haul of thirteen points from the opening five games. Things soon took a surprising turn for the worse, though, as the club embarked on a run of three draws and four defeats in their next seven games which saw them slip down to eighth.

That spelled the end of Luxemburgo’s time in Tianjin and the club underwent an immediate turnaround under new manager Fabio Cannavaro who took them back to the top of the table with nine wins and 28 goals in ten games. There was a brief wobble in the next couple of matches, but Cannavaro was able to secure top spot and seal promotion with five wins from the last six games as Quanjian placed ahead of Guizhou Zhicheng and Qingdao Huanghai based on their head-to-head record.

Having looked unmotivated and out of ideas under Luxemburgo, there is no doubt that the former Italy and Juventus centre back saved Quanjian’s season as they picked up 43 points from eighteen games under his watch. Still, even when things were going well under the 2006 Ballon D’Or winner, Quanjian rarely reached the levels of dominance one would expect from such a potent looking attack and, in the late season run-in, they were often the beneficiary of opponents who looked overly respectful at best, and suspiciously demotivated at worst.

Defining Game

Quanjian dished out plenty of hammerings in 2016 and put at least three goals past their opponents on ten occassions throughout the season. However, it was their 3-0 win away to Hunan Billows in round 18 which best summarizes their season.

Billows came into the match rock bottom of the table having won just one of their last fourteen games, while Quanjian had won five on the bounce since Cannavaro had taken over. All indications pointed to a spanking and the scoreline suggests that things were just that simple.

In fact, the two sides were evenly matched for most of the game where a conservative Hunan side looked relatively comfortable against their superior opponents. Two perfectly timed runs from Luis Fabiano in each half gave Quanjian a 2-0 lead before Geuvanio piled on the misery in stoppage time with a wonderful solo goal. Hunan had plenty of chances of their own and, ultimately, it was the only the individual quality of Fabiano and Geuvanio which split the league’s top and bottom sides.

The game perfectly encapsulates a season which looked comfortable on the surface but proved much more of a struggle than it ever should have been.

Player of the Season

Midfielder Jadson was the best in his position in League One this season and looking at his assist count – measuring as high as fifteen depending on which source you use – isn’t enough to explain his significance in dictating games for his club and allowing the attackers to flourish. That being said, it’s Luis Fabiano who has to walk off as the club’s player of the season this year after winning the League One Golden Boot award thanks to his tally of 22 goals.

The 36-year-old former Brazil international may have come to play in the Chinese second tier for one last payday, but he remained a fierce competitor during the 90 minutes he was on the field and, as his goal scoring record shows, his instincts remained as sharp as ever, even if some of his other physical attributes are in decline.

The Chinese media seems fixed on the idea that Chinese international Sun Ke had a great season, but five of his eight goals were scored in games that Quanjian won by three or more goals and he rarely had an impact on the left wing as most of his club’s attacks went through the middle or the impressive but inconsistent Geuvanio on the left.

Looking Ahead

One thing that is for sure during this off-season is that Quanjian will spend big money as they prepare for their first ever season in the top flight. With his job of firing them to promotion done, it has already been announced that Luis Fabiano will not be returning in 2017 and so we can expect the club to fork out a hefty sum to pick up a foreign striker over the winter.

Luis Fabiano was Quanjian’s player of the year in 2016 but won’t return for their Super League campaign

There is still no confirmation on the fate of Jadson or winger Geuvanio, but both would be able to more than hold their own in the top tier of Chinese football. Big domestic names Sun Ke, Zhao Xuri and Zhang Lu will all stay put, but the club will need to bring in reinforcements to strengthen a weak back four and add depth to the midfield.

Liaoning Whowin centre back Yang Shanping is already being strongly linked with the club and it would be no surprise if they also added a foreign centre back and at least one domestic full back. The Guangzhou Evergrande duo of Xu Xin and Zheng Long are also being rumoured for a move north with Xu possibly providing depth in midfield and winger Zheng potentially recreating the best spell of his Evergrande career which happened under Cannavaro’s tenure in 2015. Zheng’s arrival will also give the underwhelming Sun Ke some serious first team competition and may motivate him to step up his domestic form in 2017.

It is worth noting that the club are also making a conscious effort to bring through young players, with centre back Liu Yiming, midfielder Zhang Xiuwei and left back Yan Zhihao all being under-22 players who got a lot of playing time in 2016. None of them is really good enough to start for a team which has aspirations of a top four CSL finish, but it will be interesting to see how they progress in the top flight.

Guizhou Zhicheng     

2016 position – 2nd         Pl 30 W 18 D 5 L 7 GF 48 GA 27 GD +18 Pts 59

2015 position – 13th       Pl 30 W 8 D 6 L 116 GF 39 GA 55 GD -16 Pts 30

2016 season grade – A+

Overview

As we alluded to in our mid-season review, Guizhou’s fairytale promotion season shares obvious parallels with Yanbian Fude’s 2015 campaign and has also drawn plenty of comparisons with Leicester City’s unfathomable march to the 2015-16 English Premier League crown. With a squad of apparent also-rans projected to battle against relegation only to confound expectations through exceptional teamwork and discipline, it pretty obvious where those similarities lie and Guizhou’s second place finish is every bit as surprising as those two outcomes.

Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng – 2016 in numbers

  • The 18 games Zhicheng won in 2016 are more than the 17 they managed in their three previous League One seasons combined (2011, 2013, 2015)
  • The club went from having the second worse defensive record in 2015 (55 goals conceded) to the second best in 2016 (27 goals against)
  • Guizhou’s average attendance has climbed from 1,871 last season to 11,089 in 2016

One point from the first three games didn’t seem to be anything unusual for such a weak looking side, so it was a bit of a surprise that head coach Chen Mao was replaced by recently hired general manager Li Bing as the man in charge of matchdays. There was nothing in the 47-year-old’s CV to suggest he would be able to instigate any real turnaround, but the club’s fortunes immediately changed as they picked up 25 points from a possible 27 in a run which culminated in a seven game winning streak.

That saw them rocket into the top two, but when they went on to pick up one point from the next three games it seemed as though the glorious run was over and most expected them to plummet back down the table where they seemed to belong. It wasn’t to be, though, as they recovered to win ten games in the second half of the season, including significant victories over promotion rivals Beijing BG, Qingdao Huanghai, Beijing Renhe and Tianjin Quanjian.

Despite a dramatic victory over Quanjian in round 29, Li Bing’s men still needed to win in Xinjiang in order to secure promotion on the final game of the season and goals from Mazola and Yves Ekwalla Herman gave the 2-1 victory they needed to earn them a first ever season in the top flight.

Defining Game

Festus Baise’s stoppage time heroics in the penultimate game of the season against Tianjin Quanjian concluded the club’s most memorable game of the season, but the round 12 2-1 win away to Beijing Renhe is their defining match of 2016. Not only did this game summarise Guizhou’s indefatigable team spirit, it also perfectly symbolised their refusal to bow to expectations.

Zhicheng were on a six game winning streak when they showed up at the Fengtai Stadium to take on a Renhe side that had shared Guiyang with them until they relocated to the capital following their 2015 relegation from the CSL. For years, Zhicheng had been in the shadow of their far more successful city rivals and this was a chance for them to decisively lay that to rest and prove they were genuine promotion contenders. Despite Zhicheng’s excellent form, Renhe were only one place behind them in third and were heavy favourites thanks to their stronger squad and perfect home record of five wins from five.

Mazola and Yves Ekwalla Herman celebrate linking up against Renhe

Zhicheng had never found themselves behind during their winning run and there were big question marks about whether they could fight back from as  goal down as it would be more difficult to follow their usual modus operandi of sitting deep and playing on the counter.

An early goal from Renhe’s Nikica Jelavic had Zhicheng fans fearing the worse, but Li Bing’s men displayed a versatility and resilience which they hadn’t previously had the chance to show. Mazola equalised before half-time thanks to the persistence of Ilhamjan Iminjan and Herman, and Renhe’s early dominance over the game began to decline.

With 20 minutes left, Herman capitalised on a mistake from centre back Yu Rui to give Zhicheng a 2-1 comeback win. This was a clear indication that the Guiyang side had to be taken seriously and the fact it was against a side who abandoned their city six months earlier just made the victory that much sweeter.

Player of the Season

Given how Guizhou’s success in 2016 was based on fantastic teamwork, it seems inappropriate to single out one individual player as the best of the year. But if one man does sum up Guizhou’s remarkable season it’s 37-year-old Spaniard Iban Cuadrado who overcame creaking legs and a marked lack of pace to be arguably the best centre back in the entire division in 2016.

The Barcelona youth team product never did anything spectacular, but he used all his smarts to outmaneuver opposition strikers and, more importantly, expertly marshalled the best defence in the division. Festus Baise’s commitment and heroics may have caught the eye more and Mazola’s team-leading fourteen goals were vital, but Cuadrado’s contribution was essential to the team in 2016 and they probably wouldn’t have gotten over the line without him.

Looking Ahead

There is no doubt that Guizhou will find life in the CSL extremely difficult. They have a lot to do over the winter to get themselves top flight ready and there are serious doubts over whether they have the financial resources to do so. The obvious thing to do would be compare them to Yanbian who survived their first season in the CSL relatively comfortably despite their comparatively limited means. However, as was forecast pre-season, Yanbian’s fast-paced, high-pressing style was always going to give CSL sides problems, whereas Guizhou’s basic counter-attacking 4-4-2 has far less prospect of success.

This means big changes are needed over the winter and, with the exception of goalkeeper and full-back, they could do with strengthening in every position on the field. It seems like Cuadrado won’t be returning in 2017 and so a foreign and domestic centre back will both be required.

Their midfield will also be extremely light unless they switch formations and introduce some new blood. Baise should be able to step up a level to play as a shielding midfielder in the CSL, but there are real doubts over whether Wang Jun or Zhang Mengqi can cut it in the top flight.

There’s no confirmation yet as to whether Mazola and Herman will be returning in 2017, but we can also expect them to bring in at least one new foreign attacker before the start of the season.

As it stands, it’s hard to believe they will be able to do enough and there’s a danger that Guizhou will go the way of Wuhan Zall in 2013 and really struggle to be competitive in the top flight.

Qingdao Huanghai

2016 position – 3rd         Pl 30 W 19 D 2 L 9 GF 52 GA 42 GD +10 Pts 59

2015 position – 11th       Pl 30 W 7 D 12 L 11 GF 26 GA 39 GD -15  Pts 33

2016 season grade – A

Overview

Huanghai finished in a three-way tie at the top of League One and missed out on promotion thanks to an inferior head-to-head record, but this should still go down as an excellent season for the East Coast club. Their pre-season talk of aping Barcelona and bringing in a new philosophy was largely ridiculed at the time, but they undoubtedly played the best football in the division in 2016 and it was almost enough to take them into the top flight.

Qingdao Huanghai – 2016 in numbers

 

  • After being L1’s lowest scoring team in 2015 (26) Huanghai were the second highest scoring team in 2016 (52)
  • Huanghai’s home record of 38 points from 15 matches is the best in the division
  • Having drawn 22 time over the previous two seasons, Huanghai tied just twice in 2016

The year started badly with a 3-0 home defeat to Tianjin Quanjian, but it gave a taste of things to come as new manager Jordi Vinyals approached the game in an extremely positive and open way, rather that trying to stack the defence against strong opposition as the club would have done in previous years. They then went on to win nine of their next eleven games to go top before a mid-season wobble saw them sink down into fourth.

Another excellent run of seven wins from eight put them back into top spot, but everything fell apart in round 27 when they travelled to Shanghai Shenxin and lost 3-0. That result saw them slip back to third and another defeat the following week away to Wuhan Zall meant their hopes of promotion were slim with two games remaining. Indeed, Huanghai took the maximum six points available from their final two matches, but Quanjian and Guizhou Zhicheng did enough to hold onto the top two spots and so Vinyals’s men just missed out.

Defining Game

Huanghai’s 5-2 mid-season hammering of Dalian Yifang provided the best demonstration of the sides lethal attacking potential when everything came together and it also fell in the middle of a three game run which perfectly summarised the good, bad and ugly of Vinyals’s style. The previous week Huanghai had been torn apart in a 5-0 massacre by Beijing Renhe in which the openness of their passing game was badly exposed.

Vinyals remained unperturbed and his side turned out to host Yifang the following week with just three adjustments and a similar ethos for a match which was first vs third at the time. Huanghai were the beneficiaries of catastrophic defending throughout the game and were 2-0 up within 17 minutes as Ma Long and Wan Houliang took advantage of their generous opponents. Cui Ming’an pulled one back for the hosts almost immediately with an excellent free kick, but the game remained incredibly open with both sides looking like scoring at any time.

Jiang Tao and Nyasha Mushekwi then traded goals to bring the tally up to 3-2, before Marti Crespi and Godfred Karikari ran up the score for the hosts. Indeed, the game could have ended up 7-5 and was an excellent demonstration of Huanghai’s promotion credentials as well as their penchant for producing exciting matches. Just to add to the absurdity, they then proceeded to get smashed 5-1 away to Tianjin Quanjian the following weekend.

Player of the Season

Much like with Guizhou, it’s hard to pick out a single player as part of what was, on the whole, an outstanding team effort, but it’s hard to look beyond centre back Marti Crespi if you have to pick one. The 29-year-old Spaniard was the foundation of their passing game and was a pivotal part of the side having the highest possession statistics in the league.

Nobody in League One played or completed more passes than Crespi in 2016 and only eleven players in the entire league topped his tally of ten goals which is remarkable for a centre back. The one obvious blight on the former Mallorca man’s season is that his lack of pace was badly exposed by the high defensive line favoured by Vinyals, as the 42 goals the club conceded throughout the year demonstrates.

Honourable mentions for top scorer Djordje Rakic who netted fourteen times throughout the season despite missing six games with a broken collarbone, and Hong Kong international left-winger Godfred Karikari whose tireless sprinting down the flank provided a welcome contrast to the more intricate passing efforts of his teammates.

Looking Ahead

Yuri (10) may not return in 2017 after becoming surplus to requirements

After their exploits this season, Huanghai will look to be there or thereabouts in the promotion race next year, but they will need to do some work over the winter. If they want to keep playing the same way in 2017, maintaining Crespi will be essential, while it looks like his centre back partner Wan Houliang will be moving to Beijing Renhe in the off-season and so will need replacing.

Rakic’s contract is up and there is no confirmation on his status so a new foreign striker may also be needed. The club struggled to fit Brazilian attacker Yuri into their line-up in the second half of last season so you’d expect him to be replaced and a more defensive or box-to-box foreign midfielder could really do the trick fo them next year.

Zhang Jiaqi arrived from Guangzhou Evergrande on loan in the second half of last season and seemed to offer them more steel in the middle, so maintaining or replacing him with a like-for-like performer should be a priority. Goalkeeper Liu Peng and right-winger Gao Xiang also look a little short of promotion standards and could be replaced over the winter.

Beijing Renhe

2016 position – 4th                     Pl 30 W 15 D 4 L 11 GF 49 GA 35 GD +14 Pts 49

2015 position – 4th                     Pl 30 W 7 D 8 L 15 GF 39 GA 52 GD -13  Pts 29

2016 season grade – D

Overview

Given that they were narrowly relegated from the CSL in 2015 and rolled into 2016 with a stronger squad, it’s hard to look upon Renhe’s season as anything other than a failure. As regular spectator Adem Ali points out, there is some mitigation in that the club had to deal with “moving to a new city and having a new manager”, but a fourth place finish is a major disappointment considering the comparative strength of the squad.

To be fair to manager Wang Baoshan, he can point to a terrible run of injuries which saw important players such as Zvjezdan Misimovic, Zhang Chenglin, Rao Weihui, Zhu Baojie, Sun Jihai and Zhang Yuan all miss considerable game time in 2016. Ultimately, though, it was the club’s away form which let them down as they sumplemented the second best home record in the league by picking up just twelve points in fifteen matches on the road. Nothing sums up Renhe’s failure to get it done outside of Beijing better than the goalscoring record of big-money pre-season signing Nikica Jelavic who netted fourteen of his fifteen goals in 2016 at the club’s Fengtai Stadium.

Beijing Renhe – 2016 in numbers

  • The club had the league’s 2nd best home record in 2016 (W12 D1 L2) and took 76% of their points at Fengtai
  • Nikica Jelavic scored just 1 of his 15 goals away from home or 7%
  • The club’s attendance dropped from the 15,139 they were averaging in Guiyang in 2015 to an exaggerated 4,542 in 2016

 

Despite their dubious efforts away from the capital, Renhe were still well within promotion contention with five games to go before imploding at home to Tianjin Quanjin in a 3-1 defeat which also saw players Liu Tianqi and Han Peng receive length bans for a wild elbow and a stamp, (dis?)respectively. They then took one point from the next three matches and ended up ten points adrift of the top three.

As Adem also suggests, it was “important to draw in a new fan base” following the move from Guizhou to Beijing and they also failed in this regard. The official average attendance was 4,542 but numbers were regularly exaggerated by thousands, much to the mirth of those who were actually there.

Defining Game

In terms of home matches, the 3-1 defeat to Tianjin Quanjian was obviously a major factor in the downturn of their season but, for pure symbolism, nothing can beat their 2-1 loss away to Guizhou Zhicheng the following week. The nomadic club were returning to Guiyang, where they had spent four years before departing for Beijing in January 2016, and were still in with a decent shot of going up if they beat their promotion chasing opponents.

Over 13,000 fans turned out to see their newly adopted club get one over on the side that had abandoned them just eight months earlier, and things weren’t looking good for the home side when Yang Yihu took advantage of a mis-timed offside trap to to put the visitors a goal up midway through the first half.

The gloom didn’t last long, though, as Zhicheng’s Ilhimjan Iminjan took advantage of a quick free kick and a statuesque Renhe defence to cut the ball back to Mazola who blasted a 20-yard shot into the net courtesy of a deflection off of Jelavic. With Guizhou in the ascendancy as the second half wore on, the game turned when a goal-bound Pang Zhiquan shot struck the arm of veteran Sun Jihai. This allowied Mazola to double his tally from the penalty spot and caused Sun, who had once been a hero in Guiyang, to protest vehemently despite being bang to rights. The former Manchester City centre back then spent the remainder of the game committing needless fouls and angrily hacking the ball out of play to cap an undignified return to Guizhou for both him and club.

The post-match sight of black and orange Renhe fan shirts being disdainfully cast on to the pitchside running track by supporters who had once worn them with pride was a poignant symbol of the visitor’s miserable return and a disappointing season in general.

Player of the Season

For pure talent alone, it’s hard to look beyond creative midfielder Zvjezdan Misimovic who pulled the strings and was still a class act on his day. The 34-year-old former Bosnian international struggled with injuries and was clearly carrying a little extra weight for much of the year, but still came up with an impressive fifteen assists in just 24 appearances – a tally that would have been higher had Jelavic not been so wasteful in front of goal on the club’s travels.

Centre back Yi Teng is also worth an honourable mention. We have already named him in our team of the season and he was probably the best Chinese centre back in the division in 2016.

Looking Ahead

A return to the CSL remains the aim and Renhe have shown they mean business with the very early signing of Henan Jianye’s star playmaker Ivo. The Brazilian has arguably been the best CSL player not in one of the “big” teams over the last couple of seasons and will be a high quality edition to League One.

Zvjezdan Misimovic tears apart Qingdao Huanghai. He won’t be back in 2017

The 30-year-old will replace the departing Misimovic and mid-season signing Guillermo Molins is also out having failed to make an impression in the capital. With Jelavic seemingly sticking around, Renhe have one remaining foreign player slot, and may have to use it on a defender if they fail to find domestic reinforcements.

Yi Teng’s loan spell from Guangzhou Evergrande is over and the word is he will be staying in Guangzhou with a move to R&F. Left back and centre back Zhang Chenglin is also heading south after transfering to Evergrande and starting right back Zhang Yuan’s loan spell from R&F and it seems like he will be permanently transferring to Shenzhen for 2017.

Anyone who witnessed his implosion in the defeat to Guizhou Zhicheng will be relieved that Sun Jihai has decided to bring his glittering playing career to an end and his fellow aging centre back Wang Qiang may not be far behind following a poor 2016. The rumour is that Wan Houliang will be brought back to the club after a decent year at centre back with Qingdao Huanghai, but that won’t be enough to save a crumbling defence as it stands.

The midfield and the wings remain among the best in the division and could be strengthened further if Li Shuai is retained following the end of a successful season on loan with Hohhot Zhongyou.

Obviously, the other major issue facing the club is building up a fanbase which they have struggled to do this season. With Beijing Guo’an already having a significant monopoly on football supporters in the city, that will remain difficult to achieve, but success on the field in 2017 will certainly help.     

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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