League One 2016 Review – Part 2: Yifang and BG fall short but Wuhan and Hohhot finish strong
WEF continues its review of the 2016 League One season with a closer look at the sides who finished between fifth and eighth this year. While Dalian Yifang and Beijing BG will be disappointed to have finished among this batch of teams, rather than in the top four we previewed last week, Wuhan Zall and Hohhot Zhongyou can be very content with a top half finish after slow starts to the year. So sit back and recover from those Christmas hangovers with everything you need to know about how these four sides got on in 2016 and what they’ll be looking to do in preparation for the rapidly approaching 2017.
2016 position – 5th Pl 30 W 14 D 3 L 13 GF 43 GA 44 GD -1 Pts 45
2015 position – 3rd Pl 30 W 17 D 7 L 6 GF 46 GA 22 GD +24 Pts 58
2016 season grade – D
With promotion once again the target, 2016 was an unmitigated failure for Yifang and the club’s ownership only have themselves to blame. Having missed out on the CSL by just two points in 2015, the club decided to stick with manager Mikhael Stahre for the 2016 season and, despite some inconsistencies, their faith seemed reasonably well guided given that the Swede had them just one point shy of the promotion places at the mid-way point of the season.
Dalian Yifang – 2016 in numbers
- Including a 5-2 defeat in his last game in charge, Yifang conceded 16 goals in Stahre’s 15 games in charge, followed by 28 in the subsequent 15 matches
- In 45 total league games under Stahre, Yifang conceded 38 goals for an average of 0.84 GPG. Since Stahre was fired they’ve conceded 1.87 GPG
- Nyasha Mushekwi’s 19 goals in 2016 meant he scored 43% of the club’s total
Unfortunately for Stahre, the game which marked that mid-point was a calamitous 5-2 defeat away to league leaders Qingdao Huanghai and that seemed to have persuaded the club that a change of direction was needed. As well as overlooking the fact that they were still within touching distance of promotion, the club’s ownership also seemed to have forgotten that they had basically been playing with only one foreign player for most of the year as a result of a persistent injury suffered by playmaker Constantin Budescu and winger Mohamed Bangura only proving good enough for the bench.
Nevertheless, they decided to pull the trigger and Stahre was replaced by Milinko Pantic whose disciplinarian reign proved disastrous for the team’s promotion hopes. Pantic’s eight game spell at Yifang saw the club take just ten points and effectively end their chances of promotion. Within three games of the Serbian taking charge it had become clear that the players weren’t taking to his stricter methods and he did himself no favours by leaving senior players such as Cao Xuan, Wang Wanpeng, Zhu Xiaogang and Sun Bo out of the first team on various occasions.
A 4-0 hammering to Wuhan Zall in round 24 saw Pantic’s reign come to a catastrophic end and his assistant Sergio Cardenas oversaw the last six games of the season on autopilot with promotion already gone.
Having won his first game away to divisional whipping boys Hunan Billows, Pantic then travelled to the capital where he presided over a 3-0 hammering by Beijing BG. Next up was his first home game which also happened to be a Dalian derby against relegation strugglers Transcendence.
Having dispatched the newly promoted side with a routine 2-0 win under Stahre earlier in the season, Yifang were heavy favourites to stroll to victory against their inferior opponents and 20,000 supporters turned out to view the spectacle.
Things looked like they were going according to plan when Wang Wanpeng stabbed a corner home from close range just two minutes in and Yifang’s dominance of the early phases gave their supporters no reason to worry. Transcendence seemed to be coming back in to things as the half wore on, but Yifang maintained their advantage going into the interval.
Transendence introduced new signing William Paulista at the beginning of the second half and the game totally turned from that point as Yifang’s defence fell apart under pressure from the debutant and his partner in crime Jailton Paraiba. Within four minutes of the restart, Paulista had laid the ball off for Zhang Gong who hopefully smashed the ball towards goal from outside the area as he did approximately twice a game throughout 2016. This was a special day, though, as Zhang’s effort was actually vaguely targeted towards the vicinity of the goal and it went into the Yifang net courtesy of a deflection off of Zhu Xiaogang’s hand.
Before the hour mark, William had given Transcendence a 2-1 lead and Yifang were lucky the winning margin hadn’t been extended by the time the game came to an end. The crowd, who had been no fans of Stahre, launched into a chorus of boos and Pantic already looked to be in serious trouble. The Serbian never recovered and was gone within six weeks along with Yifang’s promotion hopes.
Player of the Season
No contest here as centre forward Nyasha Mushekwi continued banging in goals regardless of the fluctuating performances of those around him. As well as making him League One’s second highest goal scorer, the Zimbabwean international’s nineteen goals accounted for 43% of Yifang’s total and he was involved in over half of the team’s strikes when you factor in his three assists.
With the defence falling apart following the departure of Stahre, thing could have been even worse than a fifth place finish had Mushekwi not managed to keep finding the net.
Honourable mention to incredibly promising 20-year-old left-winger Wang Jinxian who looked to be a star in the making as he kept foreign player Mohamed Bangura out of the side. Wang is not the finished article, but he has a massive upside which has been recognised by China manager Marcello Lippi who has included him in his squad for the upcoming China Cup.
As it has been for the previous two seasons, the club’s aim in 2017 is to earn a return to the Super League for the first time since 2014. All indications are, however, that they are moving further away from that goal and they will need to make big changes this off-season in order to be in serious contention next year.
When Yifang took over the ownership of the club in the summer of 2015 they promised to invest big money, but their recruitment has so far proven to be fairly abysmal. Mushekwi turned out well, but Budescu, Bangura and summer signing Sekou Oliseh were all massive busts and the club will need to find two new foreign players for 2017 presuming Mushekwi stays.
Domestically, the squad also looks well short with the central midfield and all defensive positions aside from right-back looking a long way from the standard required to earn promotion.
A new manager is already in place in the shape of Spaniard Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, but how he adapts to China is anybody’s guess. Regardless of his own abilities, though, the former Real Madrid and Oman boss will need significant and well planned winter reinforcements in order to be able to mount a realistic promotion challenge.
2016 position – 6th Pl 30 W 12 D 7 L 11 GF 31 GA 33 GD -2 Pts 43
2015 position – 10th Pl 30 W 8 D 12 L 10 GF 31 GA 30 GD +1 Pts 36
2016 season grade – B-
A strange season for Wuhan who looked to be in a relegation battle for much of the year, but ended up in sixth place thanks to winning their last five matches in a row. The Hubei side began the season under the tutelage of Zheng Xiong who set them up in a way that made them hard to beat but not much else.
Wuhan Zall – 2016 in numbers
- Wuhan’s total of 31 goals scored is only worse than the two relegated sides, and their total of 33 conceded is only bettered by the two promoted sides
- Not surprisingly, then, Wuhan games featured less goals than any other League one team last season
- After drawing 7 times under Zheng Xiong’s 15 games in charge, Wuhan didn’t tie a single game for the remainder of the season
Zall drew seven times in the first thirteen games of the season, but won just twice. Zheng won his next two games in charge, but the decision to let him go had clearly already been made and eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Ciro Ferrara would be taking the helm. The former Italian international hadn’t managed anywhere since being sacked by Sampdoria in December 2012 and his reign got off to a slow start with just six points from the first seven games.
With seven games remaining Zall found themselves in the relegation zone, but everything fell into place in round 24 when they hammered a shambolic Dalian Yifang side 4-0 to catapult themselves towards survival. The next match was a hard-fought 1-0 loss away to eventual champions Tianjin Quanjian, but Zall then went on to win the last five games of the season by a one goal margin in a run which included 1-0 victories over top three sides Qingdao Huanghai and Guizhou Zhicheng.
Coming into round 26 Wuhan still sat just two places above the relegation zone and remained in real danger of sinking into League Two. A 4-0 win over Dalian Yifang two weeks earlier had been followed by a good performance in defeat to Tianjin Quanjian, but there was sill no certainty over whether the team could kick on and seal their survival.
With promotion chasing Guizhou Zhicheng rolling in to town, getting a result was never going to be easy and a 5 million RMB win bonus was offered to the hosts in order to incentivise a victory. What proceeded was a tight, hard-fought contest which was played with a great deal of intensity.
Sparse chances were shared evenly between the teams and as the clock ticked over to 90 minutes it looked as though theY would have to settle for a goalless stalemate. With just over a minute of stoppage time elapsed, Pang Zhiquan latched on to a Festus Baise long ball and could have snatched a late victory for Zhicheng had it not been for the quick reactions of Zall’s underrated goalkeeper Sun Shuobo who raced off his line to block the chance.
Less than 90 seconds later, Wuhan had won the game courtesy of a long range effort from summer signing Samuel Johnson. The goal sent players, staff and fans into delirium and the win offered a real sense that Ferrara was helping the club turn the corner.
The Italian had switched the team’s tactics from the interminable possession based 4-2-3-1 they played under Zheng Xiong to a fast-paced, counterattacking 4-3-3. While, Zheng’s sides were happy to knock the ball around in their own half with little intent to go forward, Ferrara set the team up to cede possession where necessary but press the opposition and hit them rapidly on the break when the chance came up. With the addition of Johnson in the summer transfer window in place of cumbersome predecessor Guto, the team now had pace in attack and Ferrara seemed to have figured out how to use it.
Player of the Season
If this was a post-summer award it would no doubt go to Johnson who bagged six goals and three assists over his eleven games with the team. But as the award is for an entire year it has to go to centre back Solvi Ottesen who provided leadership and a defensive solidity to a back four that was otherwise strewn with the potential for individual errors.
His role was particularly important early in the season when Wuhan struggled to produce anything in attack and they needed him to stop the opposition running away with games. Although he missed six games during the year through a combination of injury and suspension, his contribution was vital to a team whose domestic defenders leave a lot to be desired.
As usual, the club is talking about promotion as its aim in 2017 but, as usual, the reality looks to be quite different. As good as the results were towards the end of last season, there is a lot of work to be done if Zall are to be legit promotion contenders and it remains to be seen if the club has the resources and inclination to do it.
Johnson should return in 2017, but he played on the wing during the run-in with either Yang Chaosheng or Yao Hanlin taking up the centre forward role and that might not be sustainable in 2017. Yang is a loanee from Guangzhou Evergrande and, even if he does return, won’t be fit for the beginning of the 2017 season after breaking his leg in Meizhou in September. Yao did a good job filling in but is not a natural striker so you’d expect a foreign centre forward to be brought in to replace midfielder Michael Barrantes.
The Costa Rican’s departure leaves a big playmaker shaped hole in the Wuhan side, though, and, presuming they bring in a foreign striker, they face a major quandary over whether they maintain an overseas centre back or bring in a midfielder. Fans would be delighted to see Ottesen return in 2017, but that is by no means a certainty and if the former Jiangsu Sainty man doesn’t come back the club may opt to replace him with a midfielder.
That would leave a gaping hole in the defence, though, and so domestic reinforcements would have to be introduced at centre back. With Zall apparently being close to a deal for Shijiazhuang Ever Bright centre back and captain Li Chao, it looks like a foreign midfielder could be in the pipeline, but that’s a long way from being confirmed.
Domestically, there are a couple of decent youngsters coming through and Yao Hanlin and Sun Shuobo remain top quality League One players, but the team will need some real strengthening if they are to be genuine challengers for a place in 2018’s CSL. That being said, even if they can’t add too much quality over the summer, Ferrara has done enough to prove that they will at least be able to avoid flirting with relegation for most of the season in 2017.
2016 position – 7th Pl 30 W 12 D 5 L 13 GF 37 GA 35 GD +2 Pts 41
2015 position – 6th Pl 30 W 12 D 7 L 11 GF 38 GA 32 GD +6 Pts 43
2016 season grade – B
A real season of two halves for the Mongolians as they overcame a dreadful start to the year to secure a seventh place finish that seemed to come out of nowhere. Due to Hohhot’s harsh winter climate, Zhongyou started the year with a run of five straight away games from which they picked up zero points and scored zero goals. A 0-0 draw at home to Tianjin Quanjian followed, but another defeat on the road Guizhou Zhicheng meant that Wang Bo’s men had the remarkable distinction of not hitting the back of the net in any of their first seven games.
Hohhot Zhongyou – 2016 in numbers
- Hohhot didn’t score a single goal in their first seven games of the season
- They managed just 9 goals in 16 matches (0.56 GPG) before the signing of Andre Senghor and 28 in the subsequent 14 games (2.0 GPG)
- 32 points at home gives the club the 3rd best record in the division, while 9 points on the road gives them the third worst
A 3-2 home win over Meizhou Hakka in their next game hardly opened the floodgates, though, as they managed just two goals over the next six games. It was in round 15 when their season really turned around thanks to a 3-0 home victory over Shenzhen FC. That was the beginning of a run of five consecutive home games which saw the club pick up thirteen points and also coincided with the signing of striker Andre Senghor. The Senegalese targetman replaced the increasingly angering Jonas Salley (who was probably saved from a cataclysmic implosion by his premature departure from China) and gave Zhongyou a competely new focus in what had been a previously impotent attack.
By the end of that run of home fixtures Hohhot were up to twelfth and, although they’d slipped back down into fouteenth by the beginning of September, a run of fourteen points and sixteen goals from the last six games saw them finish at the top of a pile of eight teams who were all separated by just three points.
In round 17 Zhongyou were three games into a five match home run. Despite taking four points from their last two games they were still in the relegation zone and were hosting a Shanghai Shenxin side that were reinvigorated under new manager Gary White. Within seven minutes, Daniel Chima had put the visitors in front when he headed in a Davi cross, but his opposite number Andre Senghor didn’t want to be overshadowed on his debut.
Within eight minutes the former Senegalese international had headed in an equaliser off of a Nenad Milijas free kick. The majority of the game’s subsequent chances went Shenxin’s way, but their attack still hadn’t morphed into its swaggering best and Hohhot were able to hold out until stoppage time where Senghor won a penalty thanks to a Zhao Zuojun foul.
Following furious and unjustified protests from Shenxin’s players and staff, Dori stepped up to convert the penalty, but the drama was not over as Liu Chao turned Chima’s knock-on into the net in the 96th minute, only to see the effort ruled out for an offside. The decision was marginal at best and Shenxin’s players and staff swarmed around the assistant referee with a barking White leading the way.
The volcanic visitors may have been more justified in their rage this time around, but Zhongyou got the lucky break they needed and climbed out of the relegation zone to which they would never return. More importantly, Senghor proved a worthy addition on his debut where he gave Zhongyou the striker they needed and a genuine target for languid deep-lying playmaker Milijas’s 40-yard passes.
Player of the Season
Simlarly to the situation in Wuhan, if this was a second half of the season award it would have to go to Senghor thanks to his tally of eight goals and two assists in just twelve games with the club. However, it’s a whole season award which is much harder to decide. Dori is an obvious contender thanks to his ten goals and seven assists throughout the season, but he was so anonymous in the first half of the year – where he managed just two goals and two assists – that it’s hard to choose him.
Ultimately, though, Hohhot’s success lies in the strength of a defence which was the fourth best in the division in 2016 and their best defender by far was centre back Mao Kaiyu. The 25-year-old really came into his own in 2016 where he rarely put a foot wrong and consistently looked like a defender who belonged at a higher level to the one at which he was playing.
That view of Mao looks like coming to fruition in 2017 as CSL side Liaoning Whowin appear close to signing him, although it should be noted he has flourished in a five man defence over the last year and may not necessarily fair as well in a four man back line. Midfielders Yin Lu and Li Shuai were also extremely good in the second half of the season and were a big reason for Zhongyou’s success.
You’d expect the club to bring Senghor and Dori back for 2017, but neither player’s return is confirmed as of yet. One thing that is for sure is that Milijas won’t be back next year as his style was never really suitable for Zhongyou’s 5-4-1 formation and his own form was too inconsistent to justify his substantial salary.
Zhongyou will replace Milijas with either a centre back or defensive midfielder and they may need both as Mao Kaiyu is likely to leave the club in the winter and Beijing Renhe may not let Li Shuai return to Inner Mongolia for another loan spell after his vastly improved play in 2016.
The club had big financial worries in 2016 and, although it seems as though they will survive into 2017, we shouldn’t expect too much investment elsewhere, meaning more playing time for promising youngsters such as Li Lei De Kun and Luo Hao. However, there is little prospect of anything more than a difficult year unless their away record can be substantially improved.
2016 position – 7th Pl 30 W 11 D 8 L 11 GF 40 GA 38 GD +2 Pts 41
2015 position – 4th Pl 30 W 17 D 5 L 8 GF 48 GA 29 GD +19 Pts 56
2016 season grade – D-
It’s hard to give a narrative account of BG’s wildly inconsistent season and so we won’t even try beyond saying the club rarely went on a run of more than two consecutive wins or losses. As regular BG spectator Adem Ali summarizes, “eighth place was far too low and not at all acceptable” for a club that set the target of promotion within two years back in 2014. Remarkably for a team that was supposed to be one of the ‘Big 4’ along with Tianjin Quanjian, Beijing Renhe and Dalian Yifang, BG never once made it into League One’s top four and were never doing much more than hovering around mid-table.
Beijing BG – 2016 in numbers
- From the beginning of the season until the end, BG were never higher than 5th or lower than 11th in the table
- A 3 game losing streak between rounds 20 and 22 was the only time BG put together a run of more than 2 wins or losses in 2016
- Yan Xiangchuang was involved in a total of 18 goals in 2016, which is more than any other player
On paper, BG had one of the best first XI’s in the league but, although they did suffer from significant injury problems, they never really lived up to their potential. The club’s massive inconsistencies are a reflection on their indecisive manager Aleksander Stanojevic who was always flitting between a 5-3-2 and 4-4-2 formation and often made adjustments from the former to the latter mid-game.
Given the frequent alterations, it was no surprise that the team struggled to live up to its potential but, as Adem points outs, a bigger problem lay in the fact that “the players had trouble all season being motivated and rarely seemed up for any match”. There were individual players that stood out (and they will be highlighted below) but, as a team, BG looked lackluster for most of the year.
As Adem suggests, the frustrating thing for BG fans is that “when they actually felt like playing they looked like a promotion bound team.” The problem is they didn’t seem to feel like playing most of the time.
As well as his frequent formation changes and failure to motivate the side, Stanojevic’s other major flaw was his favourtism of particular players which, for example, saw him regularly include young Taiwanese attacker Chen Haowei in place of pre-season signing Bu Xin despite the latter always looking better when given time on the pitch.
An opening day match away to Wuhan Zall set the tone for what was going to be another disappointingly limp season. Zall came into the season looking like a team on the decline and a BG squad that had strengthened over the summer were favourites to start the year with a win.
Even before kick-off there were eyebrows raised at Stanojevic’s team selection which saw him opt for a conservative 5-3-2 formation and leave out winter signings Bu Xin and Yu Tao. What followed was a dull game which featured little in the way of action until Bu was introduced with about 20 minutes left to invigorate BG’s attack.With less than 10 minutes to go, Bu burst down the left wing and crossed in for Carmelo Valencia who made up for a poor first touch by performing an acrobatic bicycle kick with his second. As the game ticked over into stoppage time, Stanojevic’s conservatism came to the fore as he essentially went to a six man back line when replacing Valencia with Wang Cun.
This allowed Wuhan to throw everything at their visitors and win a very soft penalty thanks to a foul on Guto by Cui Zhongkai in the 97th minute. The Brazilian forward dusted himself off to convert from the spot and Stanojevic was left seething on the touchline at what he saw as two unfairly dropped points.
The Serbian may have been justified in his anger at the penalty, but this pattern of surprising and overly conservative team selection would recur throughout the season and it’s no coincidence that the club’s dropping of points to sides they ought to have beaten did too.
Player of the Season
This one is a no-brainer and it’s Yan Xiangchuang for the second year in a row. Adem suggests that “without Yan the team would have been in a relegation fight” and he may not be far wrong. Seven goals and eleven assists mean he was involved in more goals than any other domestic player in 2016, but his contribution went far beyond. Regularly shifting roles between attacking midfielder and right-winger, Yan put a shift in wherever he played and was the last of the club’s senior player’s to give up on Stanojevic and the season. Adem concurs with our team of the season article when he says that the 30-year-old was the “best Chinese player in League One last season” and any sensible person who actually watched a decent number of second tier games last season, and isn’t blinded by the name value of Sun Ke, would agree.
The club’s immediate prioity is obvious and it’s to get rid of Stanojevic. “He has clearly lost the dressing room and makes questionable tactical decisions”, says Adem in expressing a point of view that will have few detractors. “He has been given his time and has done nothing with it except beat Guoan in a cup match. A new manager is desperately needed. One who can keep the players motivated all season.”
The good news for BG fans is that the club seems to agree and it has already become clear that, although his replacement is yet to be announced, Stanojevic won’t be returning in 2017.
On the pitch, BG still have the core of a very good first XI with Yan Xiangchuang, Lv Peng, Xu Dong, Yu Tao and Bu Xin all being top players in their positions in League One, and young Taiwanese midfeilder Wen Zhihao also developing nicely throughout 2016 in a rare success for Stanojevic. Centre back could be a problem if Liu Yi can’t recover from a very poor debut season in the capital after really impressing in his breakout year with Harbin Yiteng in 2015.
The club is also light at right-back and goalkeeper could be a position they look at upgrading, despite Dong Lei having a surprisingly good 2016. However, a general priority needs to be to add depth as the club was effected so badly by injuries last season because they had little quality cover to come off the bench.
On the foreign player front, keeping Nigerian striker Leke James will be a priority. The 24-year-old had a bit of a slow start to an injury hit season, but scored eight times in the last thirteen games to prove he’s worth hanging on to. As Adem makes clear, summer signing “Rubin Okotie was a bad buy and needs to be replaced”, while the performances of centre back Nikola Vudjadinovic continued to lack consistency and it wouldn’t be any great surprise if he doesn’t return in 2017.
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.