The tropical island of Hainan is a Spring Festival favorite for Chinese tourists keen to swap chouku (leggings) for bathing suits and noxious AQI levels for seaside vitamin D.
Jiangsu Suning players, however, have been getting their sweat on in an altogether different way, spending the first weeks of January on the southern island in an intensive training camp.
While both Shanghai clubs and Tianjin Quanjian have been canoodling with Europe’s best coiffed super-agents, Choi Yong-soo has been conditioning his team and honing the 3-5-2 system for the grueling season ahead. Having spent several hundred million yuan in 2016, expectations from the outside were for Jiangsu to continue bankrolling their way into the New Year. Instead, the club has focused on strengthening itself in key areas away from first team personnel.
Focus on developing young talent
Jiangsu is making a concerted effort at youth development – an aching necessity given it failed to provide a single player for the youth heavy China Cup (an advertisement that masqueraded as a football competition, one that quite possibly failed to prod your attention). The club promoted youngsters Teng Shuai and Chen Ji for its preseason workout, it regularly brings coaches across from partner club Inter Milan to aid training, and has expanded across six youth age groups (U12, U13, U15, U17, U18, U19).
In plastic, glass, concrete, and grass news; the club is building a state-of-the-art training facility in Nanjing (somewhere in the Zijin Hill area) and has refitted the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre – supposedly improving spectator experience (cynicism pending).
Away from the din of construction, matters at the club have been quiet and Jiangsu big suits likely spent the entirety of Jan 16 grinning at themselves in every available shiny surface as the news broke of the CFA only allowing teams to field three foreign players per game. Particularly pleasing was André Villas-Boas’s mumbling grumble and the sense that Jiangsu hadn’t added unnecessarily- arguably acting slightly ahead of the curve in 2016 with transfers that appear retrospectively “reasonable” (an extremely relative word to be sure).
Signings & speculation
The club had been tentatively linked with the likes of Inter Milan winger Jonathan Biabiany, (whisper whisper “Icardi”), and Benfica’s Raul Jimenez, but in the latter’s case this is attributable to lazy journalism – Tianjin was clearly the desired destination. More imperative, post-CFA declaration, are questions surrounding which players will be filling the U23 slot(s).
Li Ang, Xie Pengfei, and Zhang Xiaobin all stand at the cut off age of 23 and Choi must either place faith in the club’s nascent academy or prepare to chase some of the league’s young Chinese talent and get stubbornly price gouged as a consequence.
Gao Tianyi, an 18-year-old defensive midfielder has been snapped up from Shenzhen FC, but with only six league starts last year in China League One it seems unlikely Choi will believe the club has founds its Makélélé (intriguingly, Gao spent much of his teenage years in the academy of Catalonian club UE Cornellà).
The cruel irony for the Nanjing-based team is its otherwise fine age balance; almost the entirety of last year’s starting XI stands within the 23-30 bracket with Colombian firecracker, Roger Martinez, the team’s youngest at 22. The squad has been lightened of Brazilian/Croat playmaker Samir, who has returned to Dianamo Zagrab.
Signs of boardroom maturity
Fans should feel assured by the proactivity and growing aptitude of Jiangsu’s owners. Firstly, the trio of South American talent imported last summer appears longer term, better-priced, and more versatile than the likes of 32 year-old Carlos Tevez or Shandong’s somewhat one-dynamic Graziano Pellè.
Furthermore, the club has kept its cool and found a comfortable deckchair to watch the frenetic cash lobbing game currently playing out in the CSL (Rudyard Kipling would be proud!). There have been links to Guangzou R & F’s Xiao Zhi and Shandong’s Yang Xu, but it seems Choi’s focus is firmly on the training pitch.
A good signifier of change at the club is gained by comparing this year’s preparation to Dan Petrescu’s in 2016 when the Romanian took the squad to Marbella on a 20-day tour involving too much travel, too many matches, and a few to many extra-curricular distractions. This year’s no-nonsense escape in remote Hainan is a fitting antidote Jiangsu’s frenetic 2016. More importantly, it’s the best preparation for the club’s AFC fixture against Jeju United on February 22nd.
Additional reporting by Chen Ling