League One 2016 Review – Part 3: Shenzhen take a dose of Sven to recover from Seedorf hangover; Shenxin, Xinjiang and Meizhou also in focus
2017 is now upon us, but we all know that 2016 is a year we won’t quickly forget. Of course, by now we’re all tired of reading about sizable geopolitical shifts and a slew of beloved celebrities passing on, so it’s time to focus on what really matters and that’s the second tier of Chinese football. In the third part of our 2016 League One review we assess the fortunes of Shenzhen FC, Shanghai Shenxin, Xinjiang Tianshan Snow Leopard and Meizhou Hakka who all found themselves in the wrong half of the end of season table. (Part 1 is here and part 2 here)
2016 position – 9th Pl 30 W 11 D 7 L 12 GF 36 GA 43 GD -7 Pts 40
2015 position – 13th Pl 30 W 6 D 13 L 11 GF 37 GA 48 GD -11 Pts 31
2016 season grade – C-
Shenzhen’s season had many similarities to Dalian Yifang’s in the sense that things seemed to be ticking over nicely until the club’s ownership decided to derail things by meddling with the manager half way through the year. After battling relegation in 2015, veteran manager Tang Yaodong was brought in to steady the ship and seemed to be doing a very job until his legs were suddenly taken out from under him.
Shenzhen FC – 2016 in numbers
- Shenzhen took 24 points in 16 games under Tang Yaodong (1.5 PPG) and just 16 points in 14 games under Clarence Seedorf (1.1 PPG)
- Top scorer Aboubakar Oumarou scored 8 times in 14 games under Tang (0.57 GPG) and just 2 in 14 matches under Seedorf (0.14 GPG)
Ten points from their first four games provoked some premature talk of promotion and results levelled off after that, although performances remained greatly improved on the previous season. Indeed, a spectacular 3-0 away win against Beijing BG in round 13 meant the club was still in fourth place before a three game winless run saw them sink back down into seventh.
It was at this point that the club’s ownership seemed to get ideas above their station and decided to get rid of Tang as they sought an unlikely promotion. Aside from the dip in results, one apparent reason for Tang’s sacking was his desire to keep striker Babacar Gueye on the books, while the owners sought to replace him with a bigger name.
And so it came to pass that Deshorn Brown arrived at the club in Gueye’s place and internationally renowned former midfielder Clarence Seedorf replaced Tang at the helm amid much hoopla. The four time UEFA Champions League winning player won his first two games in charge while sticking with Tang’s team, but he soon started tweaking things and results consequently fell off a cliff.
Bizarre team selections saw veteran midfielder Li Fei, who was having somewhat of a career renaissance, being suddenly shifted out to flounder at left-back; centre back Ren Peng being dropped for the clueless Qiao Wei; defensive midfielder Du Longquan losing his place to the reckless Fei Yu; and star player Aboubakar Oumarou being shifted from the left wing where he had been destroying opposition right backs to central striking role where failed to have anything close to a similar impact.
Shenzhen won just two of their remaining twelve matches as Seedorf’s tactics failed to take hold and the players looked increasingly disillusioned as the season drew to a close. The understandable reverence which the Chinese media and the club’s ownership held towards Seedorf for what he achieved during his playing career prevented them from giving them the criticism he deserved and Shenzhen finally limped over the line in ninth position and nineteen points shy of the promotion places.
By round 27 Shenzhen’s promotion hopes had already evaporated, but they at least had the chance to boost their final position away to atrocious basement dwellers Hunan Billows. Seedorf came into the game having won just one of his last six and he badly needed a result to justify his tactical tweaking.
Instead, what followed was a poor display against an even poorer team, where Shenzhen failed to take advantage of their theoretical superiority to give Seedorf the boost he needed. By this point, the Dutchman had undone some of the stranger tactical decisions he had been making earlier in his reign, but having Oumarou and Brown in a strike partnership still wasn’t working and the underwhelming performances of the latter since his summer arrival were summarised by a miss from close range in the first half.
On the whole, the players just didn’t look bothered and Hunan were able to take a rare lead on the stroke of half time when Luis Cabezas converted a penalty following a foul by Cai Jingyuan on Liu Qing. The visitors showed little drive to eqaulise after the interval, but were ultimately saved from embarrassment when Oumaourou headed against the bar and the ball trickled over the line after bouncing off of prone goalkeeper Dong Jianhong.
Headlines on Sina credited the own goal to Oumarou and emphasised him rescuing a point and condemning the already doomed Hunan to a fourteenth game without victory. What they should have been focussing on was yet another lacklustre display under a manager who was widely respected as a player but clearly wasn’t cutting it as a boss in China League One.
Player of the Season
Despite struggling to make an impact under Seedorf, this has to go to Aboubakar Oumarou who started the season like a train with eight goals from the first fourteen games. The Cameroonian had looked dominant on the left wing, but missed Tang’s last two games in charge through injury and never quite recaptured that form after returning. He did score the winning goal against Qingdao Jonoon in Seedorf’s first match in charge but then managed just one further strike in the last thirteen matches as the club in general struggled and he failed to adjust to a more central role.
Oumarou wasn’t the only one who had difficulty adapting to Seedorf’s reign as 33-year-old veteran Li Fei went from being one of the best midfielders in the league in the first half of the season, to being a poor makeshift left back in the early part of Seedorf’s reign and never recovered his form when he moved back to his original position. 34-year-old playmaker Xu Liang also rolled back the years in the early part of the season after coming out of retirement, but he missed a total of nine games through injury throughout the season and struggled to keep up his consistency as the year went on.
Shenzhen look like being next season’s Tianjin Quanjian as the owners have decided to invest big money in order to achieve promotion in 2017. The major League One move of the off-season so far has taken place at the Guangdong club where Sven-Goran Eriksson has been brought in to replace Seedorf.
The veteran Swede is fresh off two top three finishes with CSL heavyweights Shanghai SIPG and already has a solid knowledge of Chinese football. Of course, the former England manager has no experience of League One, and the club has proven very savvy in bringing in Goran Tomic to assist him. The Croatian was League One manager of the season with Beijing Baxy in 2014 and then did an excellent job to keep Tianjin Songjiang up in 2015.
Tomic’s appointment wasn’t Eriksson’s choice, so we’ll have to wait and see how they work together, but this looks like an excellent combination for the second tier with all of the former Guangzhou R&F boss’s experience being complimented by the Croat’s proven nous at this level.
There have been no confirmed signings as of yet, but the appointment of Erickson and the club’s new found wealth have prompted some wild rumours. Eriksson has already dismissed the idea of former SIPG charges Elkeson and Dario Conca dropping down a division, but we can certainly expect a couple of high profile foreigners to show up in Shenzhen before the winter is over.
Reports suggest they may keep hold of Oumarou, but Brown will be replaced by another striker and centre back Helton Dos Reis will also probably be out the door after a poor year.
Among the more realistic signings the club have been linked with are 6 foot 4’ Fenerbache striker Fernandao and former R&F forward Abrerazzak Hamdallah who was second top scorer in the CSL under Eriksson in 2014.
It remains to be seen whether the club opt to replace Dos Reis with another centre back or a player further up the pitch, but none of that will mean much unless they also take some steps to strengthen domestically. A goalkeeper, right back, central midfielder and centre back could all be needed to give the first team the sufficient strength to mount a convincing promotion challenge and, with the ever inflating domestic market, it will be in making these signings where we will really find out if the club can put its money where its mouth is.
2016 position – 10th Pl 30 W 12 D 4 L 14 GF 54 GA 48 GD +6 Pts 40
2015 position – 16th (CSL) Pl 30 W 4 D 5 L 21 GF 30 GA 70 GD -40 Pts 17
2016 season grade – B-
Despite being relegated from the Super League the previous season, few placed Shenxin among their promotion favourites for 2016. However, that didn’t stop the owners ditching South Korean manager Kim Sang-ho just ten games into the season. At that point, the team were down in thirteenth place with just eleven points and there was clearly a fear that Kim could be guiding them towards a second straight demotion.
Shanghai Shenxin – 2016 in numbers
- The 102 goals scored in Shenxin’s matches this season was more than any other team in the league in 2016
- Shenxin scored 44 goals during Gary White’s 19 games in charge (2.32 GPG). That would equal 69 across a full 30 game season which would be 8 more than top scorers Tianjin Quanjian
- Biro-Biro’s 18 goals and 11 assists meant he was involved in a league high 29 goals in 2016
Kim lost half of his matches and the last straw was a 3-0 home defeat to Guizhou Zhicheng who were not yet recognised as one of the division’s best teams. As subsequent events would show, the 52-year-old’s failure to tighten up a poor defence was understandable, but he also failed to get any kind of a tune out of a promising looking Shenxin attack.
The club’s front line included one of the league’s most talented players in the minuscule shape of Brazilian winger Biro-Biro whose impact on the team remained muted until the arrival of Kim’s replacement, Gary White. The Englishman’s results weren’t actually a great deal better than Kim’s when he first took over, as he picked up just ten points from his first nine matches. What had clearly changed, though, was the team’s style of play which became increasingly swashbuckling and fun to watch.
Among the three wins across White’s first nine matches were 4-0 and 5-0 demolitions of Dalian Transcendence and Qingdao Jonoon, respectively, and it was clear that, thanks to the improved form of Biro-Biro and arrival of summer signing Davi, Shenxin’s attack was developing into one of the best in the league.
Despite that, Shenxin found themselves in the relegation zone with ten games to go, but things were coming together and it seemed foolish to back them to remain there. Accordingly, White led the team to seven wins in their last ten matches – scoring 26 goals along the way – and a top ten finish was ultimately deserved based on the team’s entertainment value if nothing else.
Performances were no doubt improved under White’s rule, but with ten games remaining and the club in fifteenth place, the jury was still out over whether the former Guam national team boss would be able to pick up enough wins to keep the team in the second tier. Round 21 saw the club head west to take on fellow relegation fighters Wuhan Zall in a game that could put them in real danger of being cut adrift at the bottom should they lose.
The game was an absorbing affair where Wuhan were largely on top but couldn’t break through what had previously been a weak Shenxin defence that was being excellently protected by the defensive midfield duo of Ye Chongqiu and Zhang Yudong. It was still 0-0 at the interval, but Wuhan’s superiority gave them an overconfidence which ultimately proved to be their undoing.As the hosts pushed up for a winner, Shenxin were able to hit back at them with devastating effect. 10 minutes into the second period Biro-Biro turned Zall left back Ke Zhao inside out before setting up Ji Jun’s opener with a fine cross. Less than 15 minutes later, the Brazilian winger was again causing havoc when he reacted quickest to a long ball and played Ji Jun in for a second. To cap his dominant second half, the 21-year old got a goal of his own around 15 minutes from the end when he swept in a Wu Yizhen cross.
A late Solvi Ottessen consolation meant the game ended 3-1 to the visitors and the result triggered the run which saw them win seven of their last ten. The second half showed Biro-Biro at his absolute best, but everybody in the team did their job perfectly and showed just how good Shenxin could be when the pieces fell into place.
Player of the Season
There’s only one choice here and it’s Biro-Biro who lit up the league in the second half of the year while proving too much for the vast majority of League One defences to cope with. The 21-year-old struggled at the beginning of the season with just three goals from his first eleven games, but the arrival of White and Brazilian playmaker Davi allowed the pint-sized playmaker to come into his own.
In the eighteen games Biro-Biro played under White, he scored fifteen goals and bagged eleven assists. In a recent interview with WEF, the English boss said the Brazilian is one of the best players in all of China and that may not be too hyperbolic a statement. As the season went on, his lightning quick pace and tricky feet were complimented by his ever improving crossing and finishing, and there is little doubt in the mind of this correspondent that the youngster was the best player in League One during 2016 as well as being the best under-23 player in all of China with the exception of Jiangsu Suning’s Roger Martinez.
It was a big surprise when the club opted to get rid of White and replace him with Spanish manager Juan Ignacio Martinez. The Englishman’s time in charge of Shenxin was far from perfect, but they were no doubt going in the right direction and the players seemed to be responding to White on a personal level.
Martinez brings with him a questionable CV which underwhelms with the exception of a single season at Levante where he guided the Valencian club to their only season of European competition when they qualified for the Europa League in 2012. His two jobs since then have seen the 52-year-old preside over Valladolid’s relegation from La Liga and get sacked by Almeria after just seventeen matches.
The only conceivable logic for bringing in Martinez would be that the club wants to tighten things up and stop playing such a freewheeling style, which may or may not help improve results, but will make the league a less enjoyable place without White’s entertainers in it.
In terms of players, keeping Biro-Biro is an absolute priority. It seems strange given the season that he has that no Super League clubs have been linked with him but, as it stands, it appears he will be returning in 2017 along with Davi. The fate of Daniel Chima seems a little more questionable and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the club either replaces the Nigerian with another striker or a foreign centre back.
Indeed, defence is the club’s biggest problem and that is the area where they will need to strengthen domestically if they are to improve in 2017. Ye Chongqiu and Zhang Yudong developed a solid midfield partnership towards the end of last season and there is some solid domestic attacking talent around, but they need to add at least one centre back and full back over the winter to stand any real hope of being promotion contenders.
Xinjiang Tianshan Snow Leopard
2016 position – 11th Pl 30 W 11 D 6 L 13 GF 31 GA 36 GD -5 Pts 39
2015 position – 8th Pl 30 W 10 D 9 L 11 GF 43 GA 51 GD -8 Pts 39
2016 season grade – B-
Up until round 19 this looked like being another standard Xinjiang season where they started slowly thanks to losing most of their early games on the road followed by an excellent mid-season run thanks to a cluster of consecutive home fixtures. Urumqi’s harsh climate means the CFA always gives the club a series of away games early in the year and they played six of their first eight matches on the road. They took just six points from that opening run, but then played nine of their next eleven matches at home in a run which saw them pick up twenty points and climb up to eighth.
Xinjiang – 2016 in numbers
- The two consecutive away wins Xinjiang picked up in the summer were as many as they’d managed in the previous two seasons combined
- The club conceded 12 goals in their last 4 games which was 33% of their season total
- Their 7 game losing run to close out the season was the joint worst of the season (along with Hunan Billows)
From that point on you’d expect them to bobble around mid-table until the end of the year, but they then surprisingly won two away games in a row followed by a pair of home victories to find themselves up in fifth place and on the fringes of promotion. What followed was a disastrous run of seven straight defeats to close out the year which saw the club sink down to eleventh on the back of some truly awful performances.
Ultimately, an eleventh place finish for a club with the limited resources of Xinjiang can be considered a reasonable achievement, but their late season run was symptomatic of a side with big problems. Bosnian striker Nusmir Fajic never really settled and was out of the first team for most of that run, and Hong Kong international Itparicia, whose relationship with the club seemed to decline as the year went on, spent the last two games on the bench.
Under manager Li Jun, Xinjiang continued their unambitious, defensive long ball style and it served them well earlier in the year, but the players looked entirely unmotivated as the season came to a close. There was an attempt to integrate more local Uighur players into the first team later in the year, but most of them didn’t look good enough and some performances during that end of season run looked, to put it subtly, intentionally bad.
It would be an unfair reflection on their year as a whole to pick a game from their dreadful end of season run and so a 2-1 home win over Beijing Renhe in round 9 seems a more fitting way to define their year. Xinjiang were down in fourteenth place at kickoff but this was the first in a run of four consecutive home games where they would expect to pick up some points and climb up the table.
Renhe came into town as one of the promotion favourites and so it was no surprise that Xinjiang set up very defensively. What followed was a low quality spectacle played out on a poor pitch in front of a crowd below 3,000 people that were dwarfed by the club’s 50,000 seat stadium.
Chances were limited, but Xinjiang got a breakthrough when Nusmir Fajic ran on to a long ball from centre back Song Xie only to be clumsily fouled by veteran Wang Qiang. Itparicia subsequently gave the hosts the lead from the penalty spot, and there was no sign of the game picking up in the second half where things continued to be dull and scrappy.
On 57 minutes, Renhe got an equaliser in comedic fashion when right back Zhang Yuan over-hit a long ball from his own half only to see it bounce over Xinjiang’s woefully flatfooted goalkeeper Gu Juanjie and into the net. Such a farcical goal was appropriate for a game like this, but Itparicia was able to give Xinjiang the win with a rare moment of quality less than ten minutes later when he fired a long range effort straight into the top corner.
Xinjiang had earned three points but, aside from Itparicia’s flash of inspiration, they had offered little in the way of entertainment. More home wins would follow, but the crowds continued to dwindle and even as the club climbed up the table there seemed little to get excited about.
Player of the Season
A lot of players who were having good seasons had their legacies tarnished by their abysmal end of season run. In attack, Itparicia really stood out during their mid-season sequence of good results by scoring six goals and providing four assists between rounds eight and twenty. The problem is he didn’t do a lot for the rest of the season and so probably can’t be considered their best player overall.
19-year-old winger Abduleziz Abdulsalam showed a lot of promise, but is far from the finished article, while midfielder Wang Kang was having a very good year until an injury derailed him in round 19.
Ultimately, we’ll go with centre back Cai Xi who, on his day, is among the best in his position in the entire division. The major knock against the 30-year-old is that every now and again he either loses concentration and makes a catastrophic error or loses his temper and gets himself into trouble. Ending the season serving out a four game ban for squaring up to the referee during a home defeat to Tianjin Quanjin in round 28 gives a clear indication of Cai’s biggest problem.
Indeed, Cai played well enough for most of the year to make you wonder if his lapses are down to more than just a flawed mentality. Either way, he generally shone at the heart of a defence that was among the stingiest in the division for much of the season.
Xinjiang are in the middle of a difficult off-season and there are some doubts over whether they will make it into the 2017 season at all. The club has always had one of the lowest budgets in the division and reports are that 60% of their first team squads contracts expired on December 31st and they are struggling to find the funds to renew them. At the time of writing there is still no news of any renewals and there is a real fear they won’t have enough senior players on their books to able to register for the kick-off in March.
Even if they make it into the 2017 season, we shouldn’t expect them to make many changes before it unless some new investment comes their way. Financially the club can’t really compete within the inflated domestic market and so they’re unlikely to make any significant signings. How far they succeed with damage limitation will be the hallmark of a good off-season and we should get a better idea of how they manage that over the next month.
Itparicia has already decided to return to Hong Kong after a single season in Urumqi, while Fajic and Brazilian midfielder Rudnei will almost certainly leave having found themselves on the bench towards the tail end of last year. It would be no great surprise if veteran Brazilian centre back Vicente returns for yet another season, but we shouldn’t expect anything more than unknown journeymen to fill the other two foreign player slots.
The club has shown little true ambition since relocating from Hubei to Xinjiang in 2014 and that won’t change in 2017. Li Jun looks set to remain in charge meaning a continuation of functional long ball tactics which will do little more than grind out results.
The only noticeable sign of change we might get in 2017 is an increased amount of playing time for locally born Uighurs in place the Hubei born players who continue to make up the core of the team. That’s a move that may save money and help bring in more fans, but it could have a negative effect on results if performances towards the end of last season, when more of those Uighurs came into the team, are anything to go by.
2016 position – 12th Pl 30 W 11 D 6 L 13 GF 48 GA 50 GD -2 Pts 39
2015 position – 1st (CL2 – South) Pl 14 W 9 D 3 L 2 GF 39 GA 13 GD +26 Pts 30
2016 season grade – B-
A very good first season in the second tier for the newly promoted club who may have missed out on their officially stated target of a top ten finish, but can be very satisfied with consolidating their position in League One.
Under Dutch manager Luc Nijholt the club actually went unbeaten across their first five games of the season in a run which was capped by a 6-0 hammering of the woeful Hunan Billows. Meizhou then lost three on the bounce before recovering to pick up ten points across their next five games to sit eighth in the table with thirteen games gone.
Meizhou Hakka – 2016 in numbers
- A total of 98 goals were scored in Meizhou’s games in 2016 – 2nd only to Shanghai Shenxin
- The 50 goals they conceded in 2016 meant they had the 2nd worst defence in the league
- The 34 goals Meizhou conceded on the road in 2016 was more than any other team in the league
It was a promising start for Nijholt, but it was followed by a four game losing streak and, despite managing an impressive 1-1 draw away to promotion chasing Qingdao Huanghai to end that run, the former Swindon Town player was given the boot with twelve game remaining.
Nijholt was replaced by General Manager Cao Yang on a caretaker basis and results immediately turned around as they won their next three in a row. Consistency was an issue across the final nine games, but the ten points they picked up across that run was enough to keep them a safe distance from the relegation zone, while not being sufficient to propel them into the top ten.
The two big themes of Meizhou’s season were that their games were generally very high scoring and that they were much better away from home than on their travels. Their attack – led by Brazilian striker Japa and a worthy supporting cast of Onur Dogan, Gao Zhilin, Zhu Zhengrong, Yu Jianfeng and Ouyang Xue – was only outscored by three other clubs, while the 50 goals shipped by their appalling defence was only topped by the even more abysmal Hunan.
Visiting clubs hated travelling to their remote Wuhua County Stadium in Guangdong and the long journey was made worse by Hakka’s scheduling of afternoon kick-offs despite the energy sapping 36C heat experienced in the area over the summer. This all added up Meizhou having the fourth best home record in the division, but struggling badly on the road when all of those advantages were gone. The club won just once away from home in 2016 and that was against the aforementioned Hunan. Indeed, their total of eight points away from Meizhou throughout 2016 meant they had the second poorest record in the division (you can probably guess whose was worse).
A 4-2 home win over Hohhot Zhongyou in round 23 tells us a lot about Meizhou’s season as it was a wide open game featuring the best of their attack and the worst of their defence. Despite the game being the proverbial relegation six-pointer, Zhongyou opted to send what was largely a reserve side, but that didn’t stop them from creating a number of chances as Meizhou’s defence floundered in the first half.
Zhongyou’s promising young winger Lei-Lu Dekun gave the visitors the lead midway through the first half and the deficit could have been larger going into the interval based on the balance of play. Meizhou looked a different side in the second half, though, as their prolific attack kicked into life. Within ten minutes of the restart, goals from Japa and Dogan had put the visitors in front, but more catastrophic defending allowed Li Chengguang to head in an equaliser with just over 15 minutes remaining.
A well timed Japa run gave him the chance to score again just minutes later as he latched on to a Gibril Sankoh long ball and Dogan sealed the win in the dying moments of the game when he headed in following a mistake from Zhongyou goalkeeper Zhu Zilin.
Suspicious betting patterns surrounding the match cast a bit of a shadow over the entertainment that was presented on the field, but this kind of on field chaos was common during Meizhou games throughout 2016 thanks to the huge imbalance in their squad.
Player of the Season
It’s got to be Brazilian striker Japa whose eighteen goal haul made him the third highest scorer in the division and really helped the club cover for their defensive frailties. The 30-year-old’s first touch was frustratingly poor at times during the year and a nine game scoreless run between May and July raised serious questions about the striker’s merits. However, he recovered well to score eleven times across his final twelve games as the spearhead of a prolific attack.
Japa’s instincts in front of goal were exceptional at times, but it’s worth noting that he had an excellent supporting cast around him. Particularly worthy of note are Gao Zhilin, who was the best domestic winger in the league according to our Team of the Season article, and powerful Turkish-Taiwanese forward Onur Dogan who caused enough havoc to stop defences being able to gang up on Japa.
There’s been little sign of action in Meizhou so far this winter with no confirmation given over whether Cao Yang will continue at the helm or not. Whether or not Cao stays in place, the team did enough in 2016 to show that they are a worthy edition to the second tier.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done during the off-season and one priority will be to keep hold of Japa and Gao Zhilin. The former should stick around, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the latter moves to a bigger club before the 2017 season kicks off.
In terms of signings, the obvious place to add reinforcements is the defence which was woeful in 2017. Centre back Gibril Sankoh failed to recreate the performances which saw him help guide Henan Jianye to promotion in 2013 and his supporting cast of Tang Dechao, Lee Chi-ho and Lin Juyuan all struggled to step up to the standards of the second tier. The club will remain in danger of being sucked into a relegation fight unless they make some changes here.
Defensive midfielder Merlin Tandjigora was a bundle of energy in the middle of the field but started finding himself less involved towards the end of the season and so he may also be replaced by an alternative foreign import.
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.