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Comparing the CSL and the Premiership: Could China’s new u23 rule work in England?

Sudden new rules introduced just before the season kicked off now require CSL clubs to have at least one u23 player in the starting 11 and one on the bench. So how did this actually work out on the pitch last weekend, and what might happen if such a rule was applied to the EPL? WEF”s Peter Rosselli takes an in-depth look to find out.

Concentrating on youth development is key to China fulfilling its grand plans for football both domestically and internationally. The recently introduced U23 player rule in the CSL was designed to provide further opportunities for young local talent which should in turn see a rise in their standards. However, the timing of implementation – several weeks before the start of the 2017 season – led to a different kind of focus on the youngsters whose pathways have been restricted by the expensive influx of foreign players.

Whilst the number of foreigners was further limited within the new rules, the financial investment in those players means they’re all but guaranteed a starting spot. As a result, the domestic players are normally battling it out for one of the remaining seven positions. But as the foreign players are in the minority and usually cancelling each other out in the final third, the best team in the CSL tends to be the one with the best Chinese players.

Last weekend saw the start of the new CSL season with plenty of interest towards the new rules and their impact on the competition. There were noticeable absentees such as Ramires and Obafemi Martins, while some fixtures saw a decline in quality. There was also a couple of early substitutions which just so happened to be Liaoning Shenyang’s and Shanghai SIPG’s U23 player. Both were replaced within half an hour of their games which triggered discussions over whether this will be an ongoing theme or just a mini-protest against the haphazard introduction of new rules. Either way, it shouldn’t have been one of the main talking points from the opening weekend, yet here we are.

Below is a table of all U23 players who started last weekend. Only Guizhou Hengfeng and Henan Jianye started more than the minimum of one player.

Short Summary

  • Thirteen out of 18 U23 players were substituted (72.2%), contributing to nearly a third of all substitutions made (32.5%).
  • Eight of the 18 were substituted before the hour mark, one of which was forced through injury.
  • Only Guangzhou R&F used all three subs without replacing their U23 player.
  • All three teams who used just one substitution brought off an U23 player.
  • Wide midfielders/wingers made up five of the 18 players, while there were the same number of forwards as there were centre-midfielders (four).
  • There were four teenagers but two of them failed to continue beyond half-time.
  • The average age of the 18 players was 20.61 years averaging over an hour’s game time (64.55 minutes).

Out of curiosity, WEF looked at the opening weekend of the 2016 season to see how the numbers compare before and after the new rule was introduced.

Short Summary

  • Just like a year later, there were 18 U23 players who started.
  • Only 5/18 failed to finish the game and two of those were due to red cards meaning a contribution to all substitutions of just 7.5%.
  • Six out of 16 teams (37.5%) – Shanghai Shenhua, Shandong Luneng, Guangzhou Evergrande, Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, Tianjin Teda and Beijing Guoan – failed to start an U23 player.
  • Half of Hangzhou Greentown’s outfield players were U23 and Chinese, yet just one (Jing Luo) was substituted and that was in injury-time.
  • A third of the players lined-up in centre-midfield while only one started as a forward.
  • There wasn’t a single teenager amongst the 18 players in 2016.
  • A quarter of the teams (Guangzhou R&F, Jiangsu Suning, Chongqing Lifan and Changchun Yatai) used all three subs without replacing their U23 player(s).
  • The average age of the 18 players was 22.33 years averaging 85.55 minutes of game time.

Interestingly, despite the lack of of a rule that required each team to field an U23 player a year ago, 2016’s opening season fixtures saw the same number of youngsters as last weekend. But nearly half of those (eight) were provided by Hebei China Fortune (three) and Hangzhou Greentown (five).

There was over 18 months in difference between the average ages but that also saw the seniors in 2016 enjoy over 20 minutes more on the pitch.

Comparisons to EPL

Given the novelty of this rule, WEF decided to also compare last weekend’s stats with a division fueled by money and marketing that apparently feels ‘threatened’ by the CSL, England’s Premier League (EPL).

For many, possibly even most, the EPL is the best league in the world. Its big-name players and managers providing great excitement in front of capacity (increasingly corporate) crowds…unless you support goal-shy Middlesbrough. Having established itself in 1992 and continue to develop thanks in no small part to the rising global TV deals, the EPL is the envy of many competitors. But how many of its 20 teams fielded a player that would qualify for CSL’s U23 rule last weekend?

Short Summary

  • Burnley, West Brom, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Chelsea failed to field a starting outfield U23 player. That’s a quarter of the league.
  • Two of the 10 games had no starting outfield U23 players.
  • The average age of the 25 players was 21.68 years.
  • Their average number of minutes was 86.52, which was helped by 72% of the sample completing 90 minutes.
  • Southampton, Sunderland and Man City had the most U23 players (three).
  • Only seven clubs started the 11 players who were English (44%). Their average game time was 84 mins with seven completing the full-90.
  • The most common position was wide midfielders/wingers (10).
  • Nearly half (46.7%) of the 15 teams who fielded an U23 player (Bournemouth, Stoke, Middlesbrough, Swansea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham) used all three substitutions without replacing their young player(s).

It’s important to note that the CSL 2016 and EPL 2017 samples contain players who we can assume are included on merit and not because of a league stipulation. However, comparisons can still be drawn to anticipate the future benefits of this new rule.

The main perk of the U23 rule is that every team is under pressure to either start producing/investing in quality young players or take a risk and sacrifice a substitution early in the game. Liaoning Shenyang Hongyun, for example, ended the match with a midfielder in goal having used all three subs before their first-choice stopper was sent off.

Introducing a punishment of sorts for teams who abuse the rule with unnaturally early substitutions should also be considered. Perhaps even adding an additional tax on the transfers of players who qualify as U23 so to deter wealthier teams from cherry picking the talent at ‘lesser’ clubs. This would also encourage greater focus on their respective academies/youth systems which should trickle down into the grassroots level.

One thing is for sure, China should avoid the copycat mentality of trying to create a hybrid of approaches from other footballing nations instead of an identity that’s their own. Issues such as England’s dearth of youngsters who are either lacking quality or opportunities is something China can sidestep as their league is still in its infancy and therefore far more flexible than the EPL. But a lack of sufficient patience as displayed with this hasty rule change could result in unnecessary steps backwards before venturing forwards.

China’s football reform is essentially a pole vaulter who’s fairly inexperienced in the sport yet looking to clear an ambitious height that they’ve never come remotely close to before. They’ve had plenty of time to watch how others do it and they benefit from having a longer pole. But every vaulter needs to take a step back to help generate momentum from a standing position and China is in danger of taking too many steps backwards at the cost of their energy in reaching the box.

Ideally, all clubs will quickly accept the new rule and acknowledge its main purpose of focusing on youth development. However, for now at least, its poor execution means the current attention is on how much the clubs trust their youngsters and whether they’re a symbol of protest rather than the future.

Peter has lived in Shanghai since October 2011. His interest in Chinese football has grown despite initially being put off by Nicolas Anelka's insistence on taking the worst (and every) set piece during his short stint at Shenhua. Peter has played and followed football since he was a kid and regularly deprives himself of sleep to watch Liverpool. He also has a blog ( which covers both Chinese and English football.

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