The CSL kicked off this weekend and, as well as dealing with the weight of expectation, every club had to cope with the controversial new rules introduced by the CFA in January. The number of foreign players allowed to be involved in each game was reduced from four+substitute to three, and each side had to include at least one under-23 player in their starting line-up with another on the bench. Some teams handled the changes better than others, while others used some creative substitutions to get around these new inconveniences. Here’s an overview of how the rules effected round 1.
Injuries will hurt and so will fans
One of the obvious issues with reducing the number of foreign players is that poorer teams with weaker domestic squads would suffer more and that generally seemed to be the case this weekend. Although they made harder work of Beijing Guo’an than many expected, Guangzhou Evergrande coped fine without Korean centre back Kim Hyung-il who otherwise would have started. With Chinese internationals Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng as their centre back partnership, the absence of Kim didn’t make a great deal of difference to the reigning champions whose Brazilian trio of Ricardo Goulart, Alan and Paulinho are untouchable members of the first XI.
Evergrande’s opponents could probably have done with Uzbek international Egor Krimets in the centre of their defence, but the impact of his absence was not significant. Meanwhile, both the red and blue parts of Shanghai showed no signs of being slowed down by the new rules this weekend as they each strolled to four goal victories. SIPG’s Brazilian trident of Elkeson, Hulk and Oscar ran riot in a 5-1 rout of Changchun Yatai and clearly didn’t need missing Uzbek midfielder Odil Ahmedov.
Shenhua, who left out South Korean centre back Kim Kee-hee and striker Obafembi Martins, pulled off an even more impressive result as they hammered local rivals and fellow ACL contenders Jiangsu Suning 4-0. Neither Shanghai side was really tested by their opposition, though, and there could be trouble ahead when the absence of their respective Asian midfielder and defender will be more keenly felt in close games.
Foreseeing defensive problems, Jiangsu made the surprising decision to leave out Brazilian midfielder Ramires in favour of Korean centre back Hong Jeong-ho in order to bolster their weak looking back line. That clearly backfired as Shenhua were able to dominate the midfield, but the rule truly bit Jiangsu in the proverbial just nine minutes in when striker Roger Martinez limped off with a muscular injury. In the old days, Martinez probably would have been replaced with another foreign attacker, but in this brave new world Jiangsu only had Chinese resources to call upon.
In the CFA’s ideal vision, a young Chinese striker would take the field, but Jiangsu were without Gao Di and didn’t want to bring on the Peter Crouchian Ge Wei, meaning winger Ji Xiang came on and they were left without a proper centre forward for the rest of the game. That may have been great news for Shenhua fans, but it damaged the match as a spectacle and turned what should have been a high level example of the best the CSL has to offer into an uneventful stroll.
And speaking of uneventful strolls, the biggest example of the issues with the new foreign player rule came in Chongqing where Lifan and Yanbian Fude played out an insomnia curing 0-0 draw in a game that was crying out for some foreign flair. Part of the blame no doubt lies on the shoulders of Yanbian boss Park Tae-ha who opted for a five man back line containing two foreign centre backs and another defender playing in midfield, but he would argue that his hand was forced by the new rule.
On paper, Yanbian have one of the weakest domestic squads in the league and so opted to play conservatively. What this meant was dropping midfielder Yoon Bit-garam and flying winger Steve in favour of foreign centre backs Nikola Petkovic and Richard Guzmics, while leaving Kim Seung-dae to toil alone up front surrounded by a crew of workmanlike runners. Add to that Chongqing’s desperate need for centre forward Alan Kardec, who wasn’t playing because they had opted for foreigners at centre back, midfield and on the right wing, and what you ended up with was a horrendous spectacle that didn’t do fans or players any favours, and might put casual viewers who saw it off for life.
Proponents of the new rule will point to the fact that four goals were scored by Chinese players this round, compared to the famous zero managed at this stage last year, but one was scored by Guangzhou R&F striker Xiao Zhi, who was a regular in the starting line-up last season, and two were, ironically, scored by players who had been brought on to replace under-23 players who were removed from the field after less than an hour (Shenhua’s Mao Jianqing and Shandong Luneng’s Liu Binbin were the scorers). Even the other goal, scored by Changchun’s Fan Xiaodong to put them 1-0 up after 26 minutes, prompted SIPG to sub off their under-23 player Zhang Yi just four minutes later in a successful attempt to turn the game around.
Young guns hold their own, but substitutions show trust issues
It’s already clear from the analysis above that few under-23 players made it through the 90 minutes of the season opener, but the bar for how to interpret the rules was set very low during Friday night’s curtain-raiser between Guizhou Zhicheng and Liaoning Whowin. After his team took an early 1-0 lead, Liaoning boss Ma Lin withdrew U23 right back Wang Qiao just 17 minutes into the match. Ma’s official justification was that Guizhou were “targeting” the inexperienced defender, with the irony of the comment coming from the fact that Zhicheng’s left-winger was U23 Guangzhou Evergrande loanee Liang Xueming. (Maybe he should have just said he thought the U23 next to Wang’s name on the team sheet meant under 23 minutes).
There were fears that Ma’s actions might set a precedent to be followed across the league, but Guizhou kept midfielder Min Junlin on for the entire 90 minutes and, in the end, only Yanbian and SIPG withdrew their U23 players before half-time – although five other teams had hooked off their youngsters before 60 minutes.
Obviously the early substitutions make a bit of a mockery of the rule and it’s strange the CFA hasn’t put a provision in place to punish teams who behave in that way. That being said, Guizhou, R&F, Tianjin Quanjian, Henan Jianye and Hebei CFFC all gave at least one U23 player a full 90 minute run out and not a single youngster can be said to have disgraced themselves with their performance. While there were no outstanding displays, the likes of Min Junlin at Guizhou and centre back Huang Zhengyu at R&F performed perfectly well and, hopefully, these early substitutions will dwindle as teams realise their young players aren’t so bad. That could be wishful thinking, though, as there’s always a possibility that these early changes will increase when games with more at stake are played later in the season.
Importantly, the introduction of under-23 players didn’t dramatically diminish the quality of some games in the way that the new foreign player rule has. It will be very interesting to see how things play out over the coming months, but these new rules have certainly given fans something else to talk about. The problem is, if there are more games like Chongqing vs Yanbian, that will be all they can discuss in lieu of anything interesting happening on the field.