The winter is over and we’re drawing closer to spring which means the Chinese football season is about to kick off. While the start of a new CSL season would typically involve a lot of hope for fans in the capital, this time around Guoan supporters are full of foreboding.
The New Manager
While rumors of bigger names coming to Beijing were spread throughout the close season, in the end the club went with Jose Gonzales, a bit of a surprise choice. As will become a common theme in this post, Guoan stuck to tradition and avoided spending big, going with the under the radar option.
The advantage to Gonzales is that he’s spent time in China, both as a player and on the bench, and is a known entity in Beijing, formerly serving as Gregorio Manzano’s assistant. He didn’t follow Manzano to Shanghai, instead returning to Spain to take over at Granada. When Gonzales joined, the side was sitting in dead last, but Gonzales was able to help keep them up.
Beyond “knowing the CSL”, Gonzales was appointed early in the process (in mid November), giving him plenty of time to (re)familiarize himself with the squad and the competition. Last year the club was last to select its new manager, waiting until January 20th to appoint Alberto Zaccheroni, a key factor in the Italian’s downfall.
That said, the question still remains that since Manzano was available, why bring in his former assistant instead, unless there was too much bad blood to bring him back directly.
Out with the Old
When Guoan kicks off on Sunday it will be the first season since 1999 that Xu Yunlong won’t be on the roster, after retiring in the off season. He only made eight appearances last season but not having him around the team on a day-to-day basis will be a significant change. His defensive partner Zhou Ting, who spent 10 seasons with the club, has left as well. Unfortunately for Guoan, the player who was seen as Zhou Ting’s replacement, Zhang Chengdong, moved to Hebei for a record breaking RMB150 million and fellow defender Lang Zheng joined him.
The New Signings
Their profits from Zhang sale weren’t burning a hole in the proverbial pockets of Guoan’s front office as they failed to make a splash on the transfer market. However, the club did use all five of its available moves this season, bringing in some economical, serviceable options.
More on that in a bit, first off when talking about Guoan’s window, we have to start off with talking about Jonathan Soriano, a move the Men in Green made just before the window closed. The 31 year old Spaniard had a blistering strike rate at Red Bull Salzberg, scoring a lights out 120 goals in 144 games and being the top scorer in Austria three times in six seasons. While the Salzberg captain doesn’t have the status of the other names that were flying around (Rooney, Podolski, etc), he looks like he could be a fantastic addition.
The club’s domestic signings added three new faces to the midfield and two to the defense. From Meizhou, the club added 22 year old Tang Shi on a season long loan. With the new rules requiring a U23 player in the starting XI, Tang seems set to fill that role and appears to be a solid talent. Lu Peng, from cross town Beijing BG, will help fill the defensive midfield role, especially while Piao Cheng is recovering. Speaking of Piao, his good mate Jin Taiyan comes over from Liaoning and will add depth to Guoan’s midfield options.
Guoan’s back four will see the return of two familiar faces, Yu Yang and Jiang Tao. Both players came up through Guoan’s youth side but left the club in recent years. Yu, the more experienced of the two, is sure to slot in immediately and is a great addition.
The New Owners
After 22 seasons as sole owners, CITIC started taking a step back from operations last season with LeTV taking over naming rights and what seemed like a stake in the club, however financial issues (which have continued) led to CITIC quickly ending that relationship and looking for new money late in 2016. Real estate company Sinobo came in and became majority owners, buying 64% of the stock (though they don’t appear to be holding it all directly in their name). However, new owners didn’t lead to the crazy spending we’ve seen at other clubs or any major changes (for the time being).
Beijing is known for its solid defense and even last year finishing fifth, they gave up less goals than everyone other than Guangzhou Evergrande. With Lei Tenglong, Zhao Hejing, and Yu Yang, the side has an excellent start, but the question is who will serve in the middle as the new rules mean its unlikely Egor Krimets will play much. The likely option Jin Pengxiang (or moving Zhao to the middle and playing Zhang Xinxin at left back) don’t inspire a lot of optimism in fans.
Guoan’s midfield is chock full of options, almost too full, with Zhang Xizhe, Renato Augusto, Ralf and Tang Shi practically automatics on the team sheet, there will be a battle to be the fifth name. Up top, it will be interesting to see if Soriano or Burak Yilmaz is the preferred choice.
With the two foreign strikers and tons of midfield options, Guoan has plenty of depth, but where things are lacking is in the back four. Any injuries there will significantly hamper hopes for the season.
Reality is that nobody has done enough to seriously compete with Evergrande once again and for Guoan things are even worse because they’ve been surpassed by the clubs that are willing to burn through money like its nothing. If the side (well, the defense in particular) stays healthy and Soriano (or Yilmaz) is able to bang in the goals, Guoan could challenge for one of the Asian spots. If one or both of those things fail to happen, fans are in for a long season and a finish somewhere around 5-10.
It’s been a long time since the side has won a trophy and all hope for one this year will be focused yet again on the CFA Cup. The 3rd Round could see a Beijing derby against Renhe, the 4th could see Guoan against Shanghai Shenhua, so there’s plenty of reason to be excited. Most of all, the Beijingers wouldn’t need to travel south to Guangzhou until the final (fingers crossed), a man can hope…