Xihu Insider: Doomed to obscurity or leading the way? Could Song Weiping’s faith in youth spell disaster for relegated Hangzhou Greentown?

Despite the arrival and subsequent departure of the biggest player in the club’s history, a ten game winless streak and a temporary exile to Jinhua, for around twelve glorious minutes of CSL 2016’s final round, it seemed like Hangzhou Greentown might just pull off one more great escape. However, as half time approached, events in Hangzhou and Changchun simultaneously conspired to ultimately seal Greentown’s fate. With the disappointment of relegation still cripplingly painful having just about worn off, we take a look at what went wrong last year and what 2017 holds in store for Greentown as they begin life outside the top flight of Chinese football for the first time since 2006.

Relegation a long time coming

While at first glance Changchun Yatai’s miraculous end of season form could leave Greentown fans feeling hard done by, in truth, Greentown have long been amongst the CSL’s poorest sides. Despite a record fourth place finish in 2010, Hangzhou are all too familiar with an end of season escape of their own, most notably in 2009 when only a match fixing scandal earned them a reprieve.

Changchun spent a total of nineteen weeks at the foot of the CSL before a late revival saw them reach safety

After the collapse of a 2014 deal for Alibaba to invest in the side, a lack of recent investment from owner Song Weiping has seen Greentown fall further behind in an era of never seen before spending in Chinese football. Unable to afford game changing foreigners, Greentown’s consistent loss of home grown, established players such as Shi Ke and Xie Pengfei as well as youngsters like forward Zhang Yuning, has done little to stem their increasing inability to compete.

Relegation should come as no real surprise.

What went wrong in 2016?

Beginning with the arrival of South Korean manager Hong Myung-Bo, who despite his previous role with the South Korean national team proving rather unsuccessful, left fans optimistic of improvement following the disastrous tenure of Phillipe Troussier in the first half of 2015.

While the blows of losing midfielder Xie and goalkeeper Gu Chao to Jiangsu Suning were softened by the huge (for Greentown at least) signing of Tim Cahill, the absence of Anselmo Ramon through injury left huge doubts over the side’s ability to find the net.

Once the action got underway, any optimism and momentum gained from two wins from the opening three games was lost as a ten game winless streak saw Greentown prove themselves solid defensively yet utterly devoid of ideas in attack. Gabionetta was generally anonymous for the first half of the year as part of a midfield containing Chen Po-Liang, Feng Gang, Huang Xiyang and Chen Zhongliu who all failed to make any telling impact. Despite managing four goals, Cahill’s on-field influence was minimal, while the popular yet unreliable Angan managed only one goal before both players departed for Australia and Turkey respectively.

Zhang Lei’s injury gave academy product Zou Dehai the chance to establish himself as first choice keeper, the 22 year old going on to earn a call up to an albeit experimental China side following an excellent break out season. Behind a back line featuring Zhao Yuhao, Cao Haiqing, Oh Beom-Seok and Matthew Spiranovic, Zou helped Greentown go on to claim the sixth best defensive record in CSL 2016 as Hong Myung-Bo managed to squeeze the best out of his defence.

Problems up front were eased somewhat as the summer addition of Sammir on loan alongside Ramon’s return spurred an increase in attacking threat, particularly at home. However, minimal help from a poor squad in which no Chinese player managed to find the net more than twice all year, resulting in the second half of the season only reaping two more points than the first as Greentown’s miserable away form consistently prevented them from climbing the table.

As round 30’s final whistle blew on a 2-2 draw with Yanbian and as Changchun’s incredible run of form culminated in a final day home victory over Shanghai Shenhua, tears were shed by fans and players alike as all were left wondering where the club would go next.

Will an over reliance on youth leave Greentown struggling yet again?

With the still popular Hong Myung-Bo rightly keeping his job, Greentown Chairman Song Weiping took the fans message ‘to start from scratch’ rather literally by insisting his manager include upwards of ten players aged twenty or younger in his 2017 squad. Despite the new rules regarding the encouragement of younger players now being implement

The winter window saw Zhao Yuhao (L), Cao Haiqing (C) and Feng Gang (R) join Hebei CFFC, Jiangsu Suning and Henan Jianye respectively

ed across Chinese football, Song’s demands have been the subject of a number of expressions of discontent on Greentown forums and social media. As a CSL side, Greentown fans were understanding of the difficulty of keeping hold of many of their best players but following relegation, Song’s reluctance to invest in new players and focus solely on youth is being viewed as a sign Greentown could become purely a developmental club and that Song lacks the desire or ambition to return to the top flight.

The lack of depth has been compounded by the big money winter departures of excellent centre back Zhao Yuhao, steady left-back Cao Haiqing, a loan move for the ever promising but rarely delivering midfielder Feng Gang as well as a K-League return for Oh Beom-Seok. Despite having added to the squad in the form of Shijiazhuang winger Huang Shibo and Tianjin midfielder Wang Guanyi, these hardly represent inspiring signings indicative of a side with promotion ambitions.

So do Song’s decisions represent a desire to in his words, “strive for the CSL through the development of youth” or will Greentown now effectively be an academy side with few ambitions of its own? Unless the players coming into the side are some immense talents, neither the apparent naivety of League One’s competitiveness or a lack of ambition on the part of the Greentown hierarchy bode well for Hangzhou’s fans.

What does 2017 hold in store?

This week manger Hong Myung-Bo has stated the aim is to avoid a second consecutive relegation, be it downplaying expectations or speaking truthfully, this statement only adds further doubts over the ability of his youthful squad. While Greentown have a first XI that should be good enough to compete with the majority of teams, a lack of both experience and squad depth will surely count against them over the course of the season.

Despite the highs of 2016 home wins over Hebei and Jiangsu

2017 is unlikely to be the year Greentown’s fans have their hopes of a swift return to the CSL fulfilled

Suning alongside a handful of decent away results, Greentown supporters have long had little to cheer about. All football fans appreciate the development of players from the academy and while Greentown have taken this rather more seriously than most, it will be interesting to see what Greentown can make of 2017. With youngsters Cheng Jin, forward Gao Huaze and defender Tong Lei tipped as some of the brightest prospects, only time will tell if they can step up and make a difference.

In a season where many CL1 teams have strengthened considerably Greentown fans can ultimately only expect a mid-table finish at best for their young side who are almost quite literally ‘starting from scratch’,

Hohhot Zhongyou come to Huanglong looking to build on an impressive second half of 2016

After a torrid start to the 2016 season before ultimately finishing seventh, Hohhot also gave a decent account of themselves in a 0-2 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande in the CFA Cup. This winter saw them manage to hold on to defender Mao Kaiyu and while their immediate attacking threat comes from Brazilian striker Dori following his ten goals and seven assists last season, the mid-season addition of Andre Senghor coincided with an upturn in fortunes. Despite Hohhot having only managed two wins on the road last year, 2017 is shrouded in uncertainty for an incredibly youthful Greentown team, meaning a 1-1 draw this weekend wouldn’t be the worst result on this opening weekend of China League One 2017.

 

Author: Matthew Crisp

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