At the final whistle on Friday night, Jiangsu Suning supporters in the East Gate stand, the club’s main season ticket holding section, rose to routinely applaud the home players as they made a trudging, deflated lap around the ground. The subdued mood was understandable given this was the sixth consecutive league game without a win and yet, Choi Yong-soo did not receive the sort of ignominious reception one has come to expect from modern football fans. There were no banners for dismissal, no whistles, no booing.
Though the increased speculation surrounding the South Korean’s job in the aftermath of the 1-2 defeat to Guangzhou R&F is hardly shocking for those who watched Jiangsu lapse from dominant to conquered in the space of 45 second half minutes, Choi’s potential departure raises a couple of intriguing questions that lie at the heart of Suning Commerce Group’s project, namely; do boardroom expectations exceed those of the supporters and is the potential dismissal of Choi a short term attempt to fix longer term problems?
Since acquiring the club in late 2015, the Suning Group has sought to both revamp the Nanjing-based club and launch a footballing empire. The acquisition of Inter Milan in summer 2016, the prompt dismissal of Dan Petrescu midway through last season, and the purchase of Ramires and Alex Teixeira speak to high levels of boardroom ambition. Yet are these matched by the fan base?
While the provincial capital city has footballing history, six of Jiangsu’s eight top flight seasons (2009-2016) have been spent lodged in mid-table mediocrity. So it is perhaps to be expected that fans weren’t baying for Choi’s head after surrendering a one goal lead to a well-drilled Guangzhou R&F side currently topping the table. Unlike some of China’s more illustrious teams, Jiangsu fans seem to view success as part of a longer term process rather than a simple rite of their team taking to the pitch.
Another mitigating factor explaining the general sense of patience is the side’s imperious form in the Asian Champions League (ACL), four wins in four games, and the belief that a squad capable of outplaying three quality AFC teams will eventually translate the high levels of game plan execution to the league. The irony will surely not be lost on Choi that having been hired to improve upon Petrescu’s poor continental performance in 2016 he might be fired having achieved his principal task.
Last season’s strong league display seems pivotal in determining the success or failure of Choi’s tenure. Evidently, senior figures see 2016’s second place finish as both a benchmark of intent and a reflection of the squad’s quality rather than the laudable over-achievement it now seems to many outsiders- a notion ramified by the club’s lack of off season transfer action.
The effect of failing to invest in high quality Chinese players has been exacerbated by Teixeira’s four-game suspension in the season opener at Shanghai Shenhua and the injury-come-attitude problems of Roger Martinez. Teixeira is unquestionably the squad’s greatest attacking threat, as evidenced by the pace and cool finishing he has shown in ACL group games, and Choi’s 3-5-2 system is reliant upon deploying at least one and out forward.
In his absence Choi has deployed a rotating trio of Ji Xiang, Xie Pengfei, and Wang Song, all of whom are more midfielders than true goal scorers. The combination play has been sluggish, uncreative, and ineffective at stretching opposing defences. The additions of Gao De and Song in the summer were uninspiring attempts to fill a fairly obvious hole in the squad, particularly Song who at 33 years old and having enjoyed a couple of mediocre years at Guangzhou R&F seems to offer little.
One must question the extent to which Choi can be blamed for this lack of activity since he is unlikely responsible for the club’s transfer dealings. Although somewhat simplistic to reference, the bedrock of Guangzhou Evergrande’s CSL dominance has been a strong core of Chinese national team players and it is this stature of club the Suning Group purportedly wants to develop. The fact Wu Xi remains the only member of Jiangsu’s squad to have been called up by Marcello Lippi is indicative of a failure to recruit some of the fringe China players that moved in the summer, such as Yin Hongbo, Zhao Mingjian, or Zhang Chengdong. Although some might argue the likes of Cao Haiqing and Li Ang, at 23 years old, have the ability to reach the top of Chinese football.
This is not to entirely absolve Choi of responsibility from the underwhelming series of CSL performances, particularly against Tianjin TEDA and Chongqing Lifan. Indeed, his constant tinkering of players, tweaking of formation, reliance on Liu Jianyi in holding midfield, and poor handling of the confusing Martinez saga are all valid points for criticism.
However, with the fan base not yet alienated and the commitment of the team unquestionable following a hard fought game against Guangzhou R&F, removing the South Korean at this early stage of the season would not address Jiangsu’s problems and if the club sticks by him, the poor CSL form may later be considered as a few fumbling missteps in the early stages of the Suning project.