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How Fabio Capello can lead Jiangsu to safety

Fabio Capello, Jiangsu Suning's new manager, being led through Nanjing airport clutching the customary bouquet of flowers while draped in the customary scarf.

The story goes that Fabio Capello’s childhood introduction to swimming came when his father launched him headlong into the Adriatic. Though the tale might be apocryphal, it echoes something of the situation the Italian inherits as he enters Jiangsu Suning; a club not so much floundering near the bottom of the Chinese Super League (CSL) but sunk and bereft of breath.

The hiring of the former AC Milan and Real Madrid manager should eradicate any ill-formed notions people might have that Suning’s Italian venture is operating a predominately commercial, non-football agenda. Though, the extent to which the notoriously discipline heavy manager will be committed and interested in developing the Nanjing project should be questioned. One hopes he is in China for more than a handsome salary.

While the cultural and linguistic challenges that Capello faces in his first managerial foray away from Europe will be great, his primary task is to restore on field structure, build confidence, and to arrest the idea that relegation and Jiangsu can be discussed in the same sentence.

Here are a few issues the five time Serie A champion must deal with;

Settle on a formation based around Jiangsu’s strengths

Continuity under Choi Yong-soo was somewhat scuppered by untimely injuries and suspensions to key players, however, it was the South Korean’s inability to successfully implement a system of play that led to his downfall.

Arriving from FC Seoul with a 3-5-2 formation that had seen his side excel both domestically and in the AFC Champions League, Choi spent preseason hyping the training ground attention paid to perfecting the system before first tweaking and later abandoning it altogether before the end of April.

One recurring problem was the squad’s lack of quality wingbacks, crucial if the formation is to offer necessary width and balance, with Choi trying no fewer than six different players in the position.

Liu Jianye, deployed by Choi as the side’s midfield enforcer, proved another fault line in the side; he has seemed slow and tactically slack for a player with more than 25 caps for the national team. As a former defensive midfielder himself, it will be interesting to see whether Capello seeks to improve the 29 year old or simply looks at alternate options.

Capello’s tactical versatility and willingness to mold a formation around the strengths players at his disposal is well-documented and should hold him in good stead with this vastly under-performing Jiangsu squad.

Reintroduce Wu Xi to the heart of the team

As Jiangsu’s only representative in the national team squad, it was bittersweet for fans of the struggling CSL side to watch the club captain once again play well for China. Despite showing glimmers of promise in recent games against Guizhou and Hebei, the midfielder has largely existed on the periphery of games and is yet to score or assist in the league.

Wu has been at the club since 2013 and his attempt to hold court, via megaphone, with a despondent section of supports following the 2-1 loss to Hebei evidenced the fact he genuinely cares about his team’s lackluster performances this year.

Capello would be wise to consult his compatriot Marcello Lippi and establish how best to deploy Jiangsu’s only high caliber Chinese player. One senses that the key to unlocking Jiangsu’s potential rests in balancing the duties of Wu and Ramires. Simply put, Capello needs to harness Wu’s sharp passing and Ramires’ lanky-limbed surges forward without compromising the midfield’s defensive duties.

Cut to the core of the Roger Martinez palaver

One unwavering aspect of Capello’s managerial character has been his stern, no nonsense approach to dealing with players. The Italian will hopefully rapidly resolve the uncertainty surrounding Roger Martinez, a Colombian striker whose obvious talent seems compromised by attitude problems that saw Choi omit him from several league games.

Martinez’s goal scoring pedigree is based on a decent series of performances for La Tricolor at the Rio Olympics and his blistering start to his Jiangsu career – he averaged a goal a game across his first 10 appearances. Whether due to increased opposition attention, lack of fitness, or general disinterest, the former Racing Club player is yet to score in the league and hasn’t formed the type of partnership with Alex Teixeira that seems obvious given their respective talents.

With the Chinese Football Association (CFA) limiting CSL sides to fielding three foreigners per game twinned with the rumored recall of Australian defender Trent Sainsbury, Martinez’s place in the side seems to be in jeopardy. It will be unsurprising if Capello exchanges the South American’s temperamental attacking prowess for defensive solidity. It might even a relief.

An inconclusive conclusion

With 2017 already seeming a forgettable season for Jiangsu Suning fans, Capello has the unglamorous task of needing to steer the Nanjing side into a comfortable midtable berth and try to salvage some pride in the process. A lingering opportunity remains in the Chinese Cup and one hopes Capello will field a strong side against Henan in the Fourth Round game on June 21.

While the appointment of a world-renowned manager will undoubtedly increase attention on the Nanjing club, the footballing success of Capello’s new side will depend more on his attitude and ability to implement a system than his unquestionably dazzling CV.

Inhabits New York. Consumes football. Runs marathons.

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