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A look back at SIPG’s breakthrough year in Chinese football

With the CSL season over, the ACL still to be settled between the Saudis and the Japanese and one trophy remaining to be awarded in China, a look back at SIPG’s 2017 season. Included: a report card for the boys.

At the top of Chinese football?

Guangzhou won the CSL again, but the SIPG season was a thrilling ride and the Red Eagles staked their claim as the best side in the land. The case for the Xuhui XI:

  • Three wins and a draw in six matches against Guangzhou, wiping out the Evergrande invincibility narrative and knocking the Cantonese out of both the FA Cup and the Asian Champion’s League.
  • A solid second place finish in a league title race that was, if not fixed for Guangzhou, heavily influenced by the intervention of the CFA. SIPG lost Oscar (8 matches), Hulk (2), Wu Lei (2) and Ahmedov (2) for fourteen matches via suspension. During Oscar’s suspension, SIPG dropped twelve points. They lost the league by six.
  • Stormed through the ACL, winning a qualifying match against Thai side Sukhothai, dominating (with Urawa) their group, and then brushing aside Jiangsu in the Round of 16 and, of course, Evergrande in the quarters. They were neck-and-neck with Urawa in the semi-final for 180 tense minutes.
  • There’s a chance for silverware with an FA Cup win later this month against hapless Shenhua.
  • SIPG scored 72 CSL goals, the most in the league and the most by any CSL side since 2014. They led the league in goal differential, and if there was such a thing, they’d be first in style points, too. They were a pleasure to watch. Counting the FA Cup and ACL matches, SIPG has scored 116 goals in 2017.
  • The team has the best looking future in the league. SIPG will likely enter 2018 as the favorite to win the CSL and has a new, football-only stadium on the way. While the new transfer rules will make it problematic for Evergrande to replace Paulinho, SIPG has all it’s foreigners except Carvalho back next season and also has the best Chinese player under 30 in the league.

Highs and lows

Highs:

The 4-0 dismantling of Evergrande at Shanghai Stadium in the ACL quarter-finals. The first 60 minutes in ACL group play against Urawa, maybe the best football anybody played in Asia this year. The stunning 4-0 second-leg comeback against Quanjian to win the FA Cup quarter-final. The casually brutal CSL beatdowns of Guo’an and Shenhua at the Stadium. The 15-14 FA Cup shootout win against Suzhou. The 5-1 deficit to Evergrande in the ACL quarterfinal, also won on a shootout, in what may have been the most thrilling match in Chinese football history. Six straight wins to start the season and a three-month stretch from April to July in which SIPG didn’t lose any matches that counted.

Lows:

The inability to solve Urawa’s tightly packed defense in the 1-0 ACL semi-final loss. The never-ending parade of suspensions. The 2-1 August loss at Guiyang, which put SIPG behind the eight-ball in the CSL title race.

A report card for the boys

The Coach

André Villas-Boas. A.

AVB guided SIPG to it’s best overall season and clearly has the support of his players: Ahmedov told Russian TV that it’s the closest squad he’s ever played on. Despite a sleazy Chinese media campaign against AVB’s return next year, it’s hard to believe he won’t be back given SIPG’s achievements and the strong position the team will have going into next year.

The conventional wisdom is that AVB has had troubles adjusting to football in China.  It’s just as fair to say that the CFA is having trouble adjusting to people expressing themselves openly and honestly. His suspensions were for complaining about the ridiculous Oscar suspension and the low quality of CSL refereeing. These are things any coach would do.

Four areas are in obvious need of AVB’s attention next year. (1) SIPG was tenth in the league in goals from set plays, which is astonishing considering the talent on hand. (2) The quality of SIPG defending was poor. There were a lot of opposition players wandering around alone in front of keeper Yan Junling. (3) Oscar. The coach has to find a way to reach him and get him to produce a consistent level of effort. (4) Match-day focus on the road. SIPG scratched to a 6-5-4 on the road with a goal differential of four. (Although it’s worth noting that only two teams in the CSL were above. 500 on the road this year.) By way of contrast, SIPG won 11 games at home and had a mind-blowing goal differential of 29.

Like the rest of the coaches in the league, AVB will also have to figure out how to manage having an U23 player on the field for 90 minutes a night. At this point, there are no obvious candidates on the SIPG roster for that role.

If SIPG is going to advance in the ACL next year, AVB’s also got to figure out what to do when Hulk is shadowed by a quality defender.

The Goalkeepers

Yan Junling: A

Pretty in pink. Despite a leaky defense in front of him, Yan established himself as 1 or 1A in the “best goalkeeper in China” conversation. He was rarely out of position and his distribution was a major area of improvement. (He was second in the league among keepers in connecting on both long and short passes. If you blindfolded Yan, he could probably still find Hulk downfield.) Yan’s remarkably quick for someone so tall (193 cm).

Evergrande’s Zeng Cheng still gets all the starts for the national team, but here’s something to think about: SIPG gave up a shot a game more than Evergrande, and a half a shot a game more from close in. But SIPG gave up three fewer goals.

One area in which Yan could improve: penalty kicks. He didn’t stop much in the shootouts against Evergrande and Suzhou.

Sun Le: F
Chen Wei: C

The back-up keepers are on different career arcs. 28-year-old perennial back-up Sun hasn’t started a CSL game since 2013. He looked shaky in his one appearance this year, an ACL appearance against Western Sydney Wanderers, and with Yan suspended, AVB gave the ACL semi-final start against Urawa to 19-year-old Chen. Chen stood up to the pressure well and one assumes Sun’s days in red are numbered. The U23 rule for next year — an U23 has to be on the field at all times — presents AVB and Chen with some intriguing possibilities.

The Back Line

Wang Shenchao: B-

The popular team captain dodged responsibility for SIPG’s defending hackery, which is, to be fair, mostly down to the inside defenders, not Wang, and he added to his game a willingness to commit deep in the final third when SIPG had the ball. (Despite which he was rarely out of position on counter-attacks.)

He’s obviously respected, and his willingness to take a second yellow against Evergrande in Guangzhou in the ACL quarterfinal probably saved that match for SIPG. His backpedaling header at Shanghai Stadium against Evergrande was one of the best SIPG goals of the season.

Shi Ke: C
He Guan: D
Fu Huan: D

The 24-year-old trio played most of the matches in the rest of the back four. He Guan had 29 starts, Shi Ke had 24 and Fu Huan 19. Their youth showed. They were poor defending corner kicks, erratic with their marking, slow to react to loose balls, awful on clearances and contributed little to attacks. Perhaps the biggest off-season decisions for SIPG management will revolve around whether to count on their development or bring in some new talent. Shi Ke — who was second in the league in clearances and led SIPG in blocked shots — seems the likeliest to stick long-term.

Ricardo Carvalho: I

The 39-year-old Portuguese likely finished his career playing in a handful of matches for SIPG. His last appearance, in a nice gesture from AVB, was in SIPG’s CSL season-ender against Jiangsu. Carvalho got headlines mostly for his conviction for tax evasion in Spain. (He will likely avoid jail.) In the Russian TV interview that got Ahmedov suspended, the Uzbeki went out of his way to note that Carvalho was contributing mightily to SIPG as a de facto coach.

Wei Zhen: F

The 20-year-old got eight starts as an U23 sacrificial lamb to the quixotic CFA god and was plainly not ready for prime time.

Zhang Wei: D

He tended to show up on the line-up card on SIPG’s worst defensive nights.

Wang Jiajie. F

The former three-year starter for SIPG found his way into one match this year.

Hulk and Ahmedov led the way

Midfield

Odil Ahmedov: A

Ahmedov’s move from FC Krasnodar to SIPG — at about 1/10 of the cost of Oscar — was probably the best value for a transfer in the CSL this year. Ahmedov’s defense was solid (notwithstanding his marking lapse on Urawa’s only goal in the second leg of the ACL semi-final) and there was no one besides Hulk who contributed more to one of the best attacks in CSL history. It must be said, though, that his offensive contributions mostly involve passing and positioning. His shot is weak.

SIPG has him locked up for through the 2019 season, but his lowball contract and the ever-increasing CSL restrictions on foreigners may tempt SIPG to cash in with a transfer at some point.

Oscar: B

Scored only three goals in the CSL, and another three in the ACL. He’s an enigma. When he’s playing well, any loose ball he picks up at midfield is a crisis for a defending team. His ability to work combinations with Hulk and, to a lesser extent, Elkeson and Wu Lei, is deadly. It’s the best show in the CSL. Oscar led the league in “key passes” per game and was second per game in through balls. He’s a savant at switching the field.

That’s the good Oscar. At other times — the second ACL matches against Evergrande and Urawa come to mind, or the first leg of the FA Cup against Quanjian — Oscar simply disappears. Whole halves can go by without any obvious indicators of his presence.

And, of course, there’s his temper. He’s quick to confront opposition players and his tantrum against R&F cost him a suspension that defined the SIPG season. (That’s not to say that there is another league on this planet that would have given him an eight-game suspension.) He’s signed through the 2019 CSL season and his price tag combined with the new restrictions on importing foreigners means he’ll spend that whole time as a Red Eagle.

Oscar highlight: rampant against Beijing Guo’an at Shanghai Stadium, dissecting the northerners and assisting on goals by Wei Shihao, Hulk and Wu Lei. Lowlight: two pairs of kicks, the two at R&F players that got him suspended, and his two penalty misses against Urawa in the group stage of the ACL.

Here’s what got Oscar suspended:

Cai Huikeng: C-

Often the odd-man out in the U23 fiasco, entering games at some point in the first half. He’s played 141 CSL matches now and scored two (2) goals, none this year. He’s built like a tank and not particularly agile defensively, either. At 28, he’s likely done developing.

Lin Chuangyi: D

19 matches, averaged 47 minutes an appearance. Forgettable season, except that Evergrande ruthlessly exploited him in the second leg of the ACL match-up. Not particularly instinctive, fast or powerful. He’s a placeholder for whoever SIPG brings in to go for the title next year.

Yu Hai: C

The 30-year-old former Renhe stalwart lost his SIPG starting job at the beginning of the year but emerged as a favorite AVB tactical substitution (15 times!) later in the year. Was a clear upgrade from SIPG’s U23 guys and even Cai. He was, notably, AVB’s choice for the fifth and final penalty kick in the ACL thriller against Guangzhou. He nailed it to wrap up the win.

Zhang Huachen: F

The 19-year-old started twelve matches and averaged a tick over 15 minutes on the field. But they were surely fifteen minutes chock full of development, right?

Zhang Yi: D

Never got AVB’s confidence. Played sparingly, was yanked early when he did and didn’t play in the big matches.

The Attackers

Hulk: A+

The best player this year in the CSL and perhaps the best player who’s ever played in the CSL. 17 goals and 11 assists, Man of the Match ten times in twenty-six starts. Led the league in shots/game and dribbling possession. Was fouled more than any other player in the league, except Maurinho at Changchun. Nine goals in the ACL, which is tied for the lead with Al-Hilal’s Syrian international Omar Kharbin. Terrified keepers on free kicks from outside the box.

It’s no exaggeration to say that AVB ran the entire SIPG offense through Hulk. When he got shut down, by injury, suspension, or by referee Alireza Faghani in the ACL quarterfinal, or by a Urawa’s use of a spy in the ACL semi-final, SIPG looked disjointed. When Hulk flew, SIPG flew. Frequently.

Hulk may have the best left foot from distance in the world and took almost every SIPG free and corner kick. (Although he did score a goal on a scrum in front of the goal after a corner he somehow didn’t take. His quick reaction time and nose for the ball might make that something worth pursuing next season.)

Hulk’s contact, which he signed in Russia, expires in the middle of the 2019 CSL season. That’s going to be intriguing.

Highlights: Any number of goals could go here, especially his 110th minute screamer against Evergrande to save SIPG in the ACL, but for sheer entertainment value, this one against Yanbian on July 15 is hard to top:

Wei Shihao: C

On loan from Leixöes in Portugal, to which he will reportedly return after SIPG’s FA Cup matches. The 22-year-old was often used as AVB’s U23 designee, but stayed on the field longer than the rest of them. He made serious contributions in two matches: a late lightning bolt from outside the box to beat Shandong in April — it has to be a contender for goal of the year — and a brace against Guo’an.

Elkeson: A-

If there’s another player who got hurt more by the sudden and quixotic change in CSL foreigner usage rules at the start of the season, I’d like to know who.

The Brazilian, who has a superlative record in the CSL, and should be in the prime of his career at the age of 28, was caught in a numbers crunch behind Hulk, Oscar and Ahmedov. He played only about half the time in the CSL, despite which he had 11 goals. (He’s now at 80 lifetime in the CSL.) At that scoring rate, full-time duty would have had him second in the league in scoring.

Elkeson added another five in the ACL. His lone wolf playing style — he likes to be out in front of the play — isn’t as fun to watch as Hulk, but you can’t argue with the results. He’s signed through the 2018 season. It’s a waste of his talent to play him half the time.

Lue Wenjun: C

Used sparingly for the fifth straight year in Shanghai — mostly this year as a late tactical sub when the team needed a goal — Lue got five goals, four against CSL bottom-feeders. AVB experimented with Lue as a free- and corner-kick specialist (in lieu of Hulk) but he didn’t particularly impress in that role. Lue is 28 and could conceivably continue to be useful against the Henans and Shenhuas of the world.

Li Shenglong: I.

Scored garbage-time goals in the 6-1 rout of Shenhua and 4-2 loss to Changchun, but rarely played. SIPG should loan him out or let him go.

Wu Lei: B+

He hit the back of the net 20 times for SIPG in 2017, second most in the league and by far best among Chinese players. (Next most was Evergrande’s Yu Hanchao with eight.) He added another five in the ACL.

The problem is that he’s one dimensional: he’s a decent finisher, but he rarely makes a pass that turns into anything, he almost never dribbles, and he’s a defensive liability. He probably led the league in encouraging long, speculative passes that went nowhere.

There isn’t a team in the CSL that wouldn’t love to have Wu. There simply aren’t very many good finishers from China, and because of Wu’s rare ability, SIPG can use two of their foreigner allocation at midfield. But his presence adds pressure on others to be creative because Wu simply can’t create chances on his own.

Highlight for Wu: a brace of braces against Evergrande. Lowlight: Suspended for wearing a cheeky t-shirt.

American expat rooting for Shanghai SIPG, because they’re the Oakland A’s to Shenhua’s San Francisco Giants.

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