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China League One Awards – The Best and Worst of 2017

With 2017 on the verge of disappearing into history, WEF takes a look at the best and worst of what was yet another intriguing League One season. Find out who was the manager, foreign player, Chinese player, young player and breakout star of the season, as well as the year’s biggest head-scratcher and flop.  

Manager of the Year     –      Juan Caro, Dalian Yifang

Hard to look beyond the league winning manager this season as the former Real Madrid boss managed to turn Yifang into a well organized unit which managed a League One single season points record since the division was expanded to sixteen teams in 2012. Contrary to the Spanish stereotype, Caro’s team was not pretty to watch, but were extremely hard to break down and developed the very useful habit of grinding wins out of tight games.

Juan Caro (centre) celebrates a job well done

With big spending teams such as Shenzhen FC and Wuhan Zall slated for promotion prior to the season, Caro’s achievement becomes even more significant because, aside from underwhelming new foreign signings Yannick Boli and Jonathan Ferrari, the only new addition who was a regular in the starting line-up was 38-year-old left-back Zhou Ting. Despite that, Yifang jumped from fifth to first and won 19 additional points in 2017.

All of this makes the club’s decision, apparently at the behest of the Dalian FA, to get rid of Caro and replace him with Ma Lin baffling. Dalian looked strong candidates for a lower mid-table CSL finish under Caro in the coming year but under Ma, who oversaw the majority of Liaoning’s CSL relegation last season, they might not be out of the second tier for long.

Honourable Mentions – 2017 was the year of the Spaniard in League One with Luis Garcia Plaza earning promotion alongside Caro with Beijing Renhe. The 45-year-old took over from Wang Baoshan twelve games into the season and earned 41 points in the last 18 matches. That level of output would have seen Renhe top the league if they’d done it since the start of the season, but Garcia loses out for not being around all year.

Qingdao Huanghai’s Jordi Vinyals accomplishments were overlooked this season because his team regressed from their third place finish in 2016 to fourth this year. Although they failed to build on last year’s outstanding performance, the former Barcelona youth coach continues to massively over-achieve with a squad of players who look like they should be in the bottom half of the table, and does it in style with a team that plays the best football in the division.

Player of the Year     –     Marcelo Moreno, Wuhan Zall

This is an individual award and so, while Moreno’s team failed to live up to their pre-season hype, the Bolivian international gets this honour for carrying Wuhan on his back to a fifth place finish. Moreno’s 23 goals meant he tied for the Golden Boot with Shenzhen FC’s Harold Preciado but it should be noted that, exactly like the Colombian, his total was padded out with seven penalties.

Vitally, on top of his own strikes, Moreno also came through with 10 assists, meaning he was involved in a league leading 33 goals in total which accounted for no less than 70% of his club’s tally of 47. The 30-year-old’s future remains up in the air going into next season, but if Wuhan want to be serious promotion contenders they’ll do everything they can to try and keep him.

Honourable Mentions – Shenzhen FC’s Harold Preciado matched Moreno’s scoring tally, but had less of an individual impact on a team that had a better supporting cast around him. He also ended the season poorly by netting just four in the final eleven games. Beijing Renhe’s Jaime Ayovi’s 20 goals included a league high 19 non-penalties while both Shanghai Shenxin’s Cleiton Silva and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s Matheus had very impressive attacking outputs for their sides. Qingdao Huanghai’s Djordje Rakic managed 19 goals despite having an injury hit season and his strike rate of a goal every 81 minutes showed what might have been had he been fit for the whole year.

Chinese Player of the Year     –     Deng Zhuoxiang, Qingdao Huanghai

Tough call this one, but we’ll give it to former China international and one time future superstar Deng Zhuoxiang who went some way towards getting his injury hit career back on track with an excellent season on loan at Qingdao Huanghai. An attacking output of five goals and nine assists was pretty decent for a central midfielder, but his contribution went beyond that as he flourished under former Barcelona youth coach Jordi Vinyals.

Huanghai had a league leading average of 59% possesion (a clear 7% ahead of anybody else) and Deng played a key role in helping his side regularly outplay the opposition. And the excellent relationship he formed with Spanish midfielder Joan Verdu was also key in supporting an attack which slammed in a league leading 56 goals.

The 29-year-old’s future may not lie with parent club Shanghai Shenhua, but he has shown this season that he should be playing at higher level than the second tier.

Honourable Mentions – The top domestic scorer was Beijing BG’s Wang Jianwen who slammed in ten goals from midfield in 2017, but his performances declined as the season went on. Shenzhen FC veteran Xu Liang had a league leading twelve assists in this year, but his contributions didn’t go much beyond that as age caught up with him and he often went missing from games.

Defensively, promoted sides Beijing Renhe and Dalian Yifang put forward a few contenders in the shape of Jin Qiang, Wang Qiang, Wang Wanpeng, Deng Hanwen and Zhou Ting.

Goalkeeper of the Year     –     Zou Dehai, Hangzhou Greentown

24-year old Zou was somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde character in 2017, but did enough to show why he was called up to the international squad for the 2017 China Cup with some truly outstanding displays to compliment some dreadful errors. Zou may have lacked the consistency of veteran stoppers Zhang Lie and Zhang Chong, but certain performances seemed to almost single-handedly earn his side a point or allow them to hold on for a narrow win.

His 82 saves across the season included three penalty stops, but the numbers don’t do justice to the quality of some of the shots he kept out. It is true that some of the 29 goals he conceded in 26 appearances this year were from his own errors, but no League One goalkeeper was as good as Zou on his day in 2017.

Zou is reportedly on his way to Beijing Guo’an where he will likely play second fiddle to Yang Zhi for a year or two but, if he can eliminate some of the errors from his game during that time, he could have a bright future which may include further involvement in the national team.

Honourable Mentions – Promoted goalkeepers Zhang Chong and Zhang Lie were both very reliable this season with Dalian Yifang’s Zhang Chong looking particularly formidable. Neither goalkeeper will be out of place in the CSL in 2018, though they are likely to tested a lot more as their respective defences step up a level.

Young Player of the Year     –     Deng Hanwen, Beijing Renhe

 

Deng Hanwen’s star continued to rise in 2017 for club and country

No-brainer here, really, as the 22-year-old continued his meteoric rise with a very solid year at right-back which also saw him shine for the Chinese national team and earn himself a move to CSL behemoth Guangzhou Evergrande. Many of Deng’s qualities have already been discussed in our recent player ratings article on the East Asia Cup, but it’s worth noting that he progressed significantly as the 2017 season wore on.

Back in round 2 of the season we highlighted that Deng still seemed to be struggling with defensive side of his game as he got used to playing in a back four rather than a back five, but those problems became less and less noticeable as the season wore on and he played a key role in the stingiest defence in the division. With just one goal and four assists, his attacking output might not be quite as much as expected, but he still looked like a player who was happy to spend most of the match camped in the opposition half, while having the speed and fitness to get back and help the defence when needed.

Honourable Mentions – Meizhou Hakka’s Yao Junsheng was easily the best young midfielder in the division and overcame a year in which he was too often inexplicably dropped or played out of position on the wing. Yao’s range of passing is excellent and a stand out performance at this January’s U-23 Asian Cup might convince parent club Shandong Luneng to recall him to play in next year’s CSL.

Wuhan Zall midfielder Nie Aoshuang continued progressing nicely in 2017 on a team that had a difficult year, while Nei Mongol Zhongyou centre back Shi Juwei massively improved this season and looks destined for bigger things in 2018.

Breakout Star of the Year     –     Abduhamit Abdugheni, Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard

Only really two choices for the award for the player who was largely unknown before the 2017 season, and it goes to Xinjiang native Abduhamit Abdugheni. The 19-year-old mustered a reasonable tally of four goals and three assists in 18 appearances this season, which wasn’t bad on a team which generally struggled in attack.

The well-built, athletic winger also demonstrated his versatility by putting in admirable shifts at centre-forward and centre-back. Rumour has it that the China under-20 international is about to join fellow Xinjiang attacking alumni Erpan Ezimjan and Nan Xiaoheng at Jiangsu Suning and, with the need for under-23 players now more acute than ever, it would be a surprise if Abdugheni doesn’t find himself at a CSL club before the start of next season.

Honourable mentions – The only other real option for this award is Beijing Renhe’s Cao Yongjing who came from nowhere to find himself a regular in a promotion winning side. Cao made a slow start to the season on the left-wing, but was moved into an attacking midfield role just after Luis Garcia Plaza took the helm. The 20-year-old ended the season with 3 goals and 7 assists thanks to a mid-season flurry, but went off the boil a bit towards the end of the year. Abdugheni edges Cao to the award because he did what he did with a much weaker supporting cast around him, but the Chongqing native should quickly become familiar to CSL audiences in 2018.

Headscratcher of the Year     –     Zhejiang Yiteng make Tot-ally bizarre decision to replace Mauricio Copertino 

Having shed all their best players in the years since they were relegated from the CSL in 2014, Yiteng looked to be among the favourites for the drop in 2017 – not least because they had appointed rookie Brazilian manager Mauricio Copertino to take charge of the team. Remarkably, though, the one time Tianjin Quanjian assistant had Yiteng up to fourth thanks to five wins in their first nine games, including a massive victory in the first ever Zhejiang derby against Hangzhou Greentown.

Zhejiang then followed that up with a 1-1 draw against Shanghai Shenxin before succumbing to a sloppy 3-1 home loss to Dalian Transcendence. Despite the team still being in sixth, that was apparently enough for Yiteng’s ownership to decide to give Copertino the boot because of “differences over the future of the club”.

The club soon re-appointed 2014 manager Marijo Tot and proceeded to go on a run where they earned just one win in 17 games and looked in real danger of fulfilling their pre-season promise of getting relegated until victories over significantly weakened Meizhou Hakka and Beijing BG teams barely saved them.

Of course, more cynical fans would say Yiteng’s decision wasn’t a headscratcher at all as the ownership had no desire to get promoted and feared that Copertino’s over-achievement may see them make the expensive leap back into the CSL. There was also the possibility that Copertino disagreed with some of the ownership’s alleged shadier practices which see the team regularly under-perform against Beijing Renhe and Dalian based clubs.

Whatever the real reason, Yiteng’s sabotage of their own season is anathema to any true football fan and would leave even the most jaded of fans scratching their heads in either surprise or just despair.

Flop of the Season     –     Yasen Petrov’s Capital Carnage

After his phenomenal success at Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, it looked like the Bulgarian manager might be the missing piece required to turn two years of significant investment into a genuine promotion challenge. In the event, Petrov’s conservatism just didn’t fit in with a squad packed with attacking talent and BG had an atrocious start to the season.

The players clearly didn’t take to Petrov’s style, and his decision to pack the defence resulted in one draw and three defeats in the first four games before everything really fell apart. A 5-2 hammering by Shenzhen FC, was followed by an FA Cup second round defeat against League Two side Jiangxi Liansheng, before a 4-0 home hammering in the Beijing derby called time on Petrov’s disastrous spell.

With the team in disarray, Gao Hongbo took over and guided them to a comfortable mid-table finish – demonstrating how badly Petrov had done. As for the Bulgarian, he was surprisingly given another chance at CSL club Henan Jianye where he lasted 14 games before being let go. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that another League One club will give him a whirl in 2018, but his rough time in the capital may have tainted him too much.

All pictures courtesy of OSports

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall. A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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