Even by Shenhua’s standards, 2017 has been a season veering between extremes – crashing out of the Champions League at the first hurdle, starting strongly and then falling apart in the league, stadium fires and six-month suspensions, a derby humiliation and yet another coach through the revolving door. All rounded off by a near-perfect cup run taking out a couple of historical rivals and then clinching the sweetest of victories by outplaying their noisy neighbours at their own home. Only a fool (or two) would try to make sense of this season, let alone score players based on the course of a wildly fluctuating year – so WEF’s founding editor Cameron Wilson steps up to the plate to join NTN veteran and podcast host Steve Crooks in looking back on Shenhua’s breakthrough year in Shanghai football, bringing top-level silverware back to the city for the first time in 20 years.
Wu Jingui – 8/10 Interim Coach – CSL Record: (W3, D2 L2)
Crooks – You can argue all you like about whether he’s the man for the future (he’s not) or whether he deserves the full-time job (more debatable), but you can’t deny that he saw his side through a banana-skin semi-final and then – in complete contrast to the much more vaunted coach in the opposite dugout – picked the right team and set them up perfectly both tactically and emotionally for both legs of that supercharged city derby of a cup final. I’m all for hammering coaches when they get things wrong, so we have to call out their successes when they get it right, too.
Wilson – Wu couldn’t really have done better. Aside from his 1st match back in charge, the 6-1 hammering in the derby, he can’t really be faulted. However, I don’t think he’s the man for the future, so what’s the point in giving him the job full-time on the back of basically winning one game in a cup final? His appointment is an admission from the Shenhua board that the club doesn’t work well with foreign coaches. That speaks volumes of the huge issues inside Shenhua.
Gus Poyet – 6/10 Head Coach (resigned) – CSL Record: (W6, D6 L11)
Crooks – In many ways blameless for the shambles of a season which unfolded around him, with the club’s questionable planning and transfer policy coming home to roost. Poyet kept his dignity throughout and never stopped trying different tactical approaches – when it worked it was great (the perfect smash-and-grab cup quarter final in Jinan), when it didn’t it was painful (that Brisbane game, and some ill-advised experimentation with a back three). He threw in the league pretty early to focus entirely on preparing for cup games, which for me is a high-risk strategy which ultimately paid off, but I can understand how it riled some fans up.
Wilson – Blaming Poyet for Shenhua’s season is like getting on a bus with flat tires and a broken gearbox and shouting at the driver for not getting you to your destination on time. When you change your coach every single season, it was unforgivable to let Manzano go, who had just given Shenhua their best season since 2011. Poyet wasn’t even 3rd choice by the board’s own admission, and it showed. He did his best with very limited resources and sub-standard domestic signings which were not of his doing. A good man manager and a passionate individual who could have done much better with proper backing from the club.
Li Shuai – 6/10 Appearances 27, Goals 0
Crooks – Turned it around a bit this year. He’s still the oldest-looking man I’ve ever seen, and he’s still not quite good enough and certainly not long-term enough for where Shenhua should be aiming to be, but there were fewer high-profile mistakes and a few more quality saves this time around.
Wilson – Not a bad season, his experience get’s him out of trouble quite a few times but he doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Qiu Shenjiong – 4/10 Appearances 3, Goals 0
Crooks – Looked nervy in the run-outs he got when his geriatric teammate was rested. A bit too short and a lot too fat to really offer enough competition for first-choice.
Wilson – Shenhua are fortunate to have a goalkeeper as decent as Qiu who is content to play second-fiddle for the rest of his career.
Wang Lin – 5/10 Appearances 24, Goals 0
Crooks – One of Poyet’s more puzzling preferences – clearly not as good as Li Yunqiu, somehow Wang played a lot more games. A run of games did see some improvement, but ultimately he’s just not good enough at CSL level – and that’s without bringing his questionable history into the discussion.
Wilson – Tries hard but like most of Shenhua’s defence he’s limited on talent. It’s hard to watch someone as average as him get a game ahead of younger candidates.
Li Yunqiu – 6/10 Appearances 21, Goals 0
Crooks – Finally Shenhua have found a right-back. Started slowly with injuries and a surprising lack of managerial trust hampering his fluency, but became a regular starter in the second half of the season – here’s hoping for an injury-free 2018.
Wilson – A return to the solid right back we saw at the start of last year following a long spell out with injury. Good to see someone who is a right back playing as Shenhua’s regular right back.
Tao Jin – 4/10 Appearances 20, Goals 0
Crooks – Poyet really did pick some dross in defence, didn’t he. Prized as being Mr. Reliable for his surprising early-30’s career kickstart the previous year, Tao was found out a fair bit with a number of costly slips and real lack of composure on the ball. Thankfully out of the first team picture by the business end of the season.
Wilson – The fact that a 32-year-old who has played barely 30 games of CSL football in his entire career became a first choice says everything about the paucity of resources available to Poyet. A really limited player who is best used in emergencies only.
Bi Jinhao – 6/10 Appearances 18, Goals 0
Crooks – After a stop-start first year, was again in and out of the team through the first half of the season. Finally got a run of games in the second half of the year and belatedly started looking something like the player Shenhua paid all those millions for. Presumably goes into 2018 with the confidence of knowing he’s the first-pick at centre back now, which he really should be given the alternative options.
Wilson – A decent defender but clearly not worth 7 million RMB, this year he was relatively injury-free and became 1st choice towards the end of the season. That was deserved, but only because there wasn’t anyone else better and unfortunately that’s not saying much.
Bai Jiajun – 8/10 Appearances 15, Goals 1
Crooks – Missed a lot of the season – perhaps not coincidentally the part where the side’s form fell through the floor – with a mysteriously persistent injury. Whenever he did play, was his usual bundle of energy and attitude, and the telepathy with Cao Yunding remains undimmed – see the delightful through-ball for Shenhua’s opener (both times) at Shanghai Stadium.
Wilson – Bai was conspicuous by his absence, exposing Shenhua’s dreadful lack of strength and depth at the back when he was out for half the season. One of the most under-rated left backs in the league, one of the few domestic players in the squad who could not be easily replaced.
Kim Ki-Hee – 5/10 Appearances 15, Goals 1
Crooks – As with Korean center-backs across the league, the last-minute change to foreign player quotas badly hurt Kim’s playing time. When he did play, he lacked any fluency and often looked little better than whoever he was paired with – presumably Shenhua will want to keep him around for the Champions League in the first half of 2018, but it’s hard to see him lasting beyond that.
Wilson – Can’t help but feel sorry for Kim who saw far fewer games thanks to the sudden rule-change from the CFA reducing the foreign player quota. His game suffered as a result, definitely looked a bit short of match practise when he did get a run-out, lacked the opportunity to develop an understanding with a regular defensive partner.
Li Jianbin – 5/10 Appearances 10, Goals 0
Crooks – I want to believe in a center-back pairing of Li and Bi Jinhao, but Li had a bit of a regression in 2017 – a number of injuries but a few needless mistakes and hot-headed suspensions too. He’s 28 now – he’s never going to learn, is he? I swear there’s a top-notch stopper in there if he plays alongside someone who can rein his temper in, though.
Wilson – A hard season for Li, injury again hitting the Shenhua back line. He’s had surgery on his shoulder so hopefully can look forward to more fruitful 2018.
Li Peng – 3/10 Appearances 9, Goals 0
Crooks – The first of the Qingdao Three to come up in this piece. Clearly not CSL standard – and yet he gains a point or two for making it through the whole 180 minutes of the cup final without screwing anything up.
Wilson – One of the most pointless signings Shenhua have ever made – that’s saying something. If you can’t keep Tao Jin out of the team, you may as well give up or go back to playing at a lower level which is where Li Peng belongs.
Gio Moreno – 8/10 Appearances 26, Goals 15
Crooks – Captain. Leader. Legend. Might Gio even end up retiring with Shenhua? Was his usual irrepressible self and really stood up and put in a proper box-to-box performance in the cup final second leg. Remains one of the classiest players in the entire league, and one of the more committed to his cause too. Played well enough to earn himself a recall to the Colombian national side – which is hardly short on technically gifted playmakers.
Wilson – What can be said about this man which we haven’t already on WEF before? An inspirational club legend with a good few years left yet, he got his just desserts at the end of the season by raising the CFA cup trophy and he clearly could not have been more delighted.
Cao Yunding – 8/10 Appearances 26, Goals 5
Crooks – I’m often a bit harsh on Cao because, on his day, he’s one of the most creative forces in the league. Not every day was his day this year, but enough of them were. My lasting memory of Cao may just always be his “Go on then, disallow THAT one” reaction to a questionable refereeing call in Shanghai Stadium.
Wilson – His goal in the second leg of the CFA cup final, coming just two minutes after his opener was controversially disallowed, summed up his season – a cocky riposte to those who would doubt him. It’s just a complete joke that this guy isn’t in every China squad.
Sun Shilin – 7/10 Appearances 24, Goals 0
Crooks – Two thumbs up. Started a bit lukewarm, but grew into his role in the center of the park. I didn’t think he was Shenhua standard at first, but have been happily proved wrong – he and Guarin developed a good understanding of when to drop back and cover and when to drive forwards, and the choice between Sun and Qin Sheng might be an interesting one next season.
Wilson – Sun’s absurd one-match ban for his thumbs-up gesture to penalty-missing Pato in the home match v Tianjin Quanjin announced Sun’s arrival at Shenhua. A player with a big personality and an impertinent streak fits perfectly at Shenhua. Agile, intelligent and a quick passer, he was that most rare of things – a Shenhua domestic signing which clearly improved the squad.
Wang Shouting – 5/10 Appearances 22, Goals 1
Crooks – Again – Poyet really did persist with some over-the-hill dross, didn’t he? When your own fans give you the ironic nickname “Yaya Shouting” because, well, you’re the opposite of a rampaging box-to-box monster, you know something’s up. An absolute waste of space, although he did take his first-ever goal for the club nicely.
Wilson – Crap – Shenhua have ample superior talent in this position, including Wang Yun who was bizarrely loaned out to Shenxin. Should be released asap.
Fredy Guarin – 8/10 Appearances 18, Goals 10
Crooks – Turnaround of the season. After an abysmal first year, Guarin really got stuck in and was crucial as both a ball-winner and attacking threat this year. Scored some belting free-kicks, along with a classy goal to beat Guo’an in the cup at Hongkou. Missed a number of games with injury, but returned to anchor the side well in the cup final.
Wilson – A fairly long injury spell showed how badly Shenhua missed Freddy. Dynamo of the team, his strength on the ball and ability to always do something useful really anchored the midfield and inspired those around him.
Zhang Lu – 5/10 Appearances 11, Goals 1
Crooks – Often injured, and otherwise perhaps a victim of his own versatility – he really should be good enough to hold down a place at right-back, right-wing or even center-mid when you look at a lot of the players who got more minutes than him. Looked very short of confidence and didn’t take a lot of the few chances he did get this year. I will always love the image of him properly celebrating when scoring the goal which made it 8-1 against Liaoning, though – we need to see more of that in football.
Wilson – Hard to say much about Zhang, he played a real bit-part role this year which is unfortunate as he is a player of some ability, even if he is not a world-beater. Good to have on the bench.
Cong Zhen – 7/10 Appearances 9, Goals 0
Crooks – My pick of the U23’s – until Liu Ruofan came back, that is. Cong was only 19 for much of the season but already looks like a proper solid central midfielder. It’s unfortunate that Cong plays in perhaps the one position in which Shenhua have something approaching strength in depth these days, as he’d otherwise be a shoo-in for the quota spot, without looking out of place.
Wilson – Solid, played beyond his years and did not look out of place at all. Hard to see why this guy needed a rule made to get him in the Shenhua 1st team squad.
Qin Sheng – 6/10 Appearances 5, Goals 0
Crooks – How do you rate Qin Sheng’s 2017? Got sent off for a needless and dirty stamp on Axel Witsel in the second game of the season, and was somehow banned for six months (i.e. 80% of the season) rather than the 3-4 games you’d get anywhere else. Looked a bit out of shape when coming back, but was back to his peak for an immaculate thou-shalt-not-pass cup final showing.
Wilson – A forgettable season for Qin – not that there was much to remember after the ridiculous six month ban, and then an unfortunate falling out with Wu Jingui which say him in the reserve side for a while. Will want to put 2017 behind him and hopefully will be back to his Gerard-esque best in 2018.
Lv Pin – 5/10 Appearances 5, Goals 0
Crooks – Has mastered the fundamental ability to trap a ball, run with it, and give it to a teammate. Immediately head and shoulders above Xu Junmin.
Wilson – Yet another youth player who did more than well enough to make observers wonder why he wasn’t in the 1st team squad sooner. Early days but hope to see more of him next season.
Liu Jiawei / Chen Tao Appearances 1 (each), Goals 0
Crooks – I’m going to be honest and admit that I recall nothing memorable from any of these cameo appearances.
Wilson – Liu Jiawei is notable in that he played the last four games of the 2013 season under Sergio Batista. Then, aged 21, he looked more than good enough to be considered as a regular at right-back, certainly ahead of dross of the time like Wang Changqing, but he was inexplicably deemed not ready for 1st team action and sent off to play in Shenhua’s development team playing in the Spanish regional divisions. Three years later he’s back but we didn’t see enough of him to see if his overseas experience had much effect.
Mao Jianqing – 6/10 Appearances 26, Goals 3
Crooks – Ah, if only Mao had stayed at Shenhua for his peak years. The return of the prodigal son was an emotional one, and somewhat inevitably he scored on his league debut, but it all went a bit downhill from there. Never stops trying, although his fitness these days is such that he starts slow, and is positively treacle-paced after twenty minutes or so of huffing and puffing. Clearly cares and has a role to play in the squad, but his back-to-goal play isn’t good enough to play as a striker, and he’s far too slow to beat a man out wide, so it’s hard to see where he fits into the attack, really.
Wilson – Why wasn’t Mao signed back years ago? His beef with Shenhua’s former owner was no longer an issue after Greenland took over in 2013. Mao is Shenhua in a microcosm – talented, strong and charismatic, could be truly great, yet his own worst enemy and has failed to live up to his potential. It’s good to have him back as a squad player, and he’s Shenhua through and through, but at 31 he’s not one for the future.
Carlos Tevez – 1/10 Appearances 16, Goals 4
Crooks – What does all the money in the world get you? A fat, lazy ex-footballer who stands watching the game pass him by and bangs in a penalty in a 4-0 rout along with a couple of goals against relegated Yanbian and Liaoning, apparently. Rivals Anelka for the worst-ever signing Shenhua have made, and the sooner his vacation is made permanent, the better.
Wilson – Tevez was an expensive gamble which turned out to be a complete failure. Did no-one in the board hear about Tevez problems setting in Manchester?
Xu Junmin – 2/10 Appearances 15, Goals 0
Crooks – Wow. It turns out the great hope of Shenhua youth development doesn’t actually know how to play football. At all. Can’t control a ball, can’t pass, can’t cross, can’t shoot, can’t even take a free kick without tricking it embarrassingly into the wall. Tries to tackle people by running into them rugby-style. Will presumably never feature again now that he’s over 23 and doesn’t get a quota spot.
Wilson – Gives me no pleasure to say this but I can’t for the life of me see why this guy was touted as a shoe-in for the u-23 slot at the start of the season. Would not be surprised if we did not see Xu play for Shenhua again as there are just too many better u-23 players who should be ahead of him in the queue and next season as a 24-year-old it’s difficult to see how he will get a look in. Should be sold or loaned out, hard to see how he has real future at the club unless he’s happy to join the ranks of professional reservists like Tao Jin and Qiu Shenjiong.
Obafemi Martins – 7.5/10 Appearances 13, Goals 7
Crooks – Started his year by missing an open goal in the Brisbane horror show, and ended it by scoring a solo effort for the ages to seal the cup victory. If it weren’t for the cup, Martins might score a bit lower here – he was often isolated and ineffective in the league (not entirely through his own fault), but he put in a real striker’s performance away at Shandong, and his cup-final heroics will see him go down as a bona fide club legend.
Wilson – Martins had a bit of a stop-start season this year, and had a few periods in-front of goal, but his lack of playing time, at the expense of Tevez, explains most of this. His cup final goal was one of the best you’ll see in a game of such stature anywhere. Did enough however to finally get picked ahead of the Argentinean for the final and he showed his class when it counted – the mark of any great player.
Zhu Jianrong – 4/10 Appearances 11, Goals 3
Crooks – I suspect we’re going to disagree quite a bit on Zhu. Sure, he’s not good enough to be a regular starter, and the club should be making better signings, but he’s a real trier and proper old-fashioned target man put in some decent shifts (the R&F game at home was a particular highlight, along with the late salvage act in Nanjing). A viable Plan C for when all else fails or one of our aging forward line needs a breather.
Wilson – Trumpeted by sections of a compliant, on-message Shanghai media as a successful signing based on scoring three goals in two games against the shittest defences in the league in the final two games of the season – Liaoning and Yanbian who were already relegated and lacking motivation in two dead rubber games. Not a terrible player, but it’s just laughable that a team with a stated goal of reaching the ACL considered as mediocre a player as Zhu to be of an acceptable level. Gao Di is ten times the striker Zhu is, let’s hope we see more of him next season and less of carthorse Zhu. Even his goals were clumsy tap-ins.
Lv Zheng – 4/10 Appearances 9, Goals 0
Crooks – One good thing to come of 2017 may be the end of Lv Zheng as a serious option. Looked his usual self when he did play – seriously fast, but utterly incapable of ever making the right decision with the ball at his feet.
Wilson – Overlooked for much of the season, he was pushed out by the return of Mao Jianqing – something which should and could have happened a couple of years sooner – before Lv was even signed in fact. Good skills, terrible football brain.
Liu Ruofan – 7/10 Appearances 3, Goals 0
Crooks – Clearly Shenhua’s most talented youth player. You wonder how different the season may have been if he’d not been on national games duty – either way, he showed he wasn’t overawed on the big stage by putting in a couple of quality cup-final performances, including roasting his full-back to set up Martins on a plate in the first leg. Watch us go and sell him to someone like Guoan or Evergrande now.
Wilson – Finally someone who appears to have genuine star quality emerges from Shenhua’s ranks. Should be a regular in the first team next year. Looks like a quality player with his touches, movement and quick through balls, a real pleasure to see someone so young who looks the part in a Shenhua jersey. Early days though for Liu.