With 2018 now well and truly upon us, it’s time to follow up our 2017 League One Awards by selecting our team of the season. It’s not surprising that promoted sides Beijing Renhe and Dalian Yifang each boast three players a piece, while Hangzhou Greentown, Qingdao Huanghai, Shenzhen FC, Shanghai Shenxin and Wuhan Zall boast a man each. And in the year that the infamous under-23 rule was introduced into China’s leagues, 2017 turned out to be the year of the veteran as four players with a combined age of 141 make our side. The team follows League One rules, meaning only three foreign players with one compulsory under-23. All players are in or close to their main position and it’s a realistic formation.
Goalkeeper – Zou Dehai – Hangzhou Greentown
We already described the ups and downs of the 24-year-old’s season in our 2017 end of year awards, but it’s worth adding that since that article was published Hangzhou have confirmed Zou will be sticking around in 2018. An announcement which puts the breaks on the touted move to Beijing Guo’an. Certainly good news for Greentown, but whether the guaranteed playing time at a lower level benefits Zou remains to be seen.
Right-back – Deng Hanwen – Beijing Renhe
Plenty has been written about Deng in the pages of this website over the last couple of weeks in our East Asia Cup review and the League One awards where the 22-year-old was given Young Player of the Year. So instead, it’s worth flagging up a couple of right-backs worth an honourable mention.
Nei Mongol Zhongyou right wing-back Nizamdin Afanti looked like the fittest player in the league this season and, while he struggles defensively, has been all but comnfirmed for a move to Renhe as cover for Deng. Having only turned professional to seasons ago at the age of 24, he’s going to be an interesting wildcard in the CSL next season and could turn a few heads. Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard’s Xu Qing continues to perform excellently on his day, despite lacking consistency, and last year’s entry Zhu Ting had another very solid year at Dalian Yifang.
At one point, 21-year-old Shanghai Shenhua loanee Xu Yougang looked like rivaling Deng for honours as the best U-23 right-back in the league, but he had a horrible second half of the season that saw him dropped from the team. Definitely a lot of potential there, though, if he can recapture that form.
Centre-back – Wang Qiang – Beijing Renhe
The grizzled veteran overcame a poor 2016 to show there could still be plenty of life left in the centre back who turns 34 next season. Renhe looked as though they might be in trouble defensively after the departures of Yi Teng and Zhang Chenglin at the end of last season, but Wang’s return to form was pivotal in anchoring a defence which was the stingiest in the league.
The former Shandong Luneng star is clearly in physical decline, but his veteran smarts allowed him to put in some immaculate performances in 2017 and muzzle some of the best attacking talent in the league. It’s worth noting that Wang was helped by rotating centre back partners Luo Xin and Wan Houliang who also had very good years. The athletic Luo was a particular revelation who stood out in the middle of defence and while filling in at left-back, having spent the last couple of seasons struggling to get into Chongqing Lifan’s team.
Centre-back – Wang Wanpeng – Dalian Yifang
Even older than Wang Qiang, the 35-year-old was another veteran who recovered from a bad 2016 where it looked like his career might be wrapping up, to suddenly undergo a resurgence in 2017. Remarkably for a player at this stage of his career, Wang played every minute of the season and rarely put a foot wrong. With Dalian reportedly looking to sign Yang Shanping from Tianjin Quanjian, this might turn out to be the last significant hurrah of Wang’s long career. If it is, it’s a great way to go out.
It is worth noting that a big reason for Wang’s massive improvement this season was the addition of centre back Jonathan Ferrari and, indeed, both the Argentine and Meizhou Hakka’s Gibril Sankoh would have been in this team if we hadn’t used all of our foreign player slots on attackers.
Left-back – Zhou Ting – Dalian Yifang
Our geriatric defence is rounded out by the wasp-chewing rage of 38-year-old Zhou Ting who postponed his retirement after eleven years with Beijing Guo’an so that he could end his career in his own province. And this was no nostalgia tour as Zhou rolled back the years with some fine defensive performances and became a pivotal part of his side’s title run. It seems as though Zhou is going to stick around for another season in the CSL, but a series of niggling injuries towards the latter half of 2017 suggests that he may be on borrowed time.
Had Zhou not made our team it would have been Beijing Renhe’s Rao Weihui. The Guangdong native offered more of an attacking threat than his aged counterpart, but his season was disrupted by injury and suspension meaning he only appeared in 70% of Renhe’s games.
Defensive Midfielder – Jin Qiang – Dalian Yifang
Born in 1993, Jin was only one year away from being an under-23 this season, but it made little difference to his playing time as he blossomed under new manager Juan Caro into the best defensive midfielder in the division. The pre-season signing of Han Xu meant that Jin’s place in the team looked far from assured, but he started from day one and the protection he offered to Dalian’s aged defence was a key part of their success this year. Given Caro’s conservative style, Jin’s job was purely defensive in nature and, considering that Yifang will likely be set up to frustrate teams in 2018, Jin has an excellent chance to catch the eye of CSL watchers.
A few decent defensive midfielder in League One this season, so honourable mentions to Beijing Renhe’s Shi Liang, who made the seemless jump from back-up attacking midfielder to starting in a more withdrawn role; Qingdao Huanghai’s Ma Xingyu, who looks like he’s on his way to CSL outfit Henan Jianye; Shanghai Shenxin’s Ye Chongqiu and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s Wang Peng.
Right Attacking Midfielder – Deng Zhuoxiang – Qingdao Huanghai
We already discussed Deng’s 2017 in last week’s awards article, so it just remains to once again emphasise that, at 29, his career may finally be back on track after starting just one league game for parent club Shanghai Shenhua in the previous two seasons thanks to injury.
Baoding Rongda’s box-to-box midfielder Liu Xiaodong is worth an honourable mention here as the stand out domestic player on a side doomed to relegation. If we’d opted for pure wingers instead of midfielders, Beijing BG’s Yan Xiangchuang would again be in contention for a slot in our team, despite his overall performance dropping off since his excellent 2015 and 16 seasons.
Creative Midfielder – Xu Liang – Shenzhen FC
A real toss up here between Xu and Beijing BG’s Wang Jianwen, but Xu gets the nod just through the sheer weight of goals he assisted in 2017. The 36-year-old set up no less than twelve goals for Shenzhen in 2017, as well as banging in four of his own and, in terms of his attacking contribution, those numbers don’t tell the whole story as he also frequently played passes which Shenzhen’s dynamic wingers used to create further chances of their own. Given his age, the former Beijing Guo’an and Shanghai Shenhua man doesn’t do much beyond standing in the middle of the park pinging off passes and delivering excellent set pieces, but League One’s relaxed pace allows him to do that and he should have at least one more year left in him at this level.
As mentioned above, top domestic goalscorer Wang Jianwen also deserves a mention for his ten goal haul from the midfield in 2017. 90% of those strikes came in the first half of the season, though, and his performances dropped off significantly in the second half of the year.
Meizhou Hakka’s under-23 midfielder Yao Junsheng is also worth acknowledging here. Although he was still some way from being the best of the best, the loanee from Shandong Luneng put on some excellent performances surrounded by a bunch of under-achieving teammates. Unfathomably left on the bench or played out of position on the wing by Meizhou’s questionable management far too often, Yao still did more than enough to stake a claim for a role in Jinan next year.
Foreign attacking midfielders Joan Verdu and Ivo of Qingdao Huanghai and Beijing Renhe, respectively, were both better than the domestic midfield talent in the league this season, but miss out because of the foreign player quota. Verdu was excellent as the archetypal Spanish midfielder dictating play and creating chances with precision passes, while Ivo was a bag of energy in the middle of the field, being involved in plenty of attacking play, while being found in all other areas of the field. If the former Henan Jianye midfielder hadn’t started the season so slowly and missed so many games with injury he would have had a good chance of making this team.
Left Attacking Midfielder – Cleiton Silva – Shanghai Shenxin
We’re cheating a bit here by putting Cleiton in as a left-sided midfielder rather than pure winger or centre-forward, but he’s worth accommodating after emerging from the metaphorically large shadow of the pint-sized Biro-Biro to become Shenxin’s most important attacking player in 2017. Of course, part of the reason for that was because Biro-Biro missed the last quarter of the season, including the CFA Cup semi-finals, through injury, but Cleiton was already out-gunning the 2016 Player of the Season by that point and finished the season with sixteen goals and ten assists. Cleiton did spend most of the season as a centre-forward, but he would often drop deep or play on the left-wing so putting him here is just about justified. The 30-year-old has already agreed a return to Thailand with Chang Rai United and, barring a major slip in the second preliminary round of the AFC Champions League, will be back in Shanghai to play SIPG on January 30th in the continental playoff round.
In terms of honourable mentions for foreign wingers, the league itself gave its player of the season award to Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s Matheus who was extremely influential in his side’s push to third, but lacked the overall output of several other players. Shenzhen FC’s Aboubakar Oumarou followed up on his excellent 2016 with another great year which saw him bang in thirteen goals and chalk up seven assists, but he did benefit from a very strong supporting cast of attacking players.
Striker – Marcelo Moreno – Wuhan Zall
Our awards article already explained why Moreno warranted the Player of the Season gong thanks to his combined total of 33 goals and assists and almost single-handedly dragging an under-achieving Wuhan up to fifth place.
In terms of honourable mentions, Moreno’s co-Golden Bootee Harold Preciado is obviously worthy of note but, like Moreno, he bolstered his tally with seven penalties. Unlike Moreno, though, he didn’t make the same overall contribution to the team. Dalian Yifang’s Nyasha Mushekwi looked like he might be in contention for player of the year honours earlier in the season as he racked up the goals and put in some truly heroic and selfless performances, like in the round 8 game against Shenzhen FC where he almost got his leg broken by a ridiculous Wang Dalong flying tackle, only to dust himself off and score the winning goal moments later. Unfortunately, the Zimbabwe international’s performance dropped off towards the end of the season and he only score five goals in the second half of the year as he was overshadowed by teammate Yannick Boli. Qingdao Huanghai forward Djordje Rakic’s nineteen goals in just 21 appearances suggested he might have been a golden boot contender if his season hadn’t been derailed by injury.
Striker – Jaime Ayovi – Beijing Renhe
The big Ecuadorean seemed to pass under the radar for much of the season, but just kept racking up the goal to end the year with a tally of twenty. Less than Moreno or Preciado, but supplemented by just the one penalty and he overcame a couple of dry spells to bang in some key goals as the season went on. The 29-year-old is largely a penalty box striker who also strikes a mean free kick and should be able to do a job in the CSL. Whether or not the club gives him that chance is yet to be confirmed.