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A look back at a historic 2018 in Shanghai: who drove SIPG to the top of Chinese football? - Wild East Football
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A look back at a historic 2018 in Shanghai: who drove SIPG to the top of Chinese football?

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe tries to work out who was responsible for the first championship for Shanghai in the CSL.

Everybody loves a melodrama

The arc of SIPG’s 2018 season made a great story, with a plot that included a dream start, a near collapse, a red hot summer and sweet redemption with the assassination of Guangzhou Evergrande on their own pitch.

It was a pleasure to watch and a healthy shot in the arm for a league in which Chinese authorities had been content to keep their thumb on the scale and watch Evergrande win year after year. It brought satisfaction to an organization and a fan base that has watched home-grown boys develop to confident professionals, and it was the capstone of a process that started with callow kids running around Chongming Island and included championships in League Two and League One before conquering the whole of China.

With the season’s end, and players and coaches scattering to the likes of Sao Paolo, Tashkent and Abu Dhabi, it’s a good time to look back and figure out just exactly who made a difference for the Red Eagles in their historic year.

Let’s start at the top.

Management

Coach

Vitor Pereira. 10/10

Pereira was given a team that made few personnel moves between 2016 and 2017 and none between 2017 and 2018 and still put together a team that was decisively in his image.

Perhaps his most important decision was his first: Yu Hai was moved from midfield to left back, where he became one of the more valuable players in the league.

Hulk was named captain, replacing Wang Shenchao – a foreigner replacing a Party member, no less. The move brought a new focus and maturity to the mercurial Brazilian’s game.

Considerable tactical work went into SIPG’s approach to set pieces, a weakness in 2017 and a disaster in the first half of 2018. After the World Cup break, SIPG became deadly on such and rallied all the way to fourth in the league in set piece goals. The defensive blunders that have characterised SIPG under Sven-Goran Ericsson and his gearhead successor disappeared in the second half of 2018. Along with Jiangsu, SIPG gave up the fewest goals in the league.

None of this would have mattered were it not for Pereira’s work at the lowest point for the team since they joined the CSL in 2013. After the now traditional fast SIPG start, it all came undone in the span of three weeks in late April and early May. In the CSL, there were losses to Guo’an and Changchun and draws against TEDA and Guizhou – two points in four matches against some of the worst teams in the league. In the Champion’s League, SIPG got dismantled by Kashima Antlers in Japan, and in the Cup, it was a lazy, scoreless draw against Renhe at the Stadium.

The “SIPG are bottlers” crowd was in full throat. The moment had panic and infighting written all over it. What happened next? Pereira held the team together beautifully and the Red Eagles roared back, losing only two matches the rest of the year. (They were an FA Cup tie in Beijing to Guo’an and the grudge match in Dalian, in which the fired-up Dongbei side took revenge for their 8-0 humiliation on the CSL’s opening day.) Included were two victories over Evergrande – SIPG has now beaten the former champions five times in their last six matches – and a perfect twelve wins in twelve matches at the Stadium.

In September, with the league title still up for grabs, Pereira went for the kill. It turned out he had two aces up his sleeve: he moved Elkeson into the starting line-up ahead of Akhmedov, jump-starting the Red Eagles, who, like everyone else in the CSL, were desperate for fresh legs after the post-World Cup, mid-summer fixture pile-up. And he moved Wang Shenchao into a central defender’s role, the final piece in Pereira’s defensive vision.

Finally, in evaluating Pereira, it’s hard to overlook the sheer number of players who had their best years as professionals on his watch: Oscar, Yan Junling, Yu Hai, Shi Ke, Wang Shenchao, Lyu Wenjun and Wu Lei. Seems unlikely it’s a coincidence.

Upper management. 8/10

The good parts: the powers-that-be patiently brought back the entire team that finished second in the CSL in 2017. (They might have won it were it not for the ludicrous Oscar suspension.) After AVB fled, they found a manager in Pereira with a lower international profile, but whose skill set dovetailed nicely with the team’s needs. Crucially, and unusually in Chinese football, they gave Pereira the authority to make changes on the field as he saw fit.

The money spent on Oscar and Hulk: vindicated. Keeping Wu Lei happy and in town: priceless.

The bad parts: the team continues to fail to build relationships with the fans and the community and continues to stand by while police and civic administrators trash the Shanghai Stadium experience. And speaking of stadiums, management continues to be oddly publicity shy about the new stadium supposedly in the works for SIPG. If the project is actually happening, it will be the crown jewel of Chinese football stadiums, the kind of thing you’d think a team would want to brag about.

The Keeper

Yan Junling. 9/10
All-league selection

Established himself as the best keeper in China (unless you ask Mr. Lippi), especially in the first half of the season, before Pereira’s defensive adjustments took hold. SIPG stayed in a number of matches in the first half because of spectacular Yan saves. His combination of length and quickness is world class. Remains by far the best ball distributor in the CSL from the keeper position. Played every minute of the SIPG season except the dead rubber against Quanjian, 41 matches in total.

Forwards

Wu Lei. 10/10
All-league selection

Wu’s 2018 was hands down the greatest season by any Chinese professional who has ever lived. Twenty-seven goals led the league and were the second highest total in league history. He became the league’s leading career goal scorer.

He laid waste to his reputation as a player who squanders opportunities, converting a goal every 3.8 shots, a remarkable figure that was miles ahead of the CSL’s imported talent. Perhaps not the best player in the league – although he was named Player of the Year – but certainly the most valuable. You can argue all day about whether the Hulk/Oscar foreigner combo is better than Talisca/Paulinho (Evergrande) or Augusto/Viera (Guo’an), but no Chinese team had any domestic players anywhere near the same level as Mr Wu. The next highest Chinese scorer in the league was Hebei’s Dong Xuesheng – with twelve.

Guangdongren cower under the sheets when Wu’s name is mentioned; he had six goals against R&F in 2018, and, more crucially, one in each of the Evergrande matches.

All this, and Wu is still only 26 years old.

The only down note for Wu was his performance in the Champion’s League: after truckloads of goals in that competition in 2016 and 2017, he only had one in eight matches this year.

Hulk. 9/10
All-league selection

Hulk said before the season started that the only thing that mattered was hardware, and he was as good as his word. Hulk remains an incisive passer (third in the league in assists with 12) as well as an offensive threat who attracts defenders like flies to Chinese referees, leaving other players wide open. He was, as always, deadly on PKs.

At 32 years of age, though, Hulk’s game is noticeably slower. He led the league in getting dispossessed while dribbling and his once fearsome shot was erratic. It took him 111 shots to get his 13 goals, about 8.5 shots/goal. For comparison’s sake, Zahavi (Fuli) was at 6.0 and Talisca (Evergrande) 6.8. Hulk’s contract, signed with Zenit St. Petersburg, expires at the end of June, smack dab in the middle of the next CSL season. How SIPG handles this will tell us a lot about the vision of the team moving forward.

Lyu Wenjun: 7/10

No one suffered more from the U23 rule. The twenty-nine-year-old started only six matches and entered 20 as a substitute. He averaged 52 minutes per appearance and had only one 90-minute workout all year long. Despite this erratic schedule, Lye scored seven goals on 24 shots, a better success rate with his shot than the deadly Wu Lei. One of the seven was the opener in the triumph at Tianhe.

Elkeson: 7/10

This guy has been in China for six years, has 87 goals in the CSL and he’s still only 29 years old. He’s not making a ton of money (by foreign striker standards), which is to say he’s a valuable commodity. Elkeson started only 16 times in the CSL and scored seven goals, but five of those goals were from August on, after he finally got regular minutes in place of Akhmedov. He was a monster, as usual, in the Champion’s League, getting four goals in eight matches. (He has 22 lifetime in the ACL.)

Doubtless Elkeson would have liked more minutes, but the only real downer to his season was an awful performance at the Stadium against Guo’an in the second leg of the FA Cup, in which he missed two golden second-half opportunities to salt away SIPG advancement, then was the only player to miss his PK in the shootout. A better night from Elkeson, and it’s reasonable to think SIPG would have had a double in 2018.

Chen Binbin: 4/10

Pereira’s top choice to satisfy the U23 requirement, Chen is fast and spirited, and on those rare occasions he was included in the offensive flow, he managed to get five assists. However, he didn’t score any goals in about 900 minutes of play and took Wu Lei’s spot on the left-wing, pushing Wu to the right side. Despite Wu’s success, the jury is still out on whether this was a good idea. Chen faces an uncertain future with the U23 rule aparently gone for 2019 and SIPG loaded with good forwards. Is a loan to another team in his future?

Hu Jinghang: 1/10

Pereira’s initial choice as U23 designee, Hu started the first two matches, got sent to the bench after that, and was finally loaned to Henan for the second straight year, where he picked up another 13 appearances. Despite that: no goals. Hu has now played about 2,600 minutes in the CSL and has scored three, count ‘em, three goals.

Li Shenglong: 1/10

The 25-year-old has 293 minutes on the pitch in five years in an SIPG uniform. Time to move along.

Midfielders

Oscar: 10/10
All-league selection

The hype and the contract and the attention, it all paid off this year. He was one of the highest-rated players in the 2018 CSL, according to whoscored.com’s algorithm. Oscar scored twelve goals in the CSL and another four in the ACL, led the CSL in assists (18), key passes and crosses and was second in through balls and long passes.

Pass of the year: probably his change-of-pace free kick in the first Evergrande match that caught 20 players flat-footed, everybody but Elkeson, who didn’t waste the excellent look at the goal Oscar gave him. Or maybe it was his ludicrously deft diagonal pass all the way across the pitch (60 meters?) to Wang Shenchao sneaking in the back door in the second Evergrande match, resulting in a Wang pass for an easy goal.

It’s worth noting that while the trophy was SIPG’s first in the CSL, it was the 27-year-old Oscar’s tenth career piece of silverware. The guy is a winner. The only issue might be his contract. Sixty million Euros might have seemed crazy a couple of years ago, but for a player who had the kind of year he just had, and with worldwide contract inflation, it doesn’t anymore. He’s locked up through the 2020 CSL season, but will a European team make SIPG an offer they can’t refuse?

Had the best twitter feed in the league.

Odil Akhmedov: 7/10

Thirty-second ranked foreigner in the league (via whoscored.com). That’s not impressive, but the Uzbeki’s cost-benefit ratio is. Reports are that SIPG pays him seven million Euros a year. SIPG surrendered only 20 goals in 19 starts by the defense-oriented midfielder and his spectacular goal against Beijing Renhe in Round 29 of the CSL was the championship clincher. On the other hand, SIPG didn’t lose any matches in the last half of the season when Akhmedov sat in favor of Elkeson. Akhmedov’s joined from Russian side Krasnodar and his contract expires in June. We’ll have to wait and see if the 3 + 1 rule for Asian players is reinstated and how that decision effects Akhmedov.

Cai Huikang: 4/10

Central defensive midfielder with a central mystery: his ability to keep his job for six years despite a persistent inability to control his weight, a penchant for rough play and a shot that would have to improve to be described as anemic. Particularly in the post-World Cup, mid-Summer fixture traffic jam, Cai often found himself grasping his shorts and gasping for air after halftime. But: his/character, world class, lightning strike against Evergrande at Tianhe may be the greatest goal in SIPG history.

Zhang Yi: 3/10

The 25-year-old got in eight matches and managed to hang out for about a half an hour each time, getting his first CSL goal in the dead rubber against Quanjian. Got some minutes that mattered in both matches in the ACL against Kashima Antlers. SIPG outscored Kashima 1-0 while he was out there.

Lin Chuangyi: 2/10

Got seven appearances and averaged over 40 minutes, but Pereira only used him against bottom-feeders. Made no impression.

Lei Wenjie: 2/10

The 21-year-old midfielder averaged 23 minutes a match while staked as the U23 goat. Got his first CSL goal in the mid-season rout of Renhe.

Zhang Huachen: 1/10

The 20-year-old averaged 12 minutes/match in four appearances. Management thinks enough of him to have named him to the bench in one of SIPG’s ACL matches, noteworthy because in the ACL SIPG is free to choose the roster by ability rather than birth date.

Sun Jungang: 1/10

Couldn’t get a match in 2017 in the J3 league after being loaned by SIPG to Giravanz and managed to appear for two minutes/match in six appearances for SIPG in 2018. One would have to think his days as a CSL-level professional are drawing to a close.

Defenders

Yu Hai: 8/10

The 31-year-old, 10-year CSL veteran had few problems adjusting defensively, and with Wang Shenchao, gave SIPG two defenders who were total football-ish, i.e., active, positive participants in the offense. Yu had one of the highest player ratings for a defender in the CSL. Scored the only goal for SIPG in a 1-0 win over Chiangrai United in SIPG’s Champion’s League qualifier. His injury playing for the national team in an October 16 friendly against Syria ended his season.

Wang Shenchao: 8/10

Gracefully accepted his replacement as captain and remains one of the best defenders in the CSL. Pereira will have to decide in 2019 whether to restore He Guan to center back and move Wang back outside. Wang is better than He defensively, but when he plays outside, he’s SIPG’s secret weapon on offense.

Shi Ke: 8/10

The twenty-five-year-old central defender’s place in the Top XI of some CSL analysts was a victory for stats geeks: he led the league in clearances (by a lot) and was on the leaderboard in blocks. Had some issues getting in the flow offensively. Oddly for a team with the fewest goals conceded in the league, Shi was the only defender who started and finished the season in the same position.

He Guan: 5/10

In his second full season, He Guan played every day, but didn’t seem to progress much, and the SIPG defense was noticeably better when Wang replaced him. To be fair, He Guan did rank eighth in the league in blocked shots. A foolish yellow against Guizhou in a 5-1 SIPG win got him suspended for a big match against Guo’an.

Fu Huan: 2/10

A thoroughly miserable season. For the second time in his six years in an SIPG uniform, he lost his starting job. Later, he got suspended for abusing a referee in a reserve match, then suspended again in the CSL for yellow card accumulation, which is quite an achievement for someone who only logged 971 minutes for the entire season. Appeared lost when SIPG had the ball, especially noticeable because he got a lot of his action replacing Wang Shenchao.

Zhang Wei: 2/10

At 25, still can’t work his way into a regular role as a defender. Played only in dead rubbers or against bad teams until Yu Hai got hurt, and in Zhang’s four starts after that, SIPG gave up nine goals.

Yu Hao: 1/10

If you throw out the meaningless Quanjian tie, the 21-year-old racked up 17 minutes on the pitch in seven matches.

What’s next

SIPG will play in their first ever Super Cup, near the end of February, in Suzhou, against Beijing Guo’an.

When, how and where the 2019 CSL schedule is announced is anybody’s guess. Traditionally, leaks, rumors and misinformation abound until the last minute. As an American baseball fan, I’ll note here that the Major League Baseball schedule is announced about eight months in advance and fans love it. They discuss it endlessly and plan trips far ahead of the season. If past is prologue, the CSL season will commence in early March.

In the Asian Champion’s League, SIPG has been drawn with Sydney FC and Kawasaki Frontale. They’ll be joined by one of Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea), Perak (Malaysia) or Kitchee (Hong Kong SAR). Unfortunately, SIPG’s 12-hour mid-week flight to Sydney is on the third match day of the group.

(Fun in the ACL’s western half: both automatically qualifying Qatari teams were drawn with Saudi teams and there’s a chance Iraq and Iran will end up with teams in the same group.)

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

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