The new CSL season approaches and many people will be cautious about the chances of the newly promoted teams who were both beneficiaries of a somewhat weaker pack of promotion contenders in League One last year. The 2018 season was one in which no team spent huge amounts of money in order to secure promotion as has happened in the past, most notably with Tianjin Quanjian back in 2016. League One is also a league where sometimes a team who did nothing the previous year and hadn’t spent big in the off-season can come from nowhere and dominate the league. In the past teams like Yanbian and Guizhou Hengfeng had successful promotion campaigns after dodging relegation the year before, fortunately for Shenzhen and Wuhan no such dark horse emerged last year.
Of the promotion contenders Shenzhen and Wuhan did face, all seemed to have major deficiencies in key areas. The attacking brand of football played by Qingdao Huanghaim, while great to watch, was fraught with defensive frailties and was never able to achieve the level of consistency needed to secure promotion. Meizhou Hakka started strongly but strangely faded away mid-way through the season, seeming to lack any real desire to achieve promotion. And finally Sergi Barjuán’s talented young Greentown side were often exposed with regards to their lack of physicality and experience.
All this being said it seems unfair to dampen the achievements of the promoted sides too much. Wuhan especially were dominant throughout the year and would almost certainly have still been promoted in a more difficult season. It’s also worth remembering that its been quite a few years since a team went straight back down after being promoted the year before. In fact the second to last team to do this was Wuhan way back in 2013. So let’s begin by looking at Wuhan and assess their survivability for 2019 season.
Wuhan’s last spell in the top flight was their disastrous 2013 campaign where they won just three games and finished 17 points adrift of safety. The Zall squad still includes many survivors from 2013 and the team will obviously be desperate to avoid a repeat of this kind of embarrassing capitulation. Overall it’s fair to say the club is in a much better position to do this than it was in 2013. A big reason for this is the management of Li Tie who successfully guided Wuhan to promotion in his first year at the club.
Li has emerged in recent years as one of the best Chinese managers around having won promotion to the CSL with both Hebei and Wuhan. Li showed excellent man management last year, managing to get excellent production out of some of the sides ageing veterans and successfully developing a number of younger players who had only made incremental progress in previous years. He also showed a decent level of tactical acumen being able to utilise a range of different personal in a variety of formations as well making a number of shrewd substitutions in key games.
While Wuhan looked very solid defensively last year this could be an area of weakness when they make the step up to the CSL. While they have good options available on the left and right hand side of defence. It’s at the centre-back position that problems emerge. Liao Junjian and Zhang Yaokun were both omnipresent in central defence for Wuhan last year. However Liao was only on loan and has since returned to Hebei and Zhang retired at the end of the season. Zall’s other regular centre back last year Ai Zhibo is now too old, slow and error prone to be regarded as viable option at the CSL level. To remedy this Zall have brought in Cameroon international Stephane Mbia who played under Li Tie at Hebei and should be a good addition and have signed domestic players Han Pengfei and Liu Yi. However question marks still remain as to whether these additions will be adequate for the upcoming season.
Elsewhere on the field Zall do not seem to have any major deficiencies. The lack of quality defensive midfielders may be an issue but this a problem which haunts many a CSL team. There may be some concerns about goalkeeper Sun Shoubo who is now thirty-five. After a number of successful years with the team, last season he began to look like a player on the decline. Sun made a number of mistakes and began showing signs of slowing reflexes and reduced mobility. The club’s signing of Dong Hengyi may be seen by some as admission of this and an insurance against a worst case scenario.
Wuhan most notable signing this off-season has been Leo Baptistao. The twenty-six year old Brazilian has been a first-team regular with Espanyol for the past few years, playing mostly on the right-wing. Baptistao obviously has the potential to be a top player in the CSL however it’s unclear as to how much he will play for Wuhan this coming season. Mbia it seems would be a lock to start given the teams lack of options in central defence, meaning Baptistao will have a battle on his hands to get in ahead of Wuhan’s other two foreign players Evrard Kouassi and Rafael Silva. These two players developed an effective partnership last season and may be difficult for Baptistao to displace.
Silva was a prolific goal scorer last year in League One last year notching twenty-two goals in twenty-three games and on the back of such a season he should be shoe-in to start. Kouassi looked a decent enough CSL player during his time with SIPG and has really developed during his time with Zall. That being said, last season Li Tie showed a ruthless streak in dropping the previous year’s league top scorer Marcello Moreno after just a handful of games when he felt better options were available. So its fair to say nobodies place is guaranteed and sluggish start to the year by one of Wuhan’s foreign attacking players could lead to them quickly finding themselves out of the team.
There are a number of domestic players who may shine for Wuhan next season. Perhaps the most interesting of these will be Yao Hanlin. An exciting if undersized attacking midfielder, Yao is the only current member of the Wuhan team who also played for the previous incarnation of the club which withdrew from the league in 2008 following a spat with the CFA. Yao joined the reformed Wuhan team in 2010 and has been with the team ever since. During this time he could have played at a much higher level than he has with Wuhan, however Yao has stayed loyal to his home town club. At thirty-three, time is against him but he will now have another chance to test himself at the top level.
Younger home grown players who may impress next year are Ming Tian, Liu Yun, Nie Aoshuang and Huang Bowen. Ming Tian has been a regular at right back for Wuhan over the last three years, still only twenty-three he has plenty of experience for a player of his age. A strong mix of athleticism and good technical ability should allow him to impress as he makes the step up this coming season. Wuhan have spent a number of years developing Liu Yun but he only really emerged as regular first-team player in last years campaign. A regular threat down the right hand side of midfield he was able to link up well with Silva and create plenty goals.
Nie Aoshaung missed a lot of last years’ campaign after being called up to the national under twenty-five camp. If he is available more readily this season expect to see Zall make extensive use of the solid and technically capable defensive midfielder. Huang Bowen had been a regular for Zall in previous years but rarely even made the bench for most of last year. The end of the season did however see Huang start all of Wuhan’s final three matches as it became clear that he will needed next year as the teams designated under-23 player. With Ming Tian being slightly too old to be classed as an Under-23 player, Huang will most likely see a lot of playing time in the right-back position next year.
This year Wuhan will be playing at the newly constructed Wuhuan Stadium. Built for the upcoming World Military Games it will be their fourth home ground in as many years. If they are to prosper in the new home this forthcoming season a lot will depend on its backline quickly gelling and the team’s younger players adjusting to the increased speed and physicality of the CSL. Zall are lucky to have a decent level of depth with regards to attacking foreign talent and an injury to one of these shouldn’t spell disaster, nor should they be too reliant on any specific one of these players to keep them afloat. Overall it’s be fair to say Wuhan should have enough resources to avoid the drop but it would be overly optimistic to expect them to do anything more than that.
Back in 2015 Shenzhen were in dire straights, off the field issues and a run of poor results which included a six-nil drubbing at the hands of Wuhan saw the former CSL champions on the verge of getting sucked into the League One relegation dog fight. However in recent years following new investment and a subsequent re-branding the club has fared much better. The team’s progress over the last few years ultimately culminated in last season’s promotion back to the CSL after a seven year absence.
One of the most visible signs of the increased investment in the club over recent years has been the number of high profile managers who have been at Shenzhen. Clarence Seedorf and Sven-Goran Eriksson both had spells at the helm and now former Real Madrid boss Lopez Caro is in charge. Caro took over as manager early on last season and succeeded in turning round a slow start to the season into a successful promotion winning campaign. Another feature of the recent increased investment in the Shenzhen team has been a complete overhaul of the club’s playing staff. In stark contrast to Wuhan, Shenzhen have very few players who have been at the club for an extended period of time. The vast majority of the team have joined the club in the past few years as new funds has allowed for the bringing in of better quality players.
Last year Caro generally employed a 3-5-2 formation, but sometimes also used 5-3-2 and 4-4-2 systems. Generally Shenzhen had a very settled team last season with very little in the way of squad rotation. One of the most notable features about the Shenzhen team last year was that it featured a somewhat makeshift defensive midfield partnership of Cui Min and Gan Chao. Prior to last season Cui had played at centre back for pretty much his whole career and Gan had played almost exclusively as a left-back. It would seem Caro has reservations about these two being able to play in this position at a higher level and has brought in three defensive midfielders this off-season in the form experienced domestic players Peng Wang and Qiang Jin and Norweigen international Ole Selnaes from St Etienne.
Selnaes is not the only player Shenzhen has signed from St Etienne. Selnaes has come to Shenzhen with Senagalese left back Cheikh M’Bengue. It’s somewhat unusual for a Chinese team to bring in a foreign full-back and question marks will surround exactly where M’Bengue will fit in this season. Whilst not a new signing like Selnas or M’Bengue it is expected that Shenzhen will make much more extensive use of Gambian striker Pa Dibba this season. Dibba was signed by the club last July but only played once, being kept out of the team by the Franck Ohandza who had prolific partnership with Columbian Harold Preciado. This partnership was a vital component of Shenzhen’s promotion push last year and with Ohandza not longer with the club, Shenzhen will be hoping Dibba will be able to form a similarly effective pairing with Preciado.
Creating enough chances for the strikers may emerge as a problem for Shenzhen this year following the return of Ye Chugui to Guangzhou R&F after a season long loan. Ye played in almost every game last season for Shenzhen and provided much of the team’s attacking flair. Ye played mainly as a central attacking midfielder but was also used on the right-wing. His place will most likely be taken by Zu Pengchao who will become the teams designated under-23 player. Zu saw a decent amount of playing time last year and is versatile enough to play both positions, but will be a distinct downgrade from Ye. Another issue for Shenzhen may be the goalkeeper position. Guan Zhen started for most of the year but was replaced by Zhou Yajun following a poor performance against Zhejiang Greentown in week twenty-two. We may see both getting spells of playing time next year depending on their form.
While uncertainty hovering over the goalkeeper position isn’t ideal it’s unlikely that this will have a huge impact on whether Shenzhen can avoid the drop. The main problem they face will be adjusting to playing at a higher level whilst having had two key players in Ye Chungui and Franck Ohandza leave the club. Shenzhen have brought in a number of new players, but only time will tell if these are going to be enough to make them a side that can survive in the CSL. A lot will depend on how quickly the team’s new foreign signings as well as the largely un-tested Dibba can adapt to the Chinese game. If Shenzhen do survive this year, it seems likely they will have the financial backing in place to press on and become a long term fixture in China’s top-tier.