A new season brings a new sponsor, a new kit and potentially a new status quo for Jiangsu Suning.
As the club eases into the 2019 Chinese Super League (CLS) season, it’s difficult to determine what constitutes success in Nanjing. The turbulence of the past two seasons suggests a little stability may be in order, but the board has a history of impatience and fans can be forgiven for demanding more than a mid-table finish.
The tension rests between the promises made through Suning Group’s ostentatious takeover in 2016 and the reality of an increasingly competitive and financially restrictive league.
Phase one of Project Suning suggested bottomless spending. Success was projected as an inevitable consequence of associating with the glitz of Inter Milan and the guile of Fabio Capello, as if by osmosis.
While the relationship with the Italian giant remains strong, the experiment in instant gratification failed and phase two, led by Cosmin Olaroiu, is a markedly more cautious affair – albeit less exhilarating.
Of course, this narrative belies the fact that the Romanian steered the club to a respectable fifth place in 2018. Yet after a meek performance in the Chinese FA Cup and a second year without continental football at the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre, the season felt underwhelming.
The numbers reinforce this feeling; Jiangsu’s forty-eight points would have placed it five points behind sixth in 2017. Considering Olaroiu’s side won three of its final ten games, Jiangsu’s respectable finish seems flattered by the poor seasons endured by Hebei China Fortune, Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Quanjian. It is highly unlikely the same will happen again.
Optimists can point to the squad’s stability and Olaroiu’s successful stints at Al Ain (Abu Dhabi) and Al Ahli (Dubai) as proof of his ability to lead a strong league campaign.
Indeed, there’s substance to the notion that the Arabian Gulf League is a better yardstick for assessing foreign coaches than success in European football. Adapting to a drastically different culture and working through translators are fundamental parts of the China experience.
What Olaroiu may lack in international pedigree, he makes up for with a straightforward humility, a welcome contrast to the egotistical stylings of his World Cup winning predecessor.
Fortunately, his side does not lack for leadership and the Romanian should continue to build his side around the experience of Wu Xi and Ji Xiang.
Jiangsu excels in defensive organisation, conceding the joint fewest goals in the CSL 2018, but it failed to address its strike-force problem over the winter. Unless Eder reaches new heights, this could prove a costly oversight in 2019.
Though premature to make predictions, if Jiangsu’s early season form is anything to go by, the fans can expect a long and bumpy 2019.
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