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Five Young Chinese Players to Watch this Year

Zhang Yuning – Beijing Guoan

With the amount of fuss made about the naturalized players Guoan signed this off-season many have overlooked the possible impact the incoming Zhang may make this season. Guoan’s signing of Zhang brought to an end the torrid spell he spell he had endured in Europe over the past few years. Zhang was one of China’s most promising youngster’s back in 2015 when he moved from Hangzhou Greentown to Vitesse Arnhem. At the time this must have seemed like a good idea. It was hoped that playing top flight football in the Netherlands would allow Zhang to quickly develop as a player. Perhaps he and others also felt that it wouldn’t be that much more difficult for him to find regular playing time there given the tough competition young domestic strikers in China face from foreign imports.

Sadly for Zhang regular first team football never really materialised for him in Europe. After a few years at Vitesse where he was used sparingly, Zhang moved on to West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 2017 and was subsequently loaned out to Werder Bremen and later ADO Den Haag. He didn’t make much of an impact with either of his loan teams and eventually made the move back to China when he was sold to Guoan this off-season.

Despite his lack of playing time over the past few years Zhang is still only twenty-two and has the potential to become one of the top players in the Chinese game. The most recent run of games Zhang appeared in prior to this season was the 2018 Asia Games with the China U-23’s. Zhang showed flashes of his potential as a goal scorer, finding the net twice in the tournament’s group games. Zhang was also visibly much bigger and stronger than most of the other U-23s taking part in competition. However he was also visibly lacking in match practice and tore a ligament in his right ankle in China’s final match.

Now back from this injury, Zhang has made a strong start to the season. He looked a constant threat in Guoan’s first game against Zall and followed this up with another strong showing where he notched his first goal of the campaign in a 4-0 demolition of Chongqing. Given the national team’s lack of options with regards to strong physical attacking players, many Chinese fans will no doubt be hoping he can build on his good start to the season and emerge as a viable option for the national team in the future.

Huang Zichang – Jiangsu Suning

Probably the most exciting breakout player of last season was Jiangsu Suning’s Huang Zhichang. The versatile attacking player played as a striker and on both the left and right wing in a hugely successful debut season which saw him win the CFA’s Young Player of the Year award.

Prior to last season Huang had represented China in various age group teams but was yet to make a first team appearance for Suning. Handed his first start in the opening game of the season against Guizhou Hengfeng it took him just thirty-two minutes to find the net. This would be the beginning of something of a purple patch for Huang as he would go on to score five times in his first ten games for the club.

From the mid-season onwards however Huang began to flounder. A call up to the U-23s for Asian Games and an ankle injury he sustained shortly after his return from the games led him to lose momentum and finish the season in a weaker vein of form. To be fair to Huang, he was one of the few players to come out of the China’s disappointing showing at the Asian Games with some credit. His substitute appearance in the round of sixteen game against Saudi Arabia helped to galvanize a belated Chinese fight back in a game that was teetering on the brink of abject humiliation for the U-23’s.

A key reason for Huang’s performance drop off was Suning signing former Italian international Éder midway through last season. Éder effectively took Huang’s place and significantly reduced his playing time towards the end of the campaign. This problem has come back to haunt Huang again this season as he has been unable to find any game time so far due to the quality of attacking foreign talent ahead of him. However it’s worth remembering that he is a versatile player who can fit into a number of different systems and should still be able to find plenty of playing time in the near future. The question will be how much he can build on last year’s showing and what level of consistency he will be able to achieve with his performances.

Yang Chaosheng – Changchun Yatai

At twenty-five Yang is a perhaps a bit too old to be considered a young player but given the extent of his unrealized potential it would seem wise to have a look at how he might make an impact this season. A former regular in China’s age group teams, Yang is a natural goal scorer with ideal size and speed whose career has been derailed by a horrific injury he suffered in 2016.

Yang initially came to prominence as a teenager playing for his local club Dongguan Nancheng in League Two, he was soon hoovered up by CSL giants Guangzhou Evergrande. Evergrande would then farm him out on an extremely successful loan spell with Liaoning. Yang’s loan move was initially only supposed to be for the second half of the 2014 season but was extended to cover the entire 2015 season. Over the course of the 2015 season Yang scored some important goals and became a regular in a Liaoning team that was once again able to successfully dodge relegation from the CSL.

The 2015 season has been up until now the high point of Yang’s career. At the end of the season he was considered by many to be one of China’s most promising young strikers. A natural finisher with rapid pace, height and the ability to perform on big occasions, Yang looked like a player with a big future ahead of him. Unfortunately for Yang the last few years have not worked out the way he would have liked. For the 2016 season Yang surprised many by going on a season long loan with League One’s Wuhan Zall. The decision for Yang to make the step down to League One was probably in part motivated by a desire to play under then Wuhan manager Zheng Xiong. A coach with a reputation for being willing to play and develop young players.

While Yang did get plenty of game time in 2016 he suffered the classic problem faced by many young Chinese strikers of being played out of position. He played almost the entire season out on the wing and whilst occasionally putting in some good performances he never properly adjusted to the position and was unable to live up to the pre-season hype surrounding him. Towards the end of the year he was given a run in the team playing up-front and looked much more effective. However just as things seemed to be starting to go his way again, Yang was dealt a cruel blow. He fell badly after scoring in a game against Meizhou Hakka and suffered an excruciating leg break.

Yang Chaosheng in agony after breaking his leg.

Yang returned to Evergrande and underwent a lengthy recovery process for his injury. However following his return to fitness he was unsurprisingly unable to get any competitive playing time with Evergrande and was subsequently released by the club once his contract expired. Recently relegated Changchun Yatai moved quickly to secure his services just before the start of the 2019 League One season. Yang looked excellent in Changchun’s opening day rout of Shanghai Shenxin. There were no signs that he had lost any of his pre-injury pace and he still seemed to have his goal scoring instincts intact as he found the net for Yatai’s fourth goal. Changchun boss Chen Jingang seems to have more faith than most in domestic attacking players, as seen with the success Tan Long has had over the past few years. This should hopefully mean Yang is given enough opportunities prove himself this year.

Wei Shihao – Guangzhou Evergrande

Guangzhou Evergrande’s Wei Shihao is without doubt one of the most gifted young Chinese players around today. Wei is a very technically able player notable for being very capable with both feet, having strong positional sense, good pace and athleticism as well as having a decent shot on him. He has all the attributes needed to develop into a top CSL player, the question over the next few years will be whether he can perform to the best of his abilities on a consistent basis.

Wei has always been a highly touted player right from his early days in the Shandong youth team. Wei decided not to turn pro with Shandong and instead tried his hand at playing in Europe with Portugal’s Boavista. He never really established himself as much of first-team player with Boavista and bounced around a few second-tier Portuguese clubs before returning to China in 2017. This return took the form of a loan spell with Shanghai SIPG which went well enough for Wei to make a permanent move to Beijing Guoan for the 2018 season.

Wei made a big impact with Guoan in the first half of last season and while his form did peter out somewhat from the mid-season onwards, he had clearly shown enough promise for Guangzhou Evergrande to make a move for him this off-season in a bid to strengthen their challenge for the Super League title. So far this year Evergrande’s faith in Wei seems to be paying off. It took him just twenty-three minutes to bag his first goal of the season and playing on the left wing he’s looked very good in all of the games he has played in so far this year. The real test for Wei will be whether or not he can maintain this level of performance consistently throughout the year.

He Chao – Guangzhou Evergrande

A product of Yatai’s youth academy, He’s talent was noticeable enough during his time in the academy for him to be selected to take part in a CFA endorsed programme to go and train with Portuguese club Casa Pia. Following his return to China he turned pro with Changchun in 2014. He was used sparingly in his first few years but began to play more frequently in 2016 and by the 2017 season had established himself as first team regular.

Over the past few years He has generally been most effective when deployed as a deep-lying playmaker. He is a very technically capable player who is extremely comfortable on the ball and can link up well with a team’s centre backs to move the ball out of the defensive third. His biggest asset is his excellent vision and passing ability. Few Chinese players playing today posses the same passing range and accuracy of He Chao and his performances over the past few years haven’t gone unnoticed by the national team set-up. Since late 2017 he has frequently been called up to national team squads, making a total of five appearances.

Guangzhou Evergrande also kept a close eye on He Chao’s development and snapped up by Evergrande following Changchun’s relegation at the end of the 2018 season. So far He’s switch to Evergrande seems to be going well. He has slotted seamlessly into the team and has started in all of their early CSL and ACL fixtures. An issue in the past with He was that he could sometimes drift in and out of matches. If he is to further develop as a player this year he will need to be able impose himself on games on a more regular basis. Should he be able to do this we can expect He to feature more regularly for the national team in the future.

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