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Editor's Column

Shanghai Shenhua’s latest derby humiliation explained

With the new season finally underway, WEF founding editor gets personal and focuses on an old problem in his semi-regular column…

This is not going to be an easy piece to write. Nor, for Shenhua fans, to read. There’s always a lot to say about the start of the season and I will getting on to other matters soon, but for now I’m going to focus on the big match of the opening around – the Shanghai derby.

As everyone familiar with me knows, I’ve been a supporter of Shenhua for a long time. I do my best to put my club affiliation to one side when I’m writing about Chinese football. Being a fan means some will pre-judge your views on that basis. Many will think you are incapable of seeing things impartially. I find this quite patronizing to be honest. I’ve always tried to tell it like it is. It’s not that hard to take a step back and see things from another perspective. To not do so is simply a failure to use one’s faculties to anything like their potential. However, there are times when it’s good to speak openly as a fan, and this is one of those times.

Friday night’s result was a disastrous start for Shenhua. This is the third heavy Shanghai Derby defeat in 4 seasons – and the first to take place at Hongkou and not SIPG’s stadium which makes it Shenhua’s worst derby result ever.

It was a new season, new coach, new striker, new squad, new hope… but same old failings. The boys in blue went into this game with optimism – surely SIPG couldn’t win a fifth Shanghai derby in a row? I had a suspicion Shenhua might sneak it, as I said on the podcast last week.

How wrong I was.

SIPG played like a team with something to prove – that they are about much more than just Wu Lei, and they did just that.

So how have SIPG managed to dominate Shenhua so comprehensively in recent seasons? How has the Shanghai Derby gone from the hottest fixture in Chinese football to one lacking almost any suspense whatsoever? To understand this, we need to look at a few different things and piece them together to give the answer.

First up, let’s start with the game itself. You can read an anti-Shenhua diatribe elsewhere on the site for the SIPG perspective. But the match was pretty much even in the first half and Shenhua were unlucky to go in behind. Igalo, last seasons second-top CSL scorer, missed a sitter, and Moreno should have done better with a very good chance. When the reds scored right before half time it involved a bit of luck as Freddy Guarin deflected Cai Huikang’s header past Li Shuai who had no time to react. Indeed it was classed as an own goal.

Note the timing of the goal – at a point in football matches recognized as being psychologically important. Conceding at this moment deflates morale – especially if that team is the underdog and have been looking to hang on to half time and regroup. There’s no time to strike back right away, Shenhua go to the dressing room feeling aggrieved to be behind, and the coach has to change his half-time team talk at short notice.

But this is how football goes. A strong team picks themselves up and gets back to it. And this is my first point to make – Shenhua, for many years, have always lacked mental strength. From top to bottom, the team is bereft of any kind of leadership whatsoever.

Gio Moreno as captain? Come on. Don’t make me laugh. He never should have been captain from the start. Sure he is a great player technically and single-handedly saved Shenhua’s bacon on many occasions. But there’s a lot more to leadership than sometimes coming up with goals out of nowhere. He’s way too laid-back and doesn’t have much determination, grit, or influence on the rest of the team. Yet, he’s been captain since, I think, around 2012 or 2013. Any time Shenhua do come back from behind, it looks more like an accident or luck and I can’t think of a game in the last couple of years which he turned around.

On to the second half then and SIPG’s next goal. Centre half pairing Eddy and Li Peng were all over the shop and Li Shuai could have done better to parry Elkeson’s shot which left Lyu Wenjin with a simple tap-in.

Hold on a minute – Li Peng and Eddy in defence? For most of his career, Eddy has been a wing-back or full back, and often looks suspect positionally when playing in the middle. He has good strength and tackling, but at 1.79cm is maybe a bit on the short side for a central defender. He’s unsurprisingly fairly poor in the air, that’s partly why he was much more effective at full back last season. And despite being 28, he’s relatively lacking in first team experience – he’s not even played 50 CSL games in his entire career.

As for Li Peng. Let’s just say he’s good in the air, but that’s about it. He’s slow, doesn’t read the game well and is almost completely unable to do anything with the ball other than head it away or punt it up the park. Even simple things, like sideways balls across the back, he often turns into hospital passes. This player is simply not CSL standard. He’s a CL1 player at best and everyone knows it. He was signed from a team which had got relegated to CL2 after all.

Now there’s two reasons why Shenhua had to play such a weak central defence. One is not their fault – Zhu Chenjie, already the club’s best in that position despite being just 18 (that tells you something in itself) has been away for weeks with the China u23 team. He spent only three days training with Shenhua over the entire close season. This is despite the fact the u23 squad don’t start a series of u23 Asian Championship qualifiers until March 22. This is a story in itself, but the top-down CFA prefers to deprive players of competitive professional games in the CSL, and make them simply train with the national team for weeks on end, instead of calling them up a week before the national team play, like successful football countries do.

The other reason is entirely Shenhua’s fault – they sold their best Chinese defender to Dalian Yifang in the close season. Li Jianbin was never the most intelligent or classy defender, but he was diligent, hard-running, agile, brave and got himself in the way when he had to. Yet a little bird told me that internal bickering with former coach and current director of football Wu Jingui, meant he had to leave. Letting your better domestic players go is simply something Shenhua can’t afford to do and it’s things like this which have only served to make the gap with SIPG wider and make derby pumpings a now regular occurrence.

Back to the game. With it 0-2 to SIPG and about 18 minutes left on the clock, Shenhua were still in with a shout. It would not have been the first time they had scored two late goals to turn around a Shanghai Derby. But in an act of total and absolute fucking stupidity, Bai Jiajun elbowed Oscar in the face for no reason. Excuse my French but I just don’t have it in me to use any other phrase after seeing it live and TV replay. Sure enough, following a brief but bizarre case of mistaken identity, where Sun Shilin was sent off by mistake, Bai was given his marching orders following a VAR review.

Now. Listen to this. This is the FOURTH time. I repeat, the FOURTH time Bai has been sent off in a Shanghai derby. There is not much to say about that other than Bai has a serious problem and Shenhua as a club have not managed him properly. The end result on Friday night was that a match which probably would have fizzled out into a very disappointing 0-2 defeat which most Shenhua fans could have just about reluctantly swallowed, morphed into a 0-4 home drubbing which destroyed morale right on day one because of Bai’s unbelievable petulance.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. Failings in the club itself. Why can’t keep hotheads like Bai be kept under better control? Because there is a deep-rooted and long standing culture of cronyism in the club. Now, Shenhua is far from unique in this way, its no secret that guanxi is a powerful force in Chinese life everywhere, not just in football. But Shenhua is, from top to bottom, absolutely rotten in this aspect. Personal connection is allowed to trump professionalism way too often. Individuals know that as long as they are in the right clique, they don’t need to try that hard.

There are so many examples.

Visibly well overweight but have been with the team for over a decade? No problem for Qiu Shenjiong to be first choice backup keeper and deny youth a chance even in dead rubber games.

Be a self-confessed Shenhua fan, leave the club in a huff because you fell out with the chairman, then spend your years taunting the support with moronic, provocative gestures every time you score against your boyhood favourites? No problem for a totally over-the-hill Mao Jianqing to be welcomed back with open arms even although he had literally ran out of other clubs to crawl to.

Refuse to come off the bench because you were once so pathetically unprofessional you hadn’t bothered to put your shinpads in as you didn’t think you would get a game? No problem for Tao Jin to keep a squad place for 12 years yet barely 50 games in his whole career.

Be jailed for fixing matches in Singapore earlier in your career, then somehow be allowed to continue playing professional football? No problem for Wang Lin to be signed up by Shenhua after that, not once, but twice. And let’s just say he’s not the only one.

Now, these are just some of the many, many examples from over the years. And it’s not just the club management – it’s the fans. As long as the player is “one of them” everything can be excused. It is understandable and even desirable to have great sentiment for local players or long-standing club servants, but it’s taken to the extreme at Shenhua. It is part of a long-term pattern. But getting back to the game on Friday, there was ample evidence that this problem is still very much in evidence even before a ball was kicked.

When the 2019 squad list was announced the day before the game, there were three names I was surprised to see amongst the 30 permitted.

The first was reserve keeper Shen Jun. He is 32 and has played just two CSL games in last eight years and has spent the last four years playing reserve football for Shenhua – as has the second shock inclusion, Zhan Yilin, aged 29. The winger has not been seen in a first team game since 2015. And lastly, Sun Kai, 27, who played no CSL games last season and couldn’t get a game for Shanghai Shenxin in the second tier for the two seasons before that.

Between them, this mediocre trifecta have played a grand total of zero CSL games in the last four years despite an average age of a little over 29. I suppose you could just about argue these guys are on the squad list as they are happy with their role in life as backups to be used during injury crises only, since Shenhua have many better, or well, let’s say less worse, players.

Imagine my shock then upon seeing not just one of these guys’ names on the team sheet for the derby, but all three! Shen Jun and Sun Kai were on the bench, and incredibly, Zhan Yilin was starting on the right wing. I mean, I’m well used to Shenhua’s eccentric team selections by now, but I was honestly flabbergasted by this one and wondered if I had had too much to drink before the match as I saw the sheet emerge on the inter webs.

This leads us to the final issue – interference in team selection. Was the choice of the 2019 squad list, and Friday’s team sheet, all down to Flores? Or, as has been the case many times in the past, were “suggestions” from above about who to include? It is always impossible to know but from conversations I have had with foreign pros working in China certain players having to play for non-football reasons is a well known fact of life here, at least some of the time. In this case, all three players in question are local Shanghainese and well connected inside the club. That is not a co-incidence in China.

Now, I must admit, I am not a professional football coach and I don’t see these players at close range everyday. It’s possible they do offer something which Flores has spotted – maybe Zhan Yilin, since he went straight into the starting line-up? But if that is the case, why has this guy been languishing in the reserves for four years? It is known he had personal issues during this time, but frankly he was pretty mediocre from 2013-2014 when he played regularly for the first team.

A similar argument goes for Sun Kai – if he’s any good why could he not game a game last year or for Shenxin before? As for Shen Jun, well, Flores probably just saw a 32-year-old keeper and never imagined he had only played two CSL games in eight years and put him in the squad.

Shenhua’s third keeper is u-23 Chen Zhao. He’s yet to get any pitch time at all, and word is he is not rated very highly. So why sign him then? Doesn’t the club do proper scouting? Or is he decent but his face just doesn’t fit?

Anyway, one or maybe two of these useless players in the squad, ok, whatever. But all three, when there are younger players who have played reasonably well for the Shenhua first team in the past, like Lyu Pin and Liu Jiawei, dropped from the first team squad list, just doesn’t make any football sense.

It’s early days for Flores, but if the squad selection really is his alone then he really does not appear to know the team very well. This is crucial because the club is somewhat in a state of flux personnel-wise.

In recent years the club has had more deadwood than Chernobyl forest. In fact this was so utterly obvious that even Shenhua couldn’t allow it to stand any longer. Out went the likes of Wang Lin, 35-year-old Wang Yun, and Qiu Shenjiong in the last window, following Tao Jin previously.

But it’s always two steps forward, one step back. Despite these long-overdue departures, and promoting more young players, only Liu Ruofan and Zhu Chenjie played any significant number of first team games last year despite the local media saying Shenhua is undergoing a “youth revolution”.

And – with the best domestic players like Qin Sheng and Li Jianbin shipped out, and bringing back failed reservists like Shen, Zhan and Sun instead of the many younger, hungrier players in the reserves, the end result is the squad is now probably as weak as it has ever been. This is a state of affairs Shenhua simply can’t afford to do given all the other problems discussed above.

Ultimately, in the space of barely four years, one derby hammering is bad luck, two is careless, but a third indicates serious problems. Given the systematic nature of the issues, it’s unclear if things will change anytime soon.

But like it or not, the club has survived far worse than derby beatings, and will always be one of Chinese football’s great institutions.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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