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A doleful 2-2 draw against Sydney begs the question: what’s wrong in Xuhui?

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe takes a look at another disappointment at the Stadium and the puzzling state of the SIPG team.

SIPG’s season got off to a rip-roaring start: a trophy with a Super Cup win over Guo’an, the humiliation of Shenhua at Hongkou, a win in the ACL against Japanese champion Kawasaki Frontale, and the demolition of Jiangsu Suning at Shanghai Stadium.

And then: splat.

SIPG abruptly went into a graceless dive that’s lasted seven matches now, during which the team has been a shadow of their championship selves: two wins, two losses and three draws while playing only one match against a top flight team.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story: in their last 630 minutes of play, the Red Eagles have had the lead for a grand total of fourteen minutes. Every moment of every match has come to feel like playing uphill on a sandy pitch in the rain.

Why?

Has Hulk lost it?

Hulk’s the captain, so we’ll start with him.

He leads the league in being dispossessed. Again. He’s among the leaders in losing the ball because of poor ball control. In general, he’s a liability when he tries to bully his way through defenders. And he tries to bully his way through defenders a lot.

When he does work his way into a position to shoot, bad things are happening. He’s taken thirteen shots in the CSL and made only one. Many of his misses sail so high over the crossbar that the real Hulk wouldn’t be able to lay a big green finger on them.

(The muscular Brazilian is not the only one with shooting problems; SIPG is, astonishingly, twelfth in the CSL in shots on target, partly because they’re also last in the league in taking shots from close in.)

You add it all together, and what you get is far too many turnovers from Hulk.

On the up side, Hulk’s an elite passer, and he still attracts more than his fair share of defenders, leaving holes in the defense he can and does exploit.

Hulk’ll be 33 this July and transfermarkt says his contract will expire at the end of the 2020 CSL season. With the weird, semi-salary cap the CFA imposes on the league, it’s unlikely that SIPG can afford to replace him before then.

So SIPG’s fate the next two years is going to depend on whether Hulk can adjust to his age and his declining abilities. One way is to find a cure for his shooting woes and stop trying to push through defenders who’ve apparently watched more than enough video of his moves. Alternatively, Hulk could change his style of play, becoming something more like a pass-first midfielder.

Lonely on the wing

The defining image of Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw against Sydney FC was Oscar, flanked way out to the right, unmarked, yelling for the ball as SIPG got nowhere pinballing the ball back and forth in the center of midfield. The Red Eagles finally lost control of the ball and Oscar threw up his hands in frustration.

The thing is, normally, Chen Binbin and a rotating cast of characters are out there on the wing. (Tuesday night, bizarrely, it was Zhang Wei.) None of them are good enough to create a threat, so both SIPG’s players and their opponents ignore them. Consequently, SIPG’s offense has been getting strangled in the middle, essentially playing nine on ten most of the season.

Has Pereira lost the team?

The actor Michael Douglas was once asked how he kept up with his much younger wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. He paused for a moment and said, “I’m as good as I ever was. Once.”

If you asked Vitor Pereira about his squad, he’d probably say, “We’re as good as we ever were. For fifteen minutes.”

Over and over this year, SIPG has failed to play with passion. They’re walking the ball up the field, standing around, not making creative runs, and when they do get opportunities, they’re unprepared.

Then, some mysterious switch somewhere will get flicked – most obviously in the Chongqing match, but really, in all of them – and SIPG will outwork and outclass whoever they’re playing.

After fifteen minutes, the Soccer God flicks the switch again and SIPG return to a lackadaisical style of play.

The ability of managers to motivate players is perhaps overrated. The players are well-paid, hyper-competitive professionals who presumably want to continue collecting checks and got to this level in the first place because of their unreal ability to focus on the game.

Nevertheless, for SIPG to return to the heights the club scaled last year, Pereira has got to find an answer for the extended lulls that afflict the club. 

A line-up in flux

And then there are the injuries. Lots of them.

Yu Hai, He Guan, Shi Ke and Wang Shenchao – the entire back line – have missed significant time. Odil Akhmedov hasn’t been fit for every match. Hulk missed one. Cai Huikang isn’t injured, but his lack of fitness causes him to get yanked early. Combine the injury woes with the U23 rule (SIPG lacks an obvious first choice for that slot), the heavy fixture schedule and Pereira’s clear intent to avoid burning out his roster early in the season and what you have is a line-up in flux. SIPG hasn’t started the same XI in consecutive games and twenty-three different players have appeared on the pitch in just eleven matches.

Which means there’s no continuity. The nearly intuitive playmaking and tight teamwork on the back line from last year are both now intermittent features. SIPG’s scoring is down a tick from last year, and their defense has allowed a tick more goals, too. Mostly what you notice is that you’re bored at the matches. That’s something that even SIPG’s harshest critic wouldn’t have said about the team in the last couple of years.

The elephant in the room

How much of this is down to the loss of Wu Lei and his 27 goals?

He was the best player in China, a weapon no team in the CSL could match. Teams lost track of him at their own peril. None of the Chinese players on SIPG this year inspire that same fear.

On the other hand, last year Wu scored on a ridiculously high percentage of his shots. It was a great but unrepeatable performance. If Wu Lei were in red this year, he probably wouldn’t be the Wu Lei we saw last year.

More concretely, Wu’s replacement, Lyu Wenjun, has five goals this year, three in the CSL, one in the ACL and one in the SuperCup. That’s a pretty solid contribution. How much more could Wu have helped if he was here?

Speaking of help…

SIPG made a sweep of championships in the CSL youth leagues last year, so it’d be nice to think that reinforcements are available, but so far, nichts draus. It’s hard to know why, since the club won’t allow fans to watch the kids play.

Second verse, same as the first

The discouraging, 2-2 draw against Sydney at Shanghai Stadium Tuesday night featured all the usual crap: Sydney’s first goal came when both central defenders appear to have been transported to another dimension, leaving Cai Huikang gasping and wheezing and failing to catch up with Sydney’s Brandon O’Neill, who converted an easy chance breaking in alone on Yan Junling in the 33rd minute.

Down 1-0 at the half, SIPG came out for the second half on fire. A Hulk corner found Elkeson, who converted a header, and Zhang Wei, otherwise useless, made a gorgeous pass to Wang Shenchao sneaking in the backdoor to put SIPG up 2-1.

Then, the doldrums returned, and in the 66th minute, a disorganized SIPG defense watched Adam Le Fondre, standing still for ages all by himself five yards in front of Yan Junling, convert a header to bring the match level.

The draws in Sydney and Shanghai between those two teams and the draw in Japan Tuesday night between Ulsan and Kawasaki Frontale leaves SIPG in an odd position in the ACL. In two weeks, they travel to Tokyo for Matchday 5. A win guarantees advancement. A loss virtually guarantees elimination. A draw puts SIPG in the driver’s seat with one match remaining against Ulsan at Shanghai Stadium. That match could very well be a dead rubber for the Koreans.

Highlights

What’s next

Back to Tianjin on Sunday in the CSL, this time against TEDA, then out to Wuhan for an afternoon tilt on Wednesday in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, then home again Saturday – note the 17:30 start – against staggering Fuli at the Stadium.

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

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