The Chinese football season is over for another year. And in the Super League, once again we’ve had more than our fair share of excitement.
The Evergrande dynasty returned to dominance, as Guangzhou Evergrande claimed their eighth title in nine years. One of the newly promoted teams took to the league like a duck to water, while the other sank like a rock. Guangzhou R&F played some of the most gung-ho attacking football the league has seen in years. And Shanghai Shenhua shocked everyone with their triumph in the CFA Cup, after their worst league finish of the professional era.
But how does each CSL team’s season compare? Now we will take a look at each team and grade their season from A+ to F. Taking into account pre-season expectations and the circumstances each team found themselves in once the season was underway.
Position: 1st Grade: B+
After missing out on the title last season, Guangzhou Evergrande hoovered up a lot of the country’s best young talent in the off-season. They returned in 2019 with a revamped squad that was expected to cruise to the league championship. In the end they re-claimed the league title. But they only get a B+ as they did so in a fashion that was less convincing than it should have been.
Evergrande stuttered at the start of the season. Before they eventually hit a good run of form in the middle of the year. Young wingers Wei Shihao and Yang Liyu terrorised defences, as Evergrande racked up twelve straight wins and took a commanding lead in the title race.
Evergrande had some struggles late in the season. When a dire run of results in the league and elimination from the Asian Champions League. Saw Fabio Cannavaro briefly relieved of his position as head coach.
Cannavaro was soon re-instated however, and came back to see his Evergrande team claim a vital 2-0 win against title rivals Shanghai SIPG. Before defeating Hebei China Fortune and then Shanghai Shenhua, to claim their eighth league title on final day of the season.
Should Evergrande have been able to wrap up the league title before the last day of the season? With the quality of the squad they had. Yes, definitely. But we shouldn’t allow this to detract too much from what has been an impressive season from the men in red.
Position: 2nd Grade: D
Bejing Guoan get a D grade for blowing what was their best chance in years to make a serious challenge for the title.
For a time, it looked like this might just be the year where Guoan would clinch their first CSL championship in a decade. As the final third of the season approached, Guoan were in great form and top of the league. But then things started to go wrong.
Guoan were hit by a spate of injuries and subsequently lost back to back away games. The club then seemed to go into full on panic mode. Sacking Roger Schmidt and bringing in Bruno Génésio.
This abrupt change in management didn’t revitalise Guoan’s season. And in the end defeats to title rivals Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG, put an end to their dreams of winning the championship.
Position: 3rd Grade: A
Last year’s champions get an A- for making a good fist of trying to retain their CSL title. Although Shanghai SIPG finished some distance behind eventual champions Guangzhou Evergrande. SIPG’s final total of sixty-six points, was only two shy of last season’s total. This is impressive, when you consider that this was their first season without club legend Wu Lei.
SIPG’s biggest shortcoming this year was a lack of goals, scoring fifteen fewer than last year. When you consider that, SIPG only lost four games but drew six. And of the four that they lost, only one of these defeats was by a two goal margin. It’s easy to see what a difference this shortfall in goals made to their title challenge.
The cause of this lack of goals, can only be put down to the departure of Wu Lei. Wu Lei was the CSL’s top scorer with twenty-seven goals in 2018. And it was always going to be difficult for SIPG to be as effective in the final third of the pitch without him.
Hulk and Oscar both had good seasons, performing at a similar level to last year. But ultimately nobody at SIPG was able to bring their game up a notch and fill the void left by Wu Lei.
Position: 4th Grade: B
Jiangsu Suning made the headlines at the start of the season when they registered five goalkeepers in their first team squad, in an attempt to get around the under-23 player rule.
In the end though, plenty of young players came through and made their mark with Suning this year. The pick of these would be Abduhamit Abdugheni. The twenty-one year old Xinjiang native, played mainly at right-back and looked extremely solid throughout the nineteen games he featured in.
The lowest point for Suning in 2019 will undoubtedly be their 1-0 Yangtze Delta Derby defeat to Shanghai Shenhua. Losing at home to long time rivals Shenhua (who were then second bottom of the league) prompted a hysterical reaction from some sections of Suning’s fan base.
This result and its subsequent aftermath triggered a poor run of form. And Suning slid down from fifth to ninth in the table. They came back strongly at the end of the year though. Winning seven of their final eight games and sealing a fourth place finish.
While some Suning fans may feel that the club should be challenging for the title. Fourth place is still an improvement on last year’s fifth place finish and definitely warrants a B grade. It’s also worth noting that Suning have one of the youngest squads in the league. Next year they should be able to kick on and look to take an Asian Champions League place.
Position: 5th Grade: B
Shandong Luneng get a B grade after another solid year with Li Xiaopeng at the helm. Shandong finished up in fifth place and although this wasn’t as good as last season’s third place finish. Given that they had good runs in both the Asian Champions League and the CFA Cup. Finishing fifth will still be considered a success for the Jinan based club.
Luneng started off slowly but hit their stride around mid-May and held onto a place in the top third of the table for the rest of the year. At times Shandong showed their ability to compete with the league’s best. Home wins against Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou Evergrande being amongst their season’s high points.
The biggest disappointment for Shandong this year will obviously be losing in the CFA Cup final for the second year running. The manner of their second-half capitulation against Shanghai Shenhua, will be hugely frustrating for the club’s fans. And also takes a lot of the shine off what has otherwise been a decent season.
Position: 6th Grade: A+
Wuhan Zall were without a doubt the CSL team that most exceeded expectations this year and thoroughly deserve their A+ grade. The newly promoted side, were not big spenders during the off-season and were expected to be amongst the relegation contenders.
Injuries and suspensions to key players saw Zall struggle in the early stages of the season. But as the year rolled on, the results started to come. And in the end, they were able to secure an impressive top half of the table finish.
Wuhan’s success this year has not gone unnoticed however. And manager Li Tie is now looking the most likely candidate for the job of national team boss. If Li Tie does take over as manager of the national team, Wuhan’s fortunes next year will be heavily dependent on the quality of his successor.
Position: 7th Grade: A
Tianjin TEDA narrowly escaped relegation in 2018. And so get an A grade for a season where they never really looked like they were going to be drawn into the relegation scrap.
TEDA’s improved performance this year has largely been the result of the shrewd signings Uli Stielike made during the off-season. Midfielders Zheng Kaimu and Liu Yang played in almost every game and brought a much needed bite to TEDA’s midfield. Loan-signing Rong Hao consistently performed at a high level when playing either at right-back or on the right-hand side of midfield. And German striker Sandro Wagner hit an excellent run of form in the last few months of the season.
TEDA are now in a much better state than they were at the end of last season. How well they do next year will most likely depend on how successful Stielike is in the transfer market.
Position: 8th Grade: A
Henan Jianye get an A for a season where they surpassed most people’s expectations with their mid-table finish.
A 3-2 home defeat to Tianjin TEDA early in the season drew the ire of the club’s fans. Who felt they might be in for another year of watching their club battle against relegation. Over the course of the season though, Henan played some very good football and comfortably clocked up enough to points to keep themselves out of the relegation mix.
Wang Baoshan did an excellent job in getting the most he could from a limited squad. And it’s no surprise that he has been short listed as one of the candidates for the national team job.
While Henan spent most of the year floating around the lower end of the mid-table. A good run of results towards the end of the season, pushed them up into eighth place. A key reason for this strong run of form was the return to fitness of Fernando Karanga. The Brazilian striker returned to the side midway through the season and provided a much needed spark to Henan’s attack.
Karanga’s goals and playmaking ability were an important part of Henan’s late season surge up the table. If Henan are to continue to progress next season, it will be vital that he remains fully fit.
Position: 9th Grade: C
When Wanda took over Dalian Yifang, in February 2018, it signalled the beginning of a new era for the club. The appointment of Rafael Benitez as manager mid-way through this season, was an obvious sign of the ambitions that Wanda have for the club going forwards.
When Benitez took over, Yifang were hovering around the middle of the table and had endured their fair share of internal drama. With Belgian winger Yannick Carrasco trying to force a move back to Europe.
Once in charge, Benitez had Dalian play a more attacking and free-flowing style of football than they had under his predecessor Choi Kang-hee. This definitely resulted in a lot more goals, but produced a mixed bag of results. It ended with the team finishing up ninth in the table, one place higher than when Benitez took over.
Dalian get a C grade, as it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions yet from Benitez’s brief time in charge. He has spoken optimistically about seeing Dalian as a project, where he feels he can build something long lasting. The next year or two will give us a clearer indication as to exactly how far he can take this project.
Position: 10th Grade: C+
Chongqing Lifan spent much of 2018 stuck in the thick of the relegation mire. This year however, has been different. Jordi Cruyff’s team get a C+ for a season where they have steered well clear of the relegation battle.
Chongqing definitely had some good moments this year. The highlight of their season was their shock 3-2 away win against Shanghai SIPG, where a rare mistake from Yan Junling gifted them an injury time winner.
Over the course of the year however, Chongqing were not consistent enough to attain a finish in the top-half of the table. The main issue for the team was that they simply didn’t score enough goals. With only the two relegated teams scoring fewer.
If Lifan are to make progress next year, Cruyff will need to look into bringing in a new foreign attacking player. Who can score with greater regularity than those he currently has at his disposal.
Hebei China Fortune
Position: 11th Grade: D
Hebei China Fortune secured a solid sixth place finish last time round. So it was a surprise to see them spend most of this season in the thick of it, with the relegation battlers. Hebei got off to a disastrous start under Chris Coleman. And were bottom of the table when he was sacked nine games into the season.
Xie Feng then took over as manager for the rest of the year. And while things improved under Xie Feng. Hebei continued to look very suspect defensively. Suffering from a shortage of quality defenders, they will not doubt regret allowing Gao Zhunyi, Zhao Mingjian and Liao Junjian to leave before the start of the season.
In the end, Hebei had enough quality in other areas to accumulate the points needed to escape the relegation dogfight. But they never really managed to play with quite the same confidence that they had last season. A D grade seems appropriate for what was a season to forget for the Langfang based club.
Position: 12th Grade: B-
Dragan Stojkovic has been in charge of Guangzhou R&F for over four years now, which is a remarkably long time by CSL standards. The reason for Stojkovic’s longevity is that he has always managed to ensure that R&F have punched well above their weight, given their somewhat limited budget.
This year R&F get a B-, as although they never quite looked like a top half of the table side. They did play some exciting attacking football, while winning enough games to ensure they wouldn’t be at risk of sliding into the relegation places.
The attacking brand of football R&F played this year, generally saw them simply looking to outscore their opponents. The most important component of this style of play was record breaking striker Eran Zahavi. The Israeli international found the net twenty-nine times in twenty-eight games, averaging a goal every eighty-three minutes.
Zahavi’s compatriot, attacking midfielder Dia Saba netted another thirteen this season. But take these two out of the equation and R&F would be struggling for goals. R&F’s domestic players accounted for just seven of the team’s fifty-four goals this year. Most CSL teams lean heavily on their foreign talent for goals. But with R&F this has become an over reliance.
As well as having a problematic over reliance on foreign goal scorers. R&F also have one of the oldest squads in the CSL and the league’s leakiest defence. Take all these factors into consideration and it’s not difficult to see ways in which the wheels could come off for R&F next season.
Position: 13th Grade: E
Shanghai Shenhua didn’t come into the 2019 season shouldering any huge expectations. With the team coming off a very average mid-table finish in 2018.
And yet, Shenhua still managed to disappoint. Shenhua get an E grade for a lacklustre campaign that saw them end up with their worst league finish since 1980. The team struggled most in the first-half of the season. Badly missing centre-back Li Jianbin and midfielder Qin Sheng, who both moved to Dalian Yifang in the off-season.
In the end, the season was saved from total disaster, when Shenhua signed Kim Shin-Wook in the mid-season transfer window. The South Korean international made an immediate impact. Scoring eight times in his first five games, he helped Shenhua to pull in vital points. Eventually these points mounted up. And Shenhua were able to claw themselves out of relegation contention.
Shenhua finished the season on a high, with a surprise triumph in the CFA Cup. After losing the first leg of the final 1-0, Shenhua stunned Shandong Luneng with an improbable 3-0 win in the second-leg.
This is the second time in three years that Shenhua have won the competition. While winning the Cup will obviously be a huge source of pride for club. The CFA Cup is not a competition that many teams take seriously. And Shenhua will need to avoid allowing this triumph to paper over the many cracks in the team.
Position: 14th Grade: C
Despite finishing five places lower than last season. Tianjin Tianhai get a C grade for avoiding relegation, despite being dogged by off the field issues.
The financial uncertainty surrounding Tianhai, led to a big turnover in playing staff before the start of the season. The team struggled to gel and developed a nasty habit of conceding crucial late goals. The worst examples of this, were their two games against fellow strugglers Shenzhen. Tianhai self-destructed in the away fixture, conceding twice in the dying minutes to lose 2-1. And at home, they gave away a sloppy late equaliser to draw 1-1.
Tianhai spent almost the entire year in the drop zone. But were saved from relegation when Chinese national team legend Li Weifeng took over as manager late in the season. Li was know for his fiery temprement when playing. And footage from one of his recent post-match team talks, suggests that he hasn’t mellowed with age.
Tianhai’s players responded well to his methods though. And they finished the season in a strong run of form. That culminated in a 5-1 victory over Dalian Yifang 5-1, to secure their survival with a game to spare.
Position: 15th Grade: F
Shenzhen returned to the CSL in 2019 after a seven year absence. They started off well, beating Tianjin Tianhai and Hebei China Fortune in their first two games. However, things soon turned sour. Shenzhen only managed two more wins all season. Earning themselves an F grade and ultimately seeing them relegated on the penultimate week of the season.
The cause of Shenzhen’s undoing this year was a shortage of goals, as they failed to find the net in nearly half of their league games. Harold Preciado, Shenzhen’s top scorer for the past two seasons struggled to adjust to the CSL. And the team badly missed striker Franck Ohandza who moved to Henan Jianye in the off-season. Halfway through the season, Shenzhen sought to resolve the situation by bringing in John Mary from Meizhou Hakka.
While Mary proved to be an excellent signing, scoring nine times in fifteen games and finishing the season as Shenzhen’s top scorer. His goals were not enough to save Shenzhen from the drop. Perhaps if Shenzhen had signed him at the start of the year, things may have turned out differently. Instead, we have another stark example of the importance in the CSL of having effective foreign strikers.
Position: 16th Grade: F
In 2018 Beijing Renhe were a newly promoted side who surprised a lot of people by avoiding relegation. This year however they fell victim to the ‘second-season syndrome’. In recent years both Guizhou Hengfeng and Yanbian Funde suffered the same fate, where a team is relegated at the end of their second season in the CSL, after a decent first year.
Guizhou did at least make a decent fight of it last year. The same could not be said of Renhe this year. Who completely capitulated and get an F grade for a disastrous campaign. The root cause of Renhe’s demise was allowing far too many quality players to leave. Ivo, Benjamin Moukandjo, Liu Yang and Wang Gang all moved on at the end of last season. And their replacements were generally not of the same calibre.
This steep decline in the quality of the players at the club, unsurprisingly had a huge impact on the team’s performance. All season Renhe looked totally out of place in the top flight and finished with the CSL’s lowest points total since 2008.