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Stojković departs, van Bronckhorst arrives at Guangzhou R&F

A new year brings a new manager for Guangzhou R&F. WEF looks back at Dragan Stojković’s time at Yuexiushan, and looks forward to what Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s arrival might bring.

It started in August 2015 and ended in January 2020. Stojković’s almost four and a half years in charge make him Guangzhou R&F’s longest serving manager. He was also the longest serving manager in the CSL, until his long rumoured departure from the Cantonese club was formally confirmed on Friday.

The Serbian saved R&F from the very real threat of relegation in 2015, and then led the club to 6th, 5th, 10th and 12th placed finishes in the league. There was a chance of CFA Cup glory with semi-final appearances in 2016 and 2018 too.

Ups and downs

The Stojković era – spending over 4 years at the same club in the CSL justifies the use of that word – will not be remembered for dry facts about league positions though. The attacking style of play and the mountain of goals are what will linger in the memory. The team was set up to play to Zahavi’s strengths and he repaid Stojković ’s faith with a record breaking 29 goals in 2019. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli was named in the CSL team of the season for the second time under Stojković, and he was joined by right (wing) back Tang Miao for the 2019 selection.

That is not to say that everything was always rosy at Yuexiushan. There will be painful flashbacks to some horrible defending. The Serbian and his coaching team miserably failed to improve the team’s defensive play and – from the club’s perspective – this must’ve been the main factor behind Stojković’s departure.

From the Serbian’s perspective, perhaps the key question is why would he stay? Dembele was a high profile foreign addition last year, but there was no sign of any top quality domestic defenders arriving at Yuexiushan. With ever changing restrictions on U23s, foreign players and nationalised domestic players, managing in the CSL is not an easy job. With more rule changes recently announced, Giovanni van Bronckhorst will have plenty to get to grips with.

Odds and the end

Given the prevailing trend for quickly hiring and firing managers in China, as elsewhere in world football, Stojković’s almost 4.5 years at Yuexiushan is something of a minor miracle. Especially because of the underperformance in 2018 compared to the club hierarchy’s publicly stated goal of challenging towards the top of the table. The 2019 campaign was similarly disappointing, but there was still no mid-season sacking.

This is perhaps unsurprising. After all, Guangzhou R&F are probably the only team in world football to react to a poor run of home form by repainting the entire stadium rather than changing manager. And one of the few who would give their manager time off to go to his daughter’s wedding with the team in an early season slump.

After over four years at Yuexiushan, Stojković’s time in Guangzhou had an ignominious end. He was suspended for the last three games of the 2019 season for jokingly asking in a press conference about the number of international teams that China has. That the club didn’t take this opportunity to immediately fire him again demonstrates their respect for the Serbian.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst

As one European playing legend from the 1980s/90s leaves Yuexiushan, another from the 1990s/2000s arrives. Former Holland international Giovanni van Bronckhorst was announced as the new R&F manager on Saturday. As well as a highly decorated playing career, van Bronckhorst managed Feyenoord to the Dutch title and two KNVB Cup wins. Given R&F’s link with Ajax, it is ironic that the new manager should be so closely identified with Feyenoord.

Van Bronckhorst left Feyenoord at the end of the 2018/19 season and had been working with the City Group in recent months. He was strongly linked to New York City FC but chose the China instead. Arno Philips and Jean-Paul van Gastel will join him in Guangzhou.

As an aside, van Bronckhorst’s name (吉奥瓦尼 范布隆克霍斯特) is as much of a mouthful when transliterated into Mandarin as Dragan Stojković was. The club has asked fans for a suggestion for a shorter version which they can use to refer to the new manager.

Attacking excellence, defensive shambles

So, what has van Bronckhorst got himself into? Guangzhou R&F score like they are a top four side, but had the worst defence in the league in 2019. From his opening press conference, it seems that the Dutchman understands the style of play used by Stojković, and what the problems with it are. Although given that only one team in CSL history has conceded more goals than the 72 the Cantonese let in last season, it would be worrying if van Bronckhorst hadn’t spotted the problem. The schoolboys from Yuexiushan’s neighbouring Guangzhou Number 2 High School would’ve been embarrassed by R&F’s defensive record last season.

There are two elements to the defensive problems: collective style of play, and individual errors. On a collective level, the gaps in the defence were often so wide that you could’ve re-routed the Pearl River through them. This is partly because of the attacking nature of the side as pushing men forward inevitably leave space at the back.

You get the sense that leaving more players in defence wouldn’t help much though. There were far too many individual errors unrelated to the attacking style of play. They happened whether the team was playing 3, 4, or 5 at the back, and the midfielders and forwards are guilty too. Centre backs leaving strikers unmarked in the box, clumsy challenges, free headers at corners, 2019 had more than its fair share of mistakes.

Looking forward

Renatinho has returned to Yuexiushan after his season long loan at Tianjin Tianhai ended. With the change in the number of foreign player registrations, he may be able to compete for a starting spot in 2020. Duško Tošić may not have such luck. His last action in an R&F shirt was to get sent off in the Guangdong derby against Shenzhen, talk back to the ref and collect a ban which ruled him out of the final games of the year. With his countryman Stojković gone, Tošić looks the most vulnerable of the foreign players should van Bronckhorst want to bring in any replacements. Whether goal machine Zahavi can be persuaded to stay will probably have a bigger impact though.

Regardless of changes to the foreign contingent and the domestic players, the bulk of the squad Van Bronckhorst will coach in 2020 will be the same as Stojković had last year. To climb the league table, the Dutchman will have to improve each player individually, as well as the collective unit. If he does this whilst keeping the attacking threat, R&F will be a team to watch in 2020.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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