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2020 Chinese Super League review: All sixteen CSL teams graded

How did the teams of the CSL’s class of 2020 get on? Here we look at each team and grade their season from A to F.

With the disruption that Covid has caused around the world to education this year, teachers have wrestled with the best way to grade students under these unusual circumstances. Here I’ve done the same with the Chinese Super League, trying my best to grade each CSL team based on how they performed (relative to expectations) in this the strangest of years.

Here comes the asterisk….

*If some of the grades seems out of sync with a team’s league position that’s because generally my assessment of each team usually does not take into account a team’s performance in the placement games (e.g 5th–6th place playoffs) as these were generally total dead rubbers that didn’t show us anything.

Jiangsu Suning

Position: 1st

Grade: A

Jiangsu Suning’s season started unassumingly enough. They were decent in the group stage but consistently off the pace of eventually group winners Guangzhou Evergrande. This changed dramatically however, when Suning and Evergrande met again in the final of the championship stage.

After a 0-0 draw in the first leg, the second leg saw Suning narrowly edge Evergrande 2-1, to secure their first CSL title. Grinding out this type of narrow win proved to be Suning’s greatest strength this season. Jiangsu managed just one win by a two or more goal margin all year and this ability to close out tight games was what secured them their first ever championship and an A grade for the year.

Guangzhou Evergrande

Position: 2nd

Grade: F

With an unmatched array of domestic, foreign and naturalised talent at their disposal, Guangzhou Evergrande went into the season as overwhelming favourites.

Throughout the group stage of this year’s CSL, they showed all the signs that they would justify this tag. Dropping just seven points as they cruised to a first place finish in Group A. Evergrande’s dominance in the group stage did attract some negative attention however. With some complaining that the high proportion of naturalised players in the Evergrande team was giving them an unfair advantage, and undermining the competition as a whole.

While Evergrande went on to progress to the final of the championship stage, their surprising defeat at the hands of Suning was a telling reminder of the unpredictability of play-off football.

Evergrande’s impressive record in the group stage suggests that they would almost certainly have won the title this year, had the CSL stuck to it normal format. Their inability to get the job done when it mattered though, can only be seen as a colossal failure for the team that has dominated Chinese domestic football for the past decade. And for this reason and this reason alone they get an F.

Beijing Guoan

Position: 3rd

Grade: C

Beijing Guoan may have felt that the altered format for this year’s CSL season would have given them a better chance at bringing the title back to the capital for the first time since 2009.

Guoan fans would have felt even more optimistic in the early weeks of the season as their team got off to the best possible start and won their opening four games. The Imperial Guards began to stutter as the campaign wore on however.

An in-form Cedric Bakambu ensured that Guoan were never short of goals. But as time went on, problems started to emerge at the other end of the field. Defensive short comings and the lack of a legitimate starting goalkeeper, led to Guoan regularly dropping points and struggling to hit a consistent run on form.

Guoan’s defensive problems came to a head in the second-leg of their championship stage semi-final. In this match Evergrande’s Talisca and Paulinho were able to pull Guoan apart and end their title dreams for another year. 

They did at least end the season on positive, by beating Shanghai SIPG in the third-fourth place play-offs. And while this play-off win put them through to next year’s AFC Champions League, I’m still only going to give them a C. As in 2020 they did exactly what most people thought they would; show some promise but not really come close to winning the title.

Shanghai SIPG

Position: 4th

Grade: D

When Shanghai SIPG won the 2018 CSL with an extremely young side, many felt that this would be the beginning of a new dynasty that would go on to dominate Chinese football in the coming years.

The cause of this decline is that they have simply been scoring less and less goals. When they won the league in 2018 they managed 2.56 goals a game, in 2019 this dropped to 2.06 goals a game and in 2020 it dropped further still to 1.61 goals a game. The causes of this decline are obvious. SIPG lost Wu Lei at the end of the 2018 season, Elkeson at end of 2019 and have had to deal with a decline in production from the usually reliable Hulk this year.

Clearly this hasn’t materialised. With SIPG being unable to retain the title in 2019 or to reach the final of the championship stage in this year’s CSL. In reality, SIPG have regressed since 2018.

It’s been a simple case of less talented attacking players, less goals, less wins. And due to their failure to fix this problem, SIPG are getting a D for the season.

Shandong Luneng

Position: 5th

Grade: B

Shandong Luneng certainly don’t have the same financial resources as the likes of Evergrande, SIPG and Guoan. But still consistently manage to put in a strong showing in the CSL.

Shandong were excellent in the first half of the group stage. And while they went through a bad run of form in the second half. They still had enough quality to get the results needed to grab a third-place finish in Group A.

While Luneng then went on to be knocked out by Guoan in the quarter-finals of the championship stage. 2020 was still a solid year for Li Xiaopeng’s team and they get a B for a season that had a lot of positives.

One big positive, was young striker Guo Tianyu. Guo gained a lot experience in 2019 when he was out on loan to Wuhan Zall. And in 2020 he came back a much more complete player, featuring in almost every Luneng game. If he can get enough playing time next year, he could quickly become one of the CSL’s top domestic forwards.

Guo Tianyu uses his size and strength to battle for the ball against Dalian Pro.

Chongqing Dangdai Lifan

Position: 6th

Grade: A

Jordi Cruyff’s departure, prior to the start of the season, left many people thinking that Chongqing would struggle in 2020. This did not transpire however as veteran CSL coach Chang Woe-ryong took over and guided them to a third place finish in Group B.

Although Chongqing went on to lose to Suning in quarter-finals of the championship stage. They get a A, as this season was a big success, with Chongqing once again overachieving on a limited budget.

The key to their success this year was the excellent signings they made in the off-season. Domestic players Chen Jie and Huang Xiyang were pulled from the transfer bargain bin and became first-team regulars. And budget foreign import Marcelo Cirino punched well above his weight.

Shanghai Shenhua

Position: 7th

Grade: B

Shanghai Shenhua struggled in 2019 largely due to their poor defensive record. This issue was largely rectified in the off-season with some solid signings. Former national team regulars Feng Xiaoting and Zeng Cheng were brought in on loan from Evergrande and centre-back Stephane Mbia was signed from Wuhan Zall.

These signing signings shored things up at the back and propelled Shenhua into the championship stage, where they narrowly lost in the quarter-finals to SIPG. Shenhua get a B for the season as reaching this stage was a significant achievement in itself. Especially when you consider how poor they had been the previous year and that they were without a number of key foreign players for most of the year.

South Korean international Kim Shin-wook missed most of the season with a tibia fracture.

Hebei China Fortune

Position: 8th

Grade: C

Hebei’s season got off to a slow start, with the team shipping goals and struggling for results. Newly signed goalkeeper Chi Wenyi was subsequently dropped and replaced by youngster Ba Yaxiong. Ba quickly cemented himself as the starting keeper and Hebei’s form soon improved. With the team winning seven of their final ten games in the Group B to qualify for the championship stage.

Once there however, they were promptly drubbed 8-1 on aggregate by Evergrande. While a defeat on this scale was something of an embarrassment, Hebei still get a C as there were plenty of positives for them this year. The most obvious of these being reaching the championship stage itself and avoiding the dreaded relegation play-off.

Other positives were the strong performances of a number of new players.  Goalkeeper Chi Wenyi, had barely played prior to this year but proved himself to be a capable number one at the CSL level. And new signings Ding Haifeng and Mohamed Buya Turay both performed extremely well as they linked up together on the left-hand side of the park.

Henan Jianye

Position: 9th

Grade: E

Henan Jianye made the bizarre decision to sack the highly rated Wang Baoshan just before the start of the season.

Without a suitable replacement lined up, the inexperienced Yang Ji took the helm. And then oversaw a disastrous showing from Jianye in the group stage.

Henan stank out Group A and ended the group stage on a seven match losing streak. Thankfully for Henan, they replaced Yang with the relatively unknown Javier Pereira just before the relegation play-offs. The Spaniard then guided Jianye to victory against an out of form Wuhan, to avoid relegation.

Henan then went on to win a few of their placement contests. This put a bit of shine on a poor year, but not enough to give them anything more than an E grade.

Tianjin TEDA

Position: 10th

Grade: F

Tianjin TEDA’s season was almost a carbon copy of Henan’s. An endless stream of inept performances saw them fail to win any of their fourteen group games on their way to finishing bottom of Group B. However just like Henan, TEDA saved themselves by winning their first match up in the relegation stage.

Despite avoiding relegation and then later winning a placement play-off game, I’m still going to give TEDA an F. Simply due to how awful they were during the regular season.

Guangzhou R&F

Position: 11th

Grade: C

Guangzhou R&F went into 2020 with their first new manager since 2015.

They didn’t significantly strengthen their squad during the off-season however. With new manager Giovanni Van Bronckhorst doing little to mend the defensive failings that have dogged R&F over the past few years. In the end, this resulted in R&F conceding a very poor average of two goals a game during the group stage.

More worryingly, R&F had a lot less bite going forward this year. And their attack was badly blunted when club legend Eran Zahavi left for PSV Eindhoven halfway through group stage.

All this being said though, they did still play some good football and managed to notch up enough wins get a decent draw for the relegation play-offs. There they beat Qingdao Huanghai and secured their place in the CSL for another year. This was a reasonable achievement given the lack of transfer activity in the off-season and the loss Zahavi part way through the season. And for this reason I’ll give R&F a C grade for the year as a whole.

Zahavi is one of a number of big name overseas players who have recently moved to Europe.

Dalian Pro

Position: 12th

Grade: C

2020 may well have been Rafa Benitez’s final season in charge of Dalian Pro and the team struggled in the group stage. They only managed two wins from fourteen games and badly missed Yannick Carrasco who had been by far their best player in 2019.

In 2020 Dalian Pro registered more young players than any other team. However few of these saw extensive playing time. Two youngsters that did stand out however were full-back Tong Lei and winger Lin Liangming. Both put in consistently impressive performances throughout the year. And Lin scored a crucial goal in a relegation play-off game against Shijiazhuang, which helped secure Dalian’s top flight status.

Dalian Pro get a C for a season that was pretty much par for the course; avoiding relegation but not really threatening to do anything else.

Shenzhen F.C.

Position: 13th

Grade: B

Shenzhen only survived relegation from the CSL last year, due to the dissolution of Tianjin Tianhai. Hoping to avoid a repeat performance in 2020, they wisely invested in revamping their squad prior to the start of the season.

Shenzhen initially struggled. However the team’s fortunes soon changed once the highly rated Jordi Cruyff was brought in to take over as manager. Under Cruyff Shenzhen were able to put together an impressive run of form, with big name signing Gao Lin showing that he is still one of the best domestic players in the CSL.

Shenzhen’s poor start to the season meant they missed out on the championship stage. But a 3-2 aggregate win over Shijiazhuang in their second relegation play-off contest, secured them a place in the 2021 CSL.

I give Shenzhen a B, as they were much better than last year. And with a talented new manager, they now seem to be on an upwards trajectory.

Qingdao Huanghai

Position: 14th

Grade: D

Following a turbulent off-season, ex-Shenua boss Wu Jingui was drafted in as caretaker manager for Qingdao Huanghai’s first season in the top flight. Things started of well for the Shandong team, losing just once in their first six games. Things soon took a turn for the worst however and a six game losing streak threw them into the relegation play-offs.

Wu Jingui constantly tried to tinker with tactics and personnel but it was to no avail. Huanghai lost their first relegation play-off round to Guangzhou R&F. And they would only manage to stave off relegation, by beating Wuhan Zall on penalties in the next round.  Huanghai get a D, as although they didn’t go straight back down, their first showing in the CSL was certainly disappointing. And they will need to strengthen their squad and find a new manager in order to be ready for next season

20-year-old Zhou Junchen put in some impressive performances during a difficult year for Huanghai.

Wuhan Zall

Position: 15th

Grade: E

In 2019 Li Tie guided Wuhan Zall to their best finish since the club reformed just over a decade ago. With Li Tie going on to take the national team job, there was a sense of scepticism as to whether new manager José González would be able to replicate last year’s success.

Things initially went well for Zall, and two-thirds of the way into group stage they seemed to be on course for qualification to the championship stage. Then late in a week nine game against Beijing Guoan, an injury to captain Li Hang seemed to send their season into turmoil.

Without Li, Wuhan simply fell apart. Taking a single point from their remaining group games, they soon parted company with González and slipped into the relegation play-offs.

In the relegation stage things threatened to get even worse. Zall lost two play-off contests before beating Shijiazhuang. This set up another play-off, this time against Zheijiang Greentown, who had ranked second in China League One. Thankfully for Wuhan, Li Hang was able to return for these games and he a bagged a goal in each leg, to save Wuhan from relegation.

Wuhan get an E for this season, which was if nothing else a stern lesson in the perils of being overly reliant on a single player.

Shijiazhuang Ever Bright

Position: 16th

Grade: F

Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s return to the CSL lasted just one season in what will have been a hugely disappointing year for the team from Hebei. Like Wuhan they did reasonably well for much of the group stage before hitting a bad run of form at the end of the year, which pulled them into the relegation play-offs. In the play-offs, defeats to Dalian, Shenzhen and Wuhan saw them relegated back to League One.

The main cause of Shijiazhuang’s demise this year was that they didn’t strengthen sufficiently in the off-season.  One of the few big signings they did make was young Congolese striker Oscar Maritu. Maritu had been a prolific goalscorer in China League One, but he really struggled in the Super League. Throughout the year he was Shijiazhuang’s only recognised striker and with him misfiring, Shijiazhuang found it impossible to find the goals they needed to keep them afloat.

Shijiazhuang may feel hard done by this season, due to this year’s unusual league system being particularly harsh on teams who hit poor form towards the end of the campaign. That being said thoughm they simply didn’t win when it mattered and for that reason they get an F.

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