Croatian manager Slaven Bilic wasted no time in getting back into football following his departure from English side West Brom on December 16 by becoming the new coach of Beijing Guoan ahead of the 2021 season. As he prepares his new side for the upcoming season, we take a look at his previous jobs and what can be learned to help Beijing Guoan supporters get a better understanding of the new arrival in the capital.
He takes over a side that finished 3rd in the CSL last season under the tutelage of Bruno Genesio and, given the dissolution of last season’s winners Jiangsu Suning, it represents a good opportunity for Bilic to help his new team push on from last season and finish even higher. Such is the short-term nature of the CSL that Beijing Guoan supporters should not expect Bilic to be at the club for a lengthy period of time, but there are certain aspects of his managerial career at clubs such as West Ham and West Brom as well as the Croatian national football team that can be analysed and provide optimism about what will unfold during his tenure at at Beijing Guoan.
One reason for Beijng Guoan supporters to be optimistic is Bilic’s tendency to take a keen interest in the development of young players and give them as many playing opportunities as possible. Starting at Croatia, Bilic awarded Eduardo, Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka their first caps in what would turn out to be impressive international careers. Bilic then moved on to West Ham in June 2015 and handed youngsters such as Reece Oxford and Declan Rice their club debuts, with the latter subsequently becoming a mainstay in the centre of midfield for West Ham. This trait continued in what represented a rebuilding job at West Brom after their relegation to the Championship and he placed faith in a raft of youngsters to successfully return to the Premier League in what was a considerable achievement for the Croatian considering the amount of fallen giants such as Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday who have both failed to gain promotion back to England’s top division over two decades after last being relegated.
In the light of the current salary restrictions and exodus of foreign players, Bilic’s arrival in Beijing is at an opportune time. Gone are the days of spending huge amounts of money on marquee signings and in this climate his expertise could be a huge asset to Beijing Guoan. The club relied more on experience than youth during the 2020 CSL season and had one of the oldest squads in the division with an average age of 27.82 years old, but a move towards blooding fresh talent could be afoot in light of recent signings such as Cao Yongjing, He Zhenyu and Gao Tianyi, who are all aged 24 or under. Another player who may be keen to see the arrival of Bilic is Korean defender Kim Min-jae who has reportedly attracted the attention of several European clubs. Whether Kim is currently talented enough to deserve a big-money move abroad is up for debate, but with Bilic in charge the club now has a manager with a proven history of helping players improve their ability to the extent that bigger clubs are interested in securing their services, as was the case with Nathan Ferguson who played for West Brom under Bilic for just one season and yet convinced Premiership side Crystal Palace of his potential with his performances on the pitch, later resulting in a move to the London club on a free transfer.
In terms of how Beijing Guoan supporters can expect the side to line up during the upcoming season, Bilic does not seem to have a preferred formation and often switches between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 and 3-5-2 depending on the opposition. Nevertheless, there are characteristics of Bilic’s tactics, such as an emphasis on two deep-lying midfielders shielding the defence and overlapping full backs in advanced positions when his team are on the attack, that characterise his tactical philosophy and could be a good fit for Beijing Guoan given that they occasionally adopted a similar system last season, with Li Ke and Chi Zhongguo capable of playing in such positions in midfield. In addition, Bilic will be pleased to find that Beijing Guoan already have a right back in the form of Wang Gang who is quick and keen to be a part of attacking moves. The recent ACL match against Melbourne Victory during which Wang got an assist for Beijing Guoan’s opening goal and nearly won a penalty by marauding down the right wing demonstrated that he has the requisite ability to be an important part of Bilic’s plans.
Throughout his managerial career Bilic has also tended to lean heavily on mercurial attacking midfielders who have free rein to attack without worrying too much about the defensive aspects of the game. This could be seen during his time as the coach of the Croatian national football team when Modric was allowed to dictate the tempo from an advanced role in the earlier stages of his international football career, as well as at West Ham when firstly Dmitri Payet and then Manuel Lanzini became the creative fulcrums in Bilic’s team. It was also apparent when Bilic was in charge at West Brom in both the Premiership and Championship, with Matheus Perreira given responsibility for being the creative outlet in the team. It led to the Portuguese midfielder getting 16 assists in the Championship, which was the most of all players from all clubs in that division during West Brom’s promotion season. For Beijing Guoan supporters accustomed to the sight of Jonathan Viera picking up the ball in midfield with the aim of shooting or creating chances for others, the news that their new coach has always found a place for players of that ilk in his team will definitely be welcomed.
Having been sacked just 4 months into his first Premier League season with West Brom, Bilic knows better than most that football is plagued by short-termism and will go into the CSL with his eyes wide open about what to expect. However, he has the ability to achieve a lot regardless of how long his reign lasts thanks to his keen eye for talented young players and willingness to give them a chance at proving their footballing ability.
The absence of Jiangsu Suning should in theory make Bilic’s job easier in his quest for Beijing Guoan’s first title since 2009 and the first of his managerial career. At one point West Brom were 7 points clear at the top of the Championship during the 2019/20 season yet somehow finished 2nd and endured a rocky end to their season, which nearly saw them having to take part in the playoffs instead of being promoted automatically. On one hand, it could hint at a lack of resolve to steer a side over the finishing line in first place, yet on the other hand it is also possible to predict that Bilic’s previous experiences with West Brom will make him stronger and more prepared for his upcoming challenge in the CSL.
Regardless of what happens, Beijing Guoan supporters have much to look forward to with their new coach this season during which he will aim to steer his new club to a title and go one better than his runners-up medal with West Brom.
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