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China League One

How Guizhou FC have had a perfect start to the season

Liaoning Shenyang Urban FC 0-1 Guizhou FC
Guizhou FC 1-0 Suzhou Dongwu
Wuhan Three Towns 0-1 Guizhou FC

Three games, three wins, nine points. It leaves Guizhou FC top of Group C in the China League One and the only team in the top two tiers of Chinese football to have collected maximum points from their opening games, which may come to the surprise of followers of Chinese football given that last season was underwhelming in terms of results, they had to play in the relegation playoff group and were not tipped to be in such a lofty position at this stage of proceedings. Although still very early in the season, upcoming fixtures against teams lower down the table and a style of football that has been effective thus far point towards the club from south west China having a much better season this time around.

Despite their struggles last season, this is a team that was underachieving under Wang Xinxin before being replaced by Chen Mao who is now in his third spell as head coach of the club. Many of the team’s players also played for the club in its previous reincarnation as Guizhou Hengfeng when they played in the Chinese Super League, including captain Lin Longchang and Zhao Hejing, so experience is in abundance and has proved to be invaluable during the opening three matches.

It is this experience that Chen has relied upon during the start of the season. The players have experience and the nous to get through a campaign with an unfussy style of football that gets points on the board. Arguably one of their standout players has been the experienced Ilhamjan Iminjan. He is comfortable in possession, feinting one way before moving in another direction and is a threat when running with the ball. Despite being 34 years old, Iminjan has a turn of pace that belies his age and has impressive close control, as seen during his goal against Suzhou Dongwu with an impressive shot unleashed from just outside the penalty area after controlling the ball with composure.

It is also clear from their opening matches that a strong camaraderie runs through the team. Defenders such as the aforementioned Lin Longchang and Zhao Hejing put their body on the line to foil attacks with desperate lunges and blocks. Substitutes leap up from the bench in protest when they feel that their teammates have been injusticed by the referee or on the end of full-bodied tackle from an opponent. This has even resulted in a scuffle on the touchline during the encounter with Wuhan Three Towns and substitute Wang Shouting receiving a yellow card despite not being on the pitch at the time and the club being warned by the CFA about its conduct following the match against Suzhou Wudong, but it also indicates a siege mentality that is often a key recipe for success in football. It brings to mind the Wimbledon side of the 1990s or Greece during Euro 2004. Both would admit to not being the best technically, but they possessed a togetherness that could help overcome any technical shortcomings.

When discussing the current frontrunners in the China League One, one aspect of their game that must be mentioned is the amount of fouls committed. In their most recent match, 33 were made by Guizhou FC, compared to 12 by Wuhan Three Towns. The main perpetrator seems to be defender Jiang Liang, who has mastered the art of adopting a bewildered expression at the referee’s decision to blow for yet another foul while outstretching his arms and pleading innocence. With two yellow cards to his name so far, Jiang risks picking up a suspension that could disrupt a defence that has been impenetrable until now.

Iminjan’s suspension for the encounter with Wuhan Three Towns due to an overzealous celebration against Suzhou Dongwu resulted in Guizhou FC adopting a more cautious approach and without an out-and-out centre forward. They took the lead after 2 minutes and promptly shut up shop, with almost no further attacks. It was a successful strategy partly due to the toothless forward forays from Wuhan Three Towns and at no point did an equaliser appear to be on the cards, even with reserve goalkeeper Wang Zhuo coming on as a substitute at half time. In the second half Guizhou FC rarely ventured out of their own half and were content to drop deep and absorb pressure. Wuhan Three Towns were unable to unlock the Guizhou FC back line with their only recourse being hopeful crosses floated into the penalty area that Wang and the rest of the Guizhou FC defence were able to deal with comfortably.

Guizhou FC have mostly used Chinese players in their opening matches, with foreign signings such as Serbian striker Stefan Mihajlovic just playing a bit-part role. His role is far from glamorous, but it proved to be effective against Wuhan Three Towns, who had pushed forward in numbers in search of the equaliser. When Guizhou FC regained possession in their own half, the ball was generally pumped forward for Mihajlovic to chase onto or hold up play, which not only resulted in Wuhan Three Towns’ players having to make defensive transitions to try and regain possession, it also consumed energy and time.

Guizhou FC’s upcoming fixtures against Heilongjiang Ice City and Beijing Institute of Technology are both against teams further down the league and provide a chance to pick up further points. With the return of Iminjan from his suspension, we may see a return to the slightly more expansive style of football that Guizhou FC played in their first two matches. These upcoming opponents have conceded 16 goals altogether so far this season, so opportunities should be there for the likes of promising young winger Ma Canjie to create goalscoring opportunities. Having been restricted to substitute appearances since his arrival at the start of the season, Mihajlovic will also be eager to get a chance to prove himself up front and score his first goal for Guizhou FC.

From what we have seen of Guizhou FC in their opening matches, it is fair to say that they do not play an aesthetically pleasing style of football and they will not win plaudits from the purists, but will supporters really care if they can keep up their current form? Upcoming matches against Heilongjiang Ice City on May 11 and Beijing Institute of Technology on May 15 are a great chance to see whether Guizhou FC can continue to set the pace in Group C and keep up their perfect start to the season.

From the professional leagues watched by a global audience to jumpers for goalposts on a Sunday morning in front of a man and his dog, Matthew has already been interested in all levels of football from a young age. He first started studying Chinese in 2012 at university and since then has been a keen observer of Chinese history, economics and sport.

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