China has always had to endure criticism about why it hasn’t produced more footballers given the size of its population. They’re nowhere near being an elite international side yet, but they’re taking crucial small steps forward in developing both the national team, and the domestic league.
The Chinese Super League, bankrolled by some of China’s richest, is becoming increasingly popular in the face of traditional Chinese support for European competitions. The success of Guangzhou Evergrande, in particular, in winning the Asian Champions League in 2012, was symbolic of the improvements, in terms of the quality of the teams, the players (including the two high profile Italians, Gilardino and Diamanti) and the coaches. Tellingly, every player in this squad is locally based.
The Chinese FA originally wanted Guangzhou coach Marcelo Lippi to take over at the start of 2014. The ongoing ‘will he, won’t he?’ saga raised expectations probably a little too much, so that when Frenchman Alain Perrin was appointed, there was a sense of disappointment.
That early dissatisfaction was dispelled somewhat when he lead the side to a 5-1 win over Thailand. It might not sound like much, but a defeat to the same side a year earlier had been held up as China’s nadir – their lowest point. Since then, Perrin has evolved the side tactically and found a good balance, so that although China are still somewhat short of the quality required to seriously challenge for the Cup, they’re still a good side capable of springing an upset in the group stage.
China’s tactical approach goes back to the appointment of Jose Camacho after the 2011 Asian Cup (where they were knocked out of the group stage). Camacho’s job was very obviously long-term. “Compared with our neighbours Japan and South Korea,” he said in the weeks after first taking over, “Chinese football is lagging far behind, we need to work with a long-term view and start to catch up with a pragmatic approach.”
Pragmatic meant an initial focus on the concepts of defending, but China increasingly became quite positive under Camacho – they looked to retain possession and played a short, sharp passing game. Fatally, though, they became too open, with an 8-0 defeat to Brazil particularly sobering.
Still, it was from this tactical base that Perrin has built upon, with his China side looking to play a ‘modern’ brand of football – importantly, too, they’ll be quite flexible, capable of changing it up and going direct.
At the back, Perrin is relying on a Guangzhou core, including goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, although centre-back Feng Xiaoting was a shocking omission from the final squad after heavily featuring in the Perrin reign. That seemed to signal that Ren Hang will play centre-back alongside Zheng Linpeng, although Hang normally plays left-back for his club side.
Xiaoting and Linpeng have a good partnership at Guangzhou and without the former, China seem awfully short on central defenders, especially when considering Linpeng has also played predominantly at full-back this season. Another Guangzhou defender, Mei Fang, is also an option, though he has limited experience with the national team.
In midfield, Zheng Zhi is one of the few players in this squad with European experience. He’s an excellent distributor of the ball who works it forward calmly – when they build up from the back, he’s the lynchpin through which they play through, often dropping between the centre-backs to make the side more of a 3-4-3. He’s also good at shooting from long range. Next to him will likely be Cai Huikang, an energetic defensive midfield that plays for Shanghai East Asia.
Further ahead as the #10 is another Shanghai player – Wu Lei, one of the country’s most exciting prospects with the amusing tag of the ‘Chinese Maradona’. Just 173cm tall, he’s a brilliantly quick dribbler with a knack for scoring goals from an attacking midfield position, hence the name. He drives forward purposefully on the ball towards goal, and thus, can come across as quite selfish.
“I not only have hunger but also a good nose for goal so I can usually find chances to score,” says the man himself. “I like looking for opportunities in front of the goal and beating the defenders with agility and pace to score.”
He’ll play just in behind Gao Lin, who A-League followers might be more familiar with as a right-winger when the Mariners and Wanderers played Guangzhou in the Asian Champions League. Another quick, direct forward, he makes runs in behind and is dangerous on the break.
In fact, China seem to be producing a lot of this type of footballer. Yu Hangchao and Sun Ke, left and right wing respectively, are in a similar mould, with Ke having impressed in the past year with his tireless running. For a Plan B, Perrin has Yang Xu, with Gao Lin switching to the right-wing.
China will look to dominate possession, but on paper, they could also be a real counter-attacking threat. They have pace and directness upfront, with the dangerous Wu Lei leading the charge, and Zheng Zhi capable of picking out the front four with raking long passes from deep. However, they’ve developed an unhealthy habit of not taking chances in recent friendlies, and finishing is an area of concern.
This is a very young side. Zheng Zhi is the only player over 30, and the bulk of the squad have little Asian Cup experience. There is one eye towards qualification for the World Cup – a long-held goal for China – and that, in reality, is probably Perrin’s focus. Encouragingly, though, this team is showing signs of ‘clicking’ already with a 4-1 win over Oman in a pre-tournament friendly, and are on a ten match unbeaten run (including four clean sheets in their past five matches).
It’s promising, too, that Perrin is able to call upon a core of Guangzhou players. Germany and Spain’s success at recent World Cups have demonstrated the importance of building a team around a successful club side. In fact, the 3-4-3 shape in possession is very reminiscent of how Guangzhou played in the ACL quarter-final against the Wanderers.
China are still somewhat short of outright quality, but this Asian Cup is another stepping stone towards long-term success.