China have been a pleasant surprise of the 2015 Asian Cup.
After scraping through qualifying (finishing as the best third-placed team of the qualifying groups only on goal difference) they have now recorded three wins over Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and North Korea. It’s a welcome change of fortune for a team often criticised for not achieving more success given the size of their population.
There are, obviously, more factors in determining a team’s quality than their population, and more pertinent in regards to the improvement of the national team has been the growth of the Chinese Super League. Backed by extremely wealthy owners, teams like Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai East have been able to attract high-profile coaches and players which have helped improve the quality of the league.
Tellingly, China’s entire squad for this tournament is entirely domestically-based. while Guangzhou, under the leadership of Italian World Cup winner Marcelo Lippi, won the 2013 Asian Champions League.
Lippi was actually the original first choice when China sacked Jose Antonio Camacho in June 2013 after a shock 5-1 defeat to Thailand. After a long, drawn-out recruitment process, however, Alain Perrin was eventually appointed. An experienced but still underwhelming appointment, Perrin has nevertheless done an impressive job in just twelve months in charge. Wins over Paraguay and Thailand (important given the 5-1 defeat under Camacho a year earlier) have increased his popularity.
China use a 4-3-3 formation, although the flexibility of the midfield triangle means they can play with one or two holding midfielders. The distinguishing feature of their performances at this Asian Cup has been their flexibility – they’re capable of building up through possession play, or going more direct. Perrin hasn’t had a defined starting eleven, either, and has a number of versatile players in his squad.
Building up from the back
China like to build up play from the back. When the goalkeeper, Wang Dalei, has the ball, the centre-backs split wide and the full-backs get high and close to the touchline. Dalei is comfortable with the ball at his feet and like Australia’s Mat Ryan, is able to chip passes over the top to the full-backs. Dalei is also accurate with longer kicks, sometimes looking to drop-kick balls towards the central striker, Gao Lin.
Zheng Zhi, who plays at the base of midfield, drops in between the two centre-backs to create a temporary back three, and provide another passing option. Zhi, the oldest player in the squad by five years, is an excellent distributor, and knocks intelligent sideways balls towards the flanks.
The main instigator of penetrative forward passes is right-sided centre-back Zhang Linpeng. Described by Lippi as ‘Guangzhou’s Sergio Ramos’, he carries the ball forward from deep positions and looks to draw opposition midfielders towards him. That creates space in between the lines that he looks to pass into, often attempting long vertical passes towards Gao Lin. This helps China progress attacks upfield, and Linpeng’s ability to bypass the midfield zone with a forward pass from the back makes him very dangerous in possession.
Back four – defensively
Next to Linpeng at the back is Ren Hang, a versatile defender who has been a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup after the shock omission of Linpeng’s centre-back partner at Guangzhou Evergrande, Feng Xiaoting. Hang tends to defend rather proactively, looking to dart in front of attackers and intercept passes before they are played into feet. This means Hang (and to a lesser extent, Linpeng) can sometimes be drawn out of the defence, creating an unorganised back four.
When defending, China’s full-backs tuck in very narrow. Against Uzbekistan, Perrin made the surprise decision to use a pseudo-back five, with right-winger Zhang Chendong instructed to track back into very deep positions, following Uzbekistan’s attacking left-back, Vitaliy Denisov, as he moved upfield.
That allowed right-back Mei Fang to move very narrow, essentially man-marking Uzbekistan’s left-winger, Serger Djeparov, into narrow positions. As Djeparov wanted to move infield into pockets of space, Fang often ended up in very central positions, which meant it was important for Chendong to follow Denisov all the way.
Against North Korea, Chendong played right-back, where he becomes an attacking player, charging forward on the overlap past Sun Ke. This has been Perrin’s preferred format in games where his side must take the initative against inferior opponents, so it seems likely against a strong Australia side he will opt for Chendong as a right-winger.
Furthermore, as Australia, like Uzbekistan, also play with a narrow winger and an overlapping left-back, it is feasible that Perrin might revert to this pseudo-back five. It was evident against Uzbekistan that Chendong’s deep positioning created space for their left-sided centre-back to carry the ball forward, as there was often a large gap between Chendong and China’s right-sided central midfielder.
If this situation arose in the quarter-final, it would create space for Australia’s left-sided centre-back to push forward. Matthew Spiranovic is suspended, with Alex Wilkinson undoubtedly starting in his place. Wilkinson always plays on the right-hand side of the defence, and when he partnered Trent Sainsbury in a friendly against the UAE last year he played on the right. Therefore, although Sainsbury has played on the right at this tournament, it is fair to assume he will switch to the left.
This may prove important, as Sainsbury is more aggressive with the ball compared to Wilkinson, and will carry it forward in possession if there is space. If Perrin plays the pseudo-back five, Sainsbury will benefit.
Even in the regular 4-3-3, China’s wingers always play very disciplined roles, tracking their opposing wingers into very deep positions.
Crossing from left-back
When China win the ball, they are not concerned with attacking immediately, and are happy to retain the ball as they look to shift into their attacking positions. With Zheng Zhi distributing from the base of midfield, they predominantly play down the flanks.
Key to this is left-back Zhipeng Jiang, who plays very high up in the space created by the left-winger, who, whether it be Sun Ke or Yu Hai, drifts inside. Jiang’s advanced positioning caused real problems in the group stage, as he positions himself about twenty metres inside the opposition half – free to receive crossfield passes in a position facing goal, ready to swing in a cross. He completed more passes than any other player and has created two goals (against Uzbekistan and North Korea) with his delivery. According to Mads Davidsen, he is the player who attempted the most forward passes for Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League last season.
This is China’s primary source of chances. The two advanced midfielders always look to get into the box when Jiang sends balls in, so along with Gao Lin, the striker, they always have numbers inside the penalty area to attack the cross and any resulting loose ball. This is best evidenced by Wu Xi (a box-to-box midfielder) who charged forward from midfield to tap home from Gao Lin’s bizarre, attempted bicycle-kick assist against Uzbekistan. Unsurprisingly, it was Jiang who provided the initial cross into the box.
Meanwhile, Perrin’s main selection dilemma is at the tip of his midfield triangle, where the ‘Chinese Maradona’, Wu Lei, has failed to impress. A quick, purposeful dribbler, he charges forward from a deep position to score goals, but has found it difficult to find space in this tournament. Instead, Hao Junmin who came off the bench against Uzbeks and started against North Korea, may play instead. Yu Hai is another option, although he normally starts out wide (and even played upfront as a false nine against Saudi Arabia).
Upfront, Gao Lin has started the last two games. He has a good first touch and holds the ball up well, often looking to lay off vertical passes from Linpeng towards the advanced midfielders. He’s yet to score, but occupies defenders and creates space for others.
Expectations for China before this tournament were low, but Perrin has done a good job creating a strong, balanced team with a variety of attacking threats. Both wingers are quick, mobile attackers, while the two advanced midfielders always look to get forward and attack crosses. They commit a surprising number of players forward, but Perrin may be wary of Australia’s attacking threat, and play more cautiously.
Inevitably, Ange Postecoglou’s side will dominate possession. This will, in all likelihood, become a test of China’s ability to defend for long periods.