It has been a very interesting and…… chaotic off-season in China shall we say. Following club name changes, team relocations, 2020 CSL champions Jiangsu FC disappearing from existence and a mass exodus of foreign signings, theres not much that hasn’t happen in the leagues 6 month hiatus.
Despite all of this ‘excitement’ and instability, the CSL is poised to return tomorrow and hopes to showcase itself as one of the best leagues in Asia, with it’s big name players, national stars and managerial appointments.
Unlike other seasons, there has not been any ‘big name’ signings coming into the league for this 2021 season. With most clubs choosing to strengthen in areas where they lack, looking to Chinese veterans, upcoming youth talent and experienced players from Europe and South America. There has also been rule changes to the league, with CFA (Chinese Football Association) imposing a salary cap on players wages and clubs wages. Clubs are are capped at ¥600 million (£3,975,600) on wages, whereas player wages are capped at ¥5 million for Chinese players and ¥3 million for foreign players.
In 2020 we saw the CSL have to change it’s format due to covid-19 and this season is no different for the time being. The league will be split into two seperate groups or ‘bubbles’, with half the league playing matches in Guangzhou and the other half playing matches in Suzhou for 14 games. It is not known how the league will look after these games, but this will hopefully be explained in the near the future. Unlike previous years, there will be no direct relegation to China League One due to upcoming expansion and will instead feature a relegation playoff, with third and fourth place teams in League One vying for a place in the top division.
But enough chit chat, let’s get to the clubs for this 2021 CSL season!
During the off-season Guoan have brought in a high profile name in the form of ex- West Brom and West Ham manager Slaven Bilic. This managerial change should come as a positive to the club, given their inability to live up to the expectations placed on them last year. Despite reaching the semi-final of the championship stage, the Imperial Guards looked shakey in defence, conceding 27 goals across the season. With Bilic coming into the fold and notoroiously being a manager who looks to be compact defensively, break on the counter and start an attack from his backline, it shoudl hoepfully solve Guoans defensive issues.
But despite the good bit of business on a managerial front, the team did not bring in any signings during the winter period and may be found guilty of becoming stagnant. Particularly given that teams around them and at a similar level have strengthened across the board. On the plus side however, they haven’t lost any of their key players from last year and are relativley unchanged, which is a rare commodity in modern day football, particularly in Chinese Super League. Unfortunately though, their Brazilian forward Renato Augusto, who has 35 goals in 122 appearances for the capital side, will be unavaliable for some time. This is due to covid restrictions preventing Augusto from entering the country.
Cangzhou Mighty Lions
A phoneix rising from the ashes? We will let the 2021 season be the judge of that.
Circumstances have completely changed for Shijiazhuang Everbright, who were due to be relegated to China League One following their loss in the relegation stage of the 2020 season. However, a series of fortuanate events have allowed the club to maintain it’s top flight status. It only cost them a re-brand, re-location and demise of Jiangsu in the offseason. So say goodbye to Shijiazhuang Everbright and hello to Cangzhou Mighty Lions.
Despite their near relegation last season, Cangzhou were quite a good side for a large part of the year, but fell foul to the leagues unusual system which nearly cost them their place in the topflight. So my hope is that Cangzhou can use this second chance to show how good they can be and why they could be a side to keep an eye on this upcoming season.
Despite the negatives of relocating and renaming, it has allowed some positives too. They have recieved backing and investment from the local government which has allowed them to be very busy in the transfer market. Cuangzhou have brought three players from free agency, all from the former CSL Champions, Jiangsu. They have picked up wingers Luo Jing, Xie Pengfe and 23 year old full back, Abduhamit Abdugheni. For those that follow MLS (Major League Soccer) like I do, then Norwegian international and striker Adama Diomande should ring a bell for you. That’s because he played for Hull City for three years, prior to joining LAFC, where he had an impressive 20 goals in 44 appearances.
So given that Cangzhou have strengthened defensively with former champions players and a goal poachers in Diomande, things are certainly looking up for the Hebei side and this rebuild looks to be a positive one.
After a two year abscence in League One, Changchun Yatai have returned to the Chinese Super League in 2021 following promotion. An impressive performance during the regular season and equally impressive performance during the playoffs, saw the club verify it’s place in top flight once again. Chinese striker, Tan Long being the key man for the club that season, scoring 10 goals in 10 games.
Despite his impressive form however, the club have made the decision to bring in more attacking talent for this upcoming 2021 season and has looked abroad to do that. K League fans would or should know the name of former Ulsan Hyundai striker, Junior Negrao, who won the golden boot prior to his departure to China, scoring 26 goals in a covid hit season.
Last year Changchun’s defence was stalwart, conceding seven times in 15 games. They have managed to keep ahold of most of their back line for this 2021 season, which is a huge bonus to them as they look to readjust to life in the topflight. And with the additions in attack, particularly that of Junior Negrao, Yatai could be a very exciting side to watch this year and pssible dark horse.
Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic
Despite a positive and surprising campaign last year, Chongqing will be fortunate to replicate the same success this season. During the winter period, there were alot of departures from the club, including key man, Adrian Mierzejewski, who was one of the leagues best players in attacking midfield and will be a huge loss for them. Particualry due to him joining fellow CSL side Shanghai Shenhua on loan.
As well as Mierzejewski, they have lost three other starting regulars in the form of forward Alan Kardec, Dilmurat Mawlanniyaz and centre-back Mincheng Yuan.
But despite these losses, Chongqing have brought in a fantastic signing in Brazilian Miler Bolanos, who joins from Shanghai Shenhua. He only played 4 times last year, but scored 3 times and is sure to be a great acquistion.
With Rafa Benitez leaving in January and a poor season last year that almost saw them relegated, 2021 looks set to be a difficult year for Dalian.
Jose Gonzalez, formly manager at Wuhan, has taken over the side. But fans won’t be feeling inspired or motivated by this appointment, given the fact that Gonzalez had an poor spell at Wuhan, where the team won 6, drew 5, lost 9 and conceded 22 goals.
As well as losing Rafa Benitez, Dalian has also lost key players such as Marek Hamsik to IFK Goteborg and Salomon Rondon to CSKA Moscow on loan.
With all the outgoings and none coming in, it’s hard to see Pro doing well. However, Dalian do still have a relatively talented young squad, with players such as defender, Tong Lei, winger Lin Liangming who was part of Real Madrid’s youth team and B side and 21 year old Wang Zhen’ao. 24 year old striker, Emmanuel Boateng could be the teams saving grace, should he find form and hit the back of the net. The Ghanaian has 10 goals in 28 appearances for Dalain.
A club which undoubtedly has to be considered the favourites to win the league and have won the league 8 times and finished runners up twice since the CSL’s formation in 2004. Guangzhou as they are now called (Formally Guangzhou Evergrande) were in fine form throughout 2020 and expecting to win back to back titles, until Jiangsu Suning causing an upset in the final to steal the title from the esteemed champions.
With Jiangsu no longer an exisitng club, Guangzhou have a very strong chance to claim the 2021 champions title. With only Shandong Taishan and Shanghai Port (Formerly Shanghai SIPG) looking to spoil the party.
Guangzhou are a team with incredible talent and array of players, from CSL veterans, upcoming young talent, big name signings and experienced foreign players to make them the powerhouse of China. Despite covid restrcitions preventing Paulinho and Talisca from entering into the country, Guangzhou have enough about them to cope without the Brazilians for the time being and should find themselves bolstered once they rejoin the team.
Guangzhou City (Formerly Guanghzou R&F) are a side which have poor for many years now in the Chinese Super League. They remind me almost of my English team Sunderland when they were in the premier league, in the sense we would be awful every season and in a relegation battle, only to find form and goals when it mattered. Until eventually it caught up to us. Guangzhou City are very much the same, with an abysmal defence which has been one of the worst out of all teams for some time. The only reason they have avoided the drop is due to their ability to pull goals out of nowhere and outscore their opponent. But this again, can only last so long.
Guangzhou City have brought in Jean-Paul van Gastel to manage the helm this season and he has already looked to rectify and solve some of the issues with the club during the winter period. Without a doubt, 34 year old defensive midfielder and Sweden international Gustav Svensson from Seattle Sounders, looks to be the best bit of business theyve done during the off season. They have also brought in former Bejing Renhe striker Tiago Leonco, who had 8 goals in 17 appearances during his loan spell at Renhe and also 20 goals in 35 appearances for Guangzhou’s satellite team which were based in Hong Kong, R&F.
Despite the positive acquisitions, Guangzhou City will be missing Israeli forward Eran Zahavi who scored a hopping 91 goals in 106 games for City during 2016-2020. He has since joined Eredivisie side, PSV Eindhoven.
Another side with a name change, previously Hebei China Fortune, the side have changed their name to Hebei FC for this upcoming 2021 season. They were a dark horse last year, quietly going about their business, not looking like a contender for the Championship stage before nabbing a spot.
Whilst not being overly active in the offseason in terms of incomings, there have been a few outgoings. Namely the likes of Sierre Leone international Mohamed Buya Turay, who had 5 goals in 16 appearances before leaving to Henan. But also loanee attacking midfielder Ricardo Goulart who has returned to his parent club Guangzhou.
Despite these losses, those familar with K League will recognise the name Kim Jong-boo who is a Korean coach which previously managed Gyeongnam FC before swapping Korea for China. They also have strong squad which is made up of veterans, experienced foreign players and youth which will allow them to have a relatively good season.
Henan Songshan Longmen
Whilst there were teams which did incredible last year, there are those that were incredibly poor and difficult to watch and unfortunately Henan were ones of those teams. The side very narrowly avoided the drop to League One due to Spaniard Javier Pereira taking over just in the nick of time. They also had Croatian Toni Sunjic who was on loan from Beijing Guaon, that reignited the defensive line to become ‘almost’ impenetrable towards the end of the season.
In some smart buisness, Henan acquired Sunjic from his parent club permanently and have hoped to build the squad around his defensive presence by signing full-back Dilmurat Mawlanyaz from Chongqing.
As well as defence, they have sured up in attack, bringing in striker Mohamed Buya Turay from Hebei, who had 5 goals in 16 appearances.
With these acquisitions, holidng onto their core team and keeping Pereira in charge, Henan certainly look to be in a better position than they were last year. Likely to finish lower midtable.
Qingdao had a very mixed 2020 season, starting off very well before having an abysmal run of form towards the end which almost ended in them being relegated to China League One. Given that poor form and startlingly end to the season, you would have imagined that Qingdao would have looked to have strengthened in certain areas. However the side have had a quiet offseason and transfer market. Despite this though they have brought in Fredril Ulvestad, who is a defensive midfielder with plenty of experience in Europe, playing for the likes of Aalesund, Burnley, Charlton and lastly Djurgardens IF
Ultimately, I feel that Qingdao will struggle this year. Other teams around them who would normally be considered relegation contenders have strengthened, whereas Qingdao have stagnated and don’t look be anything spectacular.
Shandong Taishan are side which are known for having some fantastic foreign talent as well as developing their own. The likes of ex- Man United and Everton midfielder Marourane Fellaini, Moises and Rodger Guedes, with the latter two currently unable to get into the country due to covid restrcitions.
Over recent years, Shandong have proven to be a team which can contend with top teams such as Guangzhou and Shanghai Port. Whilst they have lost former manager, Li Xiaopeng, they have called upon Hao Wei who was Li’s assistant to take the helm for the time. Despite this being his first time in charge of a club, Wei has experience as assistant manager at various clubs over the last 14 years. Already into his tenure, he has made a fantastic signing in Son Jun-Ho from K League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai. Jun-ho won the 2020 K League 1 MVP award. and was a ever present figure in their midfield. They have also added Shi Ke who is one of the CSL’s best defenders, he had 127 appearances for Shanghai SIPG.
Securing an ACL spot has to be their main goal, but I feel that Taishan have enough about them to challenge the likes of Guanghzou and Shanghai for the title.
Shenhua had a solid 2020 season despite their relativley slow start, shocking some to qualify for the championship stage. They’ve had the CSL elude them so far since the CSL’s formation in 2004, however they have won the Chinese FA Cup 5 times, with the latest in 2019. They have also won the Chinese Super Cup 3 times and the previous top flight Chinese league, Jia-A, 3 times.
Whilst their offseason and transfer business has been a good one, its argubably been a confusing one, with the club looking to aging players and CSL veterans, rather than youth talent. The club already have one of the oldest squads in the league, so it is a questionable strategy and possible gamble that Shenhua are trying to play. The team they have now is a strong side which should sit comfortably in the top half of the league, but in terms of future planning, the club needs to change its ethos.
Adrian Mierzejewski despite his age, is a great acquistion for Shenhua but is only on loan from Chongqing for the season. They also snapped up CSL veteran and former Jiangsu Suning player Wu Xi on a free.
Formerly Shanghai SIPG, they like many other clubs this year have seen a name change during the winter period. They also saw key players in the form of Hulk Paraiba leave during the offseason to return to his home country, Brazil. During his time in Shanghai he scored 51 times in 100 games, using his brute strength to shrug off defenders or hold the ball up to involve teammates around him. Their other loss is defender Shi Ke, who has moved to fellow title rivals in Shandong Taishan (Shandong Luneng)
Despite these losses, Port have enough talent and experience to be a serious contender for the title. They have the likes of Oscar (Formly at Chelsea), Australian Aaron Mooy and controversial forward Marko Arnautovic.
2018 was the last time Shanghai Port lifted the league trophy and will be looking to challenge Guangzhou to the prestigious title.
Shenzhen are a team which are on the up. Not long ago they were dwelling in China League One, where they had been since 2012 until they achieved promotion to CSL in 2018. A large part of this success is due their hard work in developing their current squad, utilising young players and making use of their finances to bring in big attacking talent. Such talent they have brought in for this 2021 season is super striker Alan Kardec from Chongqing Lifan and Juan Quintero from River Plate. They also gained great acquisitions from free agency in former Jiangsu player Muburak Wakaso and Ghanaian Frank Acheampong formly at Tianjin TEDA
Despite a slow start to the 2020 season, Shenzhen began to clinch results with part of that success being due to Jordi Cruyff taking over as manager towards the end of the year. Jordi Cruyff is a name known by alot who follow Chinese Super League, particualry when he was at Chongqing. Once Cruyff came into the scene, Shenzhen picked up some amazing form and looked to cause upsets. I would expect something similar this season and for them top finish towards the top of the table.
Tianjin Jinmen Tigers
Like many clubs in Chinese Super League, Tianjin were very close to joining the likes of champions Jiangsu Suning in being erased. Despite Tianjin TEDA Co withdrawing their investment in the club, Tianjin were able to find enough investment from elsewhere to remain afloat (barely) for this 2021 season.
Despite just hanging onto their clubs existence, it does not look good for Tianjin whatsoever. Without the same financial backing they had before, the Tigers have not been able to bring in signings during the offseason. Despite money certainly being a key aspect, the fact that there was so much uncertainity of the club existing that it meant a huge exodus of players going out the door and no one wanting to join. Tianjin have barely got a squad to field as it is and those that are left would have to pull off something sensational to stop them being relegated this season.
With Jose Gonzalez at the helm, 2020 was a year for Wuhan to forget and that’s before we even mention football.
Despite their shortcomings, Wuhan have done a fantatsic bit of business in bringing in Li Xiaopeng as manager. Formly a footballer himself, he played as a midfielder for Shandong Luneng where he stayed for his entire career, playing 217 times and scoring 42 goals. He was also capped for China, playing 39 times between 2000-2004. Once he finished his playing career, he managed the China’s national team for the women and had a stint at Qingdao Jonoon, before being offered the job at Shandong Luneng. It was here that he developed Shandong into a title contending side.
With Li taking over at Wuhan, there is positivity and vibrance within the club which has been missing for some time. Li has gotten straight to work in improving the squad, off-loading players who are no longer required, looking to the free agents market as well as smart loan singings. Wuhan have brought in Yang Boyu on a free transfer following Jiangsu’s collapse and Stephane Mbia who was on loan to Wuhan in 2019. With these acquisitions, Wuhan have looked to solidify the defence, which was a concern last year.
Similarly to other teams in the league, Wuhan have been affected by the covid regulations in place in the country which is currently preventing a lot of players joining back up with their respective clubs. Leo Baptistao and Rafael Silva are currently part of that contingent. So with this, Wuhan may be looking to new Martinique signing Yoann Arquin to deliver the goods as well as striker Everand Kouassi.
How to watch
The coverage of Chinese Super League isn’t great in the UK, with skysports occasionally (and i use the term occasionally very loosely) showing some games on TV. This is the same for the likes of Premiersports and Freesports as well, where there will occasionally be game on.
Usually the likes of bet365 can be a saving grace to watch some Asian football, but not in this instance.
So if you want to keep with Chinese Super League you’ll have to search on google I’m afraid or follow @wildeastfootbal on twitter who provide up to date news and articles on CSL and Chinese football in English
Name changes for 2021
• Guangzhou R&F changed their name to Guangzhou City
• Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao changed their name Guangzhou
• Shandong Luneng Taishan changed their to Shandong Taishan
• Shanghai SIPG changed their name to Shanghai Port
• Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC moved to Cangzhou and changed their name to Cangzhou Mighty Lions
• Tianjin TEDA changed their name to Tianjin Jinmen Tiger
• Qingdao Huanghai changed their name to Qingdao
• Shanghai Greenland Shenhua changed their name to Shanghai Shenhua
• Hebei China Fortune changed their name to Hebei
• Wuhan Zall changed their name to Wuhan
• Henan Jianye changed their name to Henan Songshan Longmen
• Chongqing Dangdai Lifan changed their name to Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic
• Beijing Sinobo Guoan changed their name to Beijing Guoan