Choi begins Shenhua rebuilding process

Struggling Shanghai Greenland Shenhua has learnt the hard way that it makes sense investing in players who are more in tune with club's philosophy rather than betting big names.

Struggling Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, a club with a 25-year history, has learnt the hard way — that it makes sense investing in players who are more in tune with club’s philosophy and playing style rather than betting big on star power and high-profile players.

Over the years, the club has invested in several big-name managers, such as Sergio Batista, Francis Gillot and Enrique Sanchez Flores, as well as star players like Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Carlos Tevez, to name just a few. Yet Shenhua’s only domestic league title was in 1995. Its best league ranking in the past eight seasons was fourth in 2016.

Prior to its game against Hebei CFFC yesterday, the club was ranked 14th in the 16-team Chinese Super League table with 12 points — just above the relegation zone. 

With desperation setting in, it was obvious heads would roll and the club reacted by letting go of troubled Spanish manager Sanchez Flores.

South Korean Choi Kang-hee, who has CSL experience, was roped in as the new coach and promptly brought in a new striker, Kim Shin-wook. Choi is familiar with Kim from his time in the K League side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The 60-year-old Choi, who arrived with six assistants, is Shenhua’s seventh manager in five years.

Choi begins Shenhua rebuilding process
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Choi Kang-hee (second right) communicates with players during a training session at the club’s Kangqiao training base.

There were two other arrivals: former AC Milan and AS Roma winger Stephan El Shaarawy and 21-year-old defender Li Yang, who joined Shenhua on loan from Portuguese side Guimaraes Vitoria.

“We actually had foreign candidates with higher profiles than El Shaarawy,” said Zhou Jun, Shenhua’s newly appointed general manager, and who also has a long association with the club. 

Zhou was recalled after spending only 15 months at Dalian Yifang. 

“We have learned our lesson from the previous experience that big-name players are not necessarily helpful to the club. We made choices considering the team as a whole this time.”

Shenhua President Wu Xiaohui also made an appearance at Tuesday’s press conference to present the new arrivals.

“It is the first time I have attended a press conference with a heavy heart, given the current situation of the club,” Wu said. “The new coaches and players are changes made on the surface, but adjustments inside the team are also being made, including managing staff and players’ structure.”

To sack a head coach in the middle of the season is always a risky move. Shenhua has put its faith in the South Korean because of his familiarity with the CSL. Choi shot to fame in South Korea and abroad when he led Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to six K League titles and two AFC Champions League crowns during his two reigns in 2005-2011 and 2013-2018. 

In between, he took charge of the South Korean national team. He moved to China last November.

He was recruited by heavy-spending CSL side Tianjin Tianhai (previously known as Tianjin Quanjian) but he had not even made his CSL bow when the club’s main investor, Quanjian Group, was busted for illegal commercial activities at the end of last year. 

Dalian Yifang offered an escape route for the South Korean before the start of the 2019 season. But the ambitious side made headlines by luring in Spaniard Rafael Benitez, a Champions League winner with Liverpool, as head coach in the middle of the season. Benitez’s fame overshadowed the modest South Korean.

Choi begins Shenhua rebuilding process
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South Korean striker Kim Shin-wook

“It is hard to take over in the middle of a season, but I will give all that I have to help the team get over this difficult period,” Choi said. 

The new Shenhua boss said he would try to lift the club and players’ morale.

“We lost too many matches before, which affected players’ confidence. If we can perform well in one match and grab three points, it will put the team on the right track,” Choi said

Choi watched the local derby at the Shanghai Stadium last weekend. Shenhua lost 1-3 to its bitter city rival and defending champion SIPG.

“Some players showed a negative playing attitude,” Choi added. “When Odion Ighalo is back (from the African Cup of Nations), he will partner with Kim and strengthen Shenhua’s attack. Kim is a devoted player, who has been playing in the K League and will find his pace here very quickly.”

Asked how he would motivate his players to devote more time in training, the South Korean masterfully replied: “If a pathetic look on the face can make players train hard out of sympathy for me, I am willing to keep this pitiful look for a while.”

Usually, a foreign manager in China does not have much say over player recruitment but the club made an exception with Kim, a Choi recommendation.

“Kim was brought in under the advice of Choi,” said Wu Xiaohui. “It was also a way to show the club’s respect and trust toward the new manager.”

The 31-year-old striker, who will don the number 20 jersey, said he was “ready both mentally and physically.”

“I will give all I have for the new club,” said Kim. “I have worked with Choi when we won the AFC Champions League with Jeonbuk and have played against CSL teams like Beijing Guo’an and Shanghai SIPG.”

El Shaarawy was given the number 22 shirt. The 26-year-old, who holds dual Italian and Egyptian passports, was reluctant to come to China but eventually changed his mind.

“There were a lot of reasons (for the change of mind). Personally, I’m willing to take this new challenge,” said El Shaarawy. “I will use my experience to help the team. The Italian league was over by May, but I kept training though it may take me some time to get used to the new environment.”

El Shaarawy said he had “consulted” few European players who had the experience of playing in China. 

“They told me there might be some adaptation problems initially but overall, they encouraged me to come,” he said.

Choi begins Shenhua rebuilding process
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Stephan El Shaarawy (left) will wear the club’s number 22 jersey.

Kim and El Shaarawy will replace Oscar Romero of Paraguay and Colombian Fredy Guarin, and will partner captain Giovanni Moreno of Colombia and Nigerian international Ighalo for the rest of the season. 

There are 13 rounds left, and Shenhua would need at least six victories to keep itself in the top-tier league.

“Both newcomers are strikers even though our defense has been shaky as well,” said Zhou. “We discussed with Choi and agreed that draws will serve no purpose if we want to earn enough points to stay in the league. We bought new attackers and will probably use the last two domestic transfer quotas on defensive players.”

Zhou was involved in recruiting players at Shenhua and Dalian. When he spoke about the “unsuccessful experience over high-profile players,” it was obvious he was hinting at Carlos Tevez. 

The Argentine joined Shenhua at the end of 2016. But while he failed to deliver on the pitch there were also reports of poor attitude with the squad. After just one season he was back on a flight home.

Club president Wu also admitted that Sanchez Flores’ time with the club was unsuccessful. “We introduced him as a ‘revolutionary’ to bring positive changes to the club. However, we overlooked the fact that a revolutionary would need the recognition and support from others,” said Wu. 

“Sanchez Flores didn’t handle some relationships well and was too aggressive sometimes. The club also overrated the ability of its young players while being too positive about the competition in the CSL this year.”

Sanchez Flores used 14 different line-ups in the first 15 matches. 

He kept his promise of cultivating young Shenhua players by starting with three under 23 players in almost all matches. Wu said it came “at the cost of the team’s performance.”

Wu confirmed he had been in touch with Choi at the end of last year when the South Korean visited Shanghai. “I agree with Choi’s coaching theories and appreciate his personality. We will work hard together to get past this current difficult period and build Shenhua into a top team again in another two to three years,” said Wu.

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