First of all; what a night for Chinese football! China is for the first time in 10 years ready for the quarter finals in the Asian Cup. And this is after just two of the three rounds in the group stage. 6 points and massive congratulations to the players, head coach Alain Perrin and his coaching staff.
I have worked in China and the football industry here in 3 years-time now, and it’s a huge pleasure to see the development taking place in China and this year the national team go forward in the Asian Cup as well.
According to my first Asian Cup China-analysis column, Alain Perrin had done some of changes, I discussed. We saw our former player Jiang Zhipeng from Guangzhou R&F as a left full back in the game, so China again could attack in the left side as Jiang is very offensive, fast and have solid crosses.
Another positive aspect of using Jiang Zhipeng is his confidence to play the ball forward. Working with Guangzhou R&F last season, I could analyze how Jiang every game was the number one player on the pitch with most passes forward and often also with a high success rate on the passes. This can seem like a small detail, but you need players who dare to play the ball forward and not only backwards or to the side.
Jiang Zhipeng has this ability. Of all players on the pitch against Uzbekistan; Jiang had most passes (74 passes in total) and furthermore, Jiang won most balls from the opponents as well of all the Chinese players (20 in total), so a great performance. Actually Jiang did 13% of all passes from the Chinese team which shows his importance in this game (PROZONE data & stats).
Also Gao Lin came into the team, which gave Yu Hai his more natural position as a left winger, so a more offensive and ‘complete’ China-team were picked for this game, in my opinion.
And at the 1-1 goal - the change in the line-up paid off. Jiang Zhipeng pushed forward hitting a cross to Gao Lin, who very smart found Wu Xi and the Jiangsu-player scored for 1-1. If Mei Fang still had played the left full back position – my prediction is that this goal would not have happened. As I explained in the last column; the Chinese offense was not balanced and there were almost no crosses from the left side against Saudi Arabia due to a right footed center back playing as the left full back.
In the game against Uzbekistan, data from PROZONE shows the Chinese crosses were 7 from the left side and 7 from the right, so a very good balance in the attacking for China.
Great start and control
In the first 15 minutes of the game, China played some of the best football in the recent years. The team took control of the game and had 72% possession after 15 minutes putting pressure on Uzbekistan and controlling the ball on the last 3rd of the pitch. Also a good cross from Jiang Zhipeng came close to finding Wu Lei creating the first chance of the game.
In general I saw a very aggressive and well-playing Chinese team, who looked to have confidence and the braveness to play and control the game. I have the past year spoken several times to head coach Alain Perrin about these matters, and he mentioned the aggressiveness as a key point he wanted to see from his players, and this magic night in Australia it looked almost perfect.
The middle axe of the midfield with Zheng Zhi and Wu Xi was extremely strong, hard-working, but also clever and calm with the ball always finding the right tempo in the game. It’s crucial to have these midfielders that can judge and feel where the game is going and know when to play forward and when to keep possession.
A top defensive performance won the game
China was very strong defensively in this game. The shape of the defensive structure was strong; sometimes in a 4-4-1-1 and in this game in periods 4-1-4-1. Very solid in the middle and with speed in the central defense in Zhang Linpeng and Ren Hang to catch the deep runs and direct passes.
To defend is not only about keeping a ‘clean sheet’ or not. It’s about giving away as few chances as possible. And to make the chances; you give away, as difficult as possible for the opponents to score.
I often hear coaches compliment their defensive organization after a win, but if you analyze the game - the opponent might have had several good chances inside the penalty box, where 90% of all goals are scored. Is that good defending? Not in my book, because if you are depending on bad finishing from the opponent’s strikers – you are lucky, not good.
Against Uzbekistan; my stats from PROZONE, shows that China only allowed 2 shots inside the center of the penalty box. This is the area we in coach language call for ‘danger zone’ as most goals are scored in these zones. And in total Uzbekistan had only 5 shots; three inside the box and two from the distance.
That shows a strong defensive effort by China against a team, who normally are comfortable on the ball creating many chances. So the game was without doubt won in the defensive structure where everyone worked hard and all players were aggressive with the two central midfielders protecting the back 4 defense with style.
In the goal Wang Dalei had a quiet night compared to the game against Saudi Arabia, but he still showed his level a few times and it’s important to have a keeper that can be ‘unemployed’ for 75 minutes and then suddenly can make a top save. And Dalei had a few important actions; one after 17. Minutes and again after 67. Minutes. Even the goal is almost impossible for Dalei as it gets a deflection and changes height and curve, so he is not involved in the goal either.
Still room for improvement in the offense
No doubt that the team spirit, attitude and defensive organization won the game for China against Uzbekistan. The offense looked a bit sharper with Gao Lin and his flair in the attack while Yu Hai was back on his best position as a left winger, but it can still be better for China.
Wu Xi is as always brilliant to enter the area around the box and collect goal chances like at the 1-1 goal, and he had a similar situation against Saudi Arabia. Wu Lei was more involved than last game with 34 passes and the data from PROZONE also showed that Wu Lei came in better positions to receive the ball than in the game against Saudi Arabia where he struggled to find space. It is still a new position for Wu Lei, who needs time to adapt, but he is still a weapon China will need in the quarter finals even there were a few situations in the game against Uzbekistan, where Wu Lei picked the wrong decision with the ball.
As I wrote in my Asian Cup preview; the offensive key for China will be the quality and depth on the winger positions. A position where China is strong and has several options. And Alain Perrin picked the right hand, when he sent on Sun Ke, who basically ran into the pitch and scored the winning goal.
It’s a privilege for China to have some many good wingers with different skills, so it’s up to the coaches to analyze and use them in the right situations, and Perrin had a great choice with Sun Ke on this historic night for Chinese football.
China is now ready for the quarter finals next Thursday against either Australia or South Korea. No matter who – it will be a very interesting game.
The task for Perrin is now to choose what he will use the game on Sunday against North Korea for. Some coaches will play with all the reserve players to get them involved in the tournament and to rest the normal starting 11 before the quarter final. But other coaches wishes to keep momentum and wants the team shape to continue and therefore they will go 100% to win the game playing their best 11.
It’s a difficult decision and it will be interesting to see who will play on Sunday. My prediction is that Perrin will pick a mix between the regular players and bring in some new players, but still rest some of the players already done 180 minutes.