Chinese Super League kicks off with new rules impacting state of play
The 2017 Chinese Super League (CSL) enjoyed a high-octane start last weekend, with Sunday night's fixtures between Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Guoan, as well as Shanghai Shenhua against Jiangsu Suning, providing fine examples of what the CSL has to offer.
However, it was not an entirely positive start. Indeed, while the games expected to stand out lived up to their billing, there were other fixtures which suggested it could be a long season for fans of other teams.
In the wake of recent rule changes, there were initial indications that a real negative impact could be felt in terms of quality across the division.
The two standout changes for 2017 were very much in evidence on matchday one -- with only three foreign players permitted to take part in any given game, besides the need to start with one player born after Jan. 1, 1994. Early signs suggest the changes are set to have a major impact over the months ahead.
Given the cut in foreign player numbers, perhaps it is little surprise that teams with less financial resources struggled considerably first up.
Foreign talent has always been a levelling factor across the division, with every team able to start four players of generally higher level than much of the local talent on show. While the domestic market has bubbled, foreign imports were often affordable injections of quality.
However, new regulations forced coaches to pick and choose how to allocate resources. Yanbian in their dismal away 0-0 draw with Chongqing omitted arguably their best two players in a bid to strengthen their defence; Tianjin Teda used their foreign trio in the centre of defence and central midfield in a 2-0 defeat; while Liaoning claimed a 1-1 away draw on Friday night without record signing Anthony Ujah.
It is true that the changes afforded opportunity to long-suffering Chinese attacking players, who have continually played back-up to their foreign teammates over recent seasons. However, there was a marked effect on the quality on show. Chongqing against Yanbian, in particular, was a spectacle nobody would want to witness on a second occasion.
After his side's 5-1 victory over Changchun Yatai, new Shanghai SIPG coach Andre Villas-Boas was one of the few coaches to speak out.
"[Uzbekistan midfielder Odil] Ahmedov is a great player, but the new rules mean we can't use him," he told reporters.
"I am disappointed with these changes, but life goes on. We have to find a way to meet the new requirements."
For most coaches in China, silence has prevailed. The regulation changes are believed to have come from high in government and therefore caution has prevailed in terms of speaking out. However, displeasure was evident in many coaches usage of their required Under-23 player.
Of the 18 players who started across 16 teams, five failed to make the start of the second period. Liaoning were the first to act, taking off full-back Wang Qiao after 17 minutes. Villas-Boas gave midfielder Zhang Huachen just 30 minutes, while Yanbian's Under-23 starter Jin Chengjun managed just 27 minutes.
From the very first game on Friday night, when veteran Liaoning coach Ma Lin pulled Wang from the action so early, it was clear all would not go to plan with the regulations. In the words of veteran CSL journalist Zhao Zhen: "This substitution by Liaoning was really a slap in the face for the FA."
If it is a trend set to continue, with several sides so unwilling to trust their young players that they calculatedly replace them early in the match, then the new CSL rules are in danger of becoming a farce -- irrespective of the five U23 players who did manage to complete their respective fixture.
Ma attempted to defend his change during the post-match news conference, saying: "When our opponents attacked, Wang Qiao's side was a problem. So when we took the lead we took him off and it changed the game, it was proved the right call."
However, with leaks from training grounds suggesting some players are only joining the first XI for brief periods of the tactical training, it is hard to believe the early changes were not pre-planned. Despite Ma's protests, his side's opening 15 minutes were their best of the encounter.
China's need to develop local talent is clear, but the Chinese Football Association (CFA) are in danger of harming the standard of their most important competition with such regulations.
Given the lack of trust in young players, as well as results at Under-17 and Under-20 level, it is also fair to say that the issues with player development are not as simple as just lack of opportunity. They need to start producing talent worthy of playing on a more regular basis on a wider scale.
While it is great that there is desire to improve as a footballing nation, keeping the CSL at a high level is surely key to giving Chinese players the best exposure possible. Early indications suggest that, while well meaning, the new regulations may indeed have a significant downside in this regard.
Improving an entire football system is a slow process and patience is required. By rushing, China could end up doing more harm than good.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.