It seems a long time ago that we arrived in China, but we have been here just three months. In three months, with international breaks in between, we are learning and adapting to the Chinese football and culture and at the same time, trying to implement the European idea of football, a methodology to use from the lower teams up to the First Team.
As a part of this project, we have brought 10 Spanish coaches for working with the schoolboys, from 6 to 10 years old. We have also brought coordinators to train the Chinese coaches to ensure that everybody follows the same idea, the exercises, the way to play (we aren’t talking about the system, the systems can change depending on players, it is just the idea of keeping and passing the ball being sure the kids are comfortable on the ball). Later on, if they play on another level they will have to adapt to different systems and tactics to win games, now it is more about developing the technique and the understanding of the game. The coordinators will work in the Academy, with the U-17s who will work close to the U-19s and Reserve Team. The new training ground is progressing and once it is done everybody will be together in the same facility, so the communication will be easier than it is at the moment when we are a little bit further from each other.
It seems everything is to be finished at the beginning of January, and the Wanda Group is a massive construction company so I think they will do it. But anyway, the calendar in China is totally different to the one in Europe, so we have a complicated preseason, with there being three months between the end of one year’s season on the 1 st of December and the 1st game of the new season that is usually at the beginning of March.
Final training ground facility
Training ground, work in progress (03-09-2019)
I like to do the preseason without travelling too much and also with having the majority of the new players signed, and on top of this, here in China you have to consider the weather very carefully. In the last international break some of the members of my staff couldn’t make it in time because of a typhoon passing through Shanghai which made the airport have to cancel all flights for a couple of days, so moving around the country is more complicated than in Europe.
But that is all part of the adaptation. When you go to a new team, you need to collect as much information as you can. A good manager will already know the players (it is a lot easier in the Premier League for example), you are used to following the league and you tend to know all of the players, you know the systems of every team and as a result when you go to a new team you won’t have too many surprises. You need to know the players that you want to be using and also how you will play to improve the team. Here in China, with our team, Dalian Yifang FC, we (all my staff and I) have to watch every game to ensure we have the information about every player, their best positions and also, we need to
talk with each player (via translator) to know more about them.
The team was at the bottom half of the table, and when we arrived we started doing what they often did when they did win, playing four at the back (1-4-2-3-1 my favourite system in Valencia, Liverpool or Napoli), and after some games, we identified some problems in defence and changed to playing five at the back (1-5-4-1 or 1-3-4-2-1 in attack). With the right players in the right positions we now have more balance, but we still need to improve the support to Rondón, we need people that can link with him or at least, we need to work on that with our players.
There are some details you need to know. The keeper has to be Chinese and the defenders are Chinese too, so this is the most difficult part to improve because of our difficulty with communication and coordinating as a result. In the middle of the pitch we have Hamsik who used to play for us at Napoli, so knows what we want; Carrasco as a winger gives us a lot of quality on the ball and can pass well players, something which is difficult to find in modern football. Up front, Rondón and Boateng know exactly what we want, so, we are able to score more goals than in the past, yet we continue to concede goals that we must learn to avoid, but I’m sure we will find the balance. As with anywhere, it is difficult to find the Chinese players to fit into our system on the market, so, we extended the contracts of some of our younger players and are spending a lot of time working with them, individually and in groups. We show them videos of the training sessions and games and repeat movements and techniques over and over. The most important thing is that we try to explain to them why something may go wrong or may have gone wrong, we ask them why, to improve them as players. We use to work with a line of five or a line of four defenders; we practice with both systems just to be sure they can play any of them. I have to say, these young players are very keen to learn and they work very hard every single day.
In terms of the preseason, in Europe you have 6 weeks of hard work before the first official match, in China, you have three months before the start, so you have to divide the time into blocks: at the beginning, 15 days in China, then around one week holidays in January for the New Chinese Year. Afterwards, we will have one month in Europe to ensure the weather conditions are right as in Dalian it is very cold during these months and also very windy so we’ll go to Spain for a training camp before returning to China one week before our first game, to avoid problems with ‘jet lag’. It is totally different to our preseasons in Ireland, Switzerland or Germany with European teams.
Patience is the key word in China, you have to adapt to another way of doing things. There are obvious improvements already but we are still adjusting to the organization structure, bringing in new people without forgetting the Chinese staff who will be crucial for the success of the project in the future. Every day is busy, we have created a Scouting Department to collect as much information as possible before making any new signings, and are already working on the next season through looking for players and also for more staff to continue doing things in a professional way.
Last week was the 70 th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China, it was a big demonstration of the power and the potential of this country, there were more than 100,000 people and I read one comment in the Spanish press about the perfect coordination of the soldiers during the parade. Can you image this energy being and skills ‘football orientated’? We could be talking about one of the biggest nations in world football and they want to manage it for 2030 and the World Cup, that is one of the reasons why investing in coaches and methodology is so important for the Chinese Football Federation.
Whilst I’m writing this lines we have a day off to relax after a busy week with double training sessions every day and the staff will share time together to keep up a good spirit. I also obviously like to follow the European Football, here for example, you can watch the German Bundesliga on the TV, and we also have access to the other leagues. I was happy to see Neymar making a difference for PSG with his ability and pace when they beat Angers, with his goal being the final one. And, I was even happier to see Pepe (Reina) saving a penalty in the last minute to secure three points for his team AC Milan against Genoa.
Obviously I follow some of ‘my teams’. It was a strange decision for Valencia to change the coach, my friend, Marcelino, but I was happy regardless to see them wining 2-1 against Deportivo Alavés. Another one of my ex-players, Eden Hazard, scored for Real Madrid, he is a great player who can make the difference in any game.
My main interest is the Premier League, so I always try to watch some games whenever I can. It is difficult to explain what happened at Tottenham, but I’m sure they will do better throughout the season. Norwich against Aston Villa left a great goal from Hourihane, like the second goal of Connolly for Brighton against Tottenham. Ayoze gave an assist to Maddison to score against Liverpool but it wasn’t enough to stop them and Liverpool’s goal in the last minute gave them the perfect start in terms of points. Congratulations.
David Luiz went to Arsenal to improve the defence and is helping them gain points with his ability to score goals; I’m sure Emery will be happy with that. We don’t need to talk about systems or style of football, but it can be seen that Manchester City and Manchester United had the possession in their respective games while Wolves and Newcastle United were the ones who went away with the points. So, that opens a debate on how important possession is, or whether it is more beneficial to have a good game plan and counterattack to maximise what you have at your disposal.
I was really pleased to see Matty Longstaff scoring the winning goal for Newcastle; he was great when he was training with us and it was a good decision from Steve Bruce to make him play. I was also happy to see a few Geordies playing together at the same time; Carroll, Sean and Matty; surely it shouldn’t be difficult to see the benefits of investing in the Academy? £4m every year for 10 years means £40 m (one player); one ‘Longstaff’ every year for ten years seems good business to me.
It you look at the table Liverpool has a great advantage at the moment, it is too early to tell much from that, but Manchester City can’t make too many mistakes or the pressure might become too much. Especially as later they will start thinking about the Champions League and lose their focus on the Premier League which obviously would be good for Liverpool.
Now, for us, there is some time to train and to improve the team during the international break to make sure we are ready for our next two games in Shanghai. At the same time, we have to continue with the project to create a structure that can develop and improve Chinese players for the future without forgetting about the present.