AVB's Shanghai SIPG need defensive rebuild after falling short for major title
For Andre Villas-Boas and his side, the 2017 season will be remembered with a tinge of regret. Having threatened to earn success on three fronts, including beating main rivals Guangzhou Evergrande on three separate occasions in the space of a month, their season's hopes of silverware now hinge solely upon next month's CFA Cup final clash with city rivals Shenhua.
On Wednesday night, in the bowels of Saitama Stadium, their dream of becoming the second Chinese side to triumph in the AFC Champions League was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of Japanese side Urawa Reds. For much of the 180 minutes, SIPG were more than a match for their opponents but in the end Urawa's defence held firm as their opponents' cracked.
Much had understandably been expected of SIPG this season, with another big name manager at the helm to replace Sven-Goran Eriksson and much money spent to recruit star names Hulk, Oscar, Elkeson and Odil Ahmedov.
At times, their attacking play has been scintillating but it was at the other end of the pitch where the club ultimately fell short when it truly mattered. In the previous round of the Champions League, despite a 4-0 home leg lead over Evergrande, the Shanghai side were forced to rely on penalties to advance after shipping five goals at Tianhe Stadium.
Neither Evergrande nor SIPG were as solid defensively this year as they would have wished, conceding 36 and 32 goals respectively in their 27 league games to date. Yet, as they have so often in recent years, the six-time champions found ways to win key league games when their backs were against the wall.
Anything other than an SIPG win this weekend will now see their seventh straight title confirmed with games to spare. Villas-Boas' side ultimately drew too many winnable games (seven).
With three players in double figures for league goals, no team has been able to match SIPG's firepower (2.4 goals/game) -- as is perhaps to be expected given the stellar cast of attacking talent they possess. Chinese winger Wu Lei leads the way for the club with 19 goals -- 11 more than any domestic rival-yet it was still not enough for the Shanghai side to clinch either of the trophies they craved the most.
Attention will fall upon Villas-Boas and his disciplinary record in particular, with the Portuguese recently suspended for eight games for abusing a match official -- his second touchline ban of the campaign. At crucial stages of the season the side have been without their coach as the CFA continues their tough stance on perceived ill-discipline.
Fans will also point to the suspension of Oscar for eight games earlier in the campaign as another example of how disciplinary proceedings have hampered the side's title challenge. The Brazilian earned a surprisingly lengthy ban for starting a confrontation in a fixture with Guangzhou R&F by kicking the ball at an opponent, but the truth is that every side in the league has fallen foul of the CFA's disciplinary panel to some extent.
Villas-Boas' inability to stay calm in victory over Beijing Guoan, while costly long-term, was ultimately not the reason the league title was lost.
SIPG have not been able to rectify their troubles on the road, losing four out of six away fixtures in the AFC Champions League. In league action just five of 14 away games have been won as opposed to 11 wins out of 13 when back at Shanghai Stadium. While the distances involved in both Chinese and Asian football mean away difficulties may be exaggerated, it is clearly an area SIPG must improve if they are to secure silverware next season.
Only four sides have conceded more shots per game (14) than SIPG have in the CSL this campaign. Away from home that number rises to 16.2, perhaps the greatest indication of why they have struggled on their travels.
In all, they have conceded on 21 occasions in 14 away league games. For all the investment the club has made in recent seasons, their Chinese defensive core is simply not of the strength of their rivals. It is something Villas-Boas, if given the chance, must fix in the off-season.
That is now the big question. Luiz Felipe Scolari will leave Guangzhou Evergrande next month despite another title success to his name, while Eriksson was let go by SIPG despite qualifying for the AFC Champions League in consecutive seasons. Villas-Boas has undoubtedly taken the side closer to titles than ever before this year, but has spent considerable sums to do so and landed himself in disciplinary action on multiple occasions. He will almost certainly be given time to take another shot at bringing major silverware to SIPG, however, patience will not be limitless.
As a club, SIPG are determined to be both the best in China and in Asia, with this year a real opportunity to achieve both aims with Guangzhou Evergrande falling short of previous standards. With a new stadium on the way they are a club on the rise and will likely start the 2018 season as title favourites. Off-season defensive recruitment will determine whether that dream can indeed become a reality or not.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.