Fishing in troubled waters: finding the best local midfielders in the Chinese Super League
The Chinese Super League, not a long time ago one of the wealthiest leagues in the world, has crashed. Excessive investment has resulted in the Chinese football bubble bursting, with the current league champions Jiangsu FC being the latest and biggest club to cease operations after another 15 outfits fell by the wayside, in just the last year across the top three divisions.
While this chaos will mark the end of the Chinese Super League as we know it, it could also represent a chance for Chinese players to grow and get into new adventures at foreign clubs. The high salaries they received until now will surely stop existing and they’ll become realistic targets for clubs from all around the world, especially considering how profitable it can be to have a Chinese player given the size of the country and its TV audience.
In this data analysis, we’ll find the best Chinese central midfielders in the Chinese Super League.
We’ve used data and statistics from Wyscout to analyze the 66 central midfielders who have played more than 400 minutes in the Chinese Super League in the last year. We’ve included both Chinese and foreign players so we can compare how the local players behave in the league.
The grey area in the graphs is the one between the 25th and 75th percentile, meaning 50% of the players fall in that area for every given metric. The thin line represents the value that leaves half of the players on each side of it.
The colours show the nationality of the players, with red being Chinese and green being foreign. The filled circles represent the players who made the final shortlist so it’s easy to spot them throughout the analysis. These players are Cui Ming’an (26, Dalian Pro), Che Shiwei (24, Tianjin Teda), He Chao (25, Guangzhou FC) and Xu Xin (26, Guangzhou FC).
As a first approach to the 66 central midfielders we have in our list, we’ll look at how much and how effectively they’re involved in both attack and defence. We’ll look at successful attacking actions per 90 (y-axis) and successful defensive actions per 90 (x-axis). With these metrics, we’ll have a good idea of how all the central midfielders affect the games.
Let’s start with the outliers. There are three household names above everyone else in terms of attacking actions: Oscar, Renato Augusto and Moussa Dembélé. The three of them are well-known very good players who still have the quality to have an impact in the top leagues. They would be the obvious choice for any team looking for a foreign attacking midfielder in the Chinese Super League.
Looking at local players, which is the goal of this analysis, the player with the most successful attacking actions per 90 is Xu Xin, a 26-year-old Chinese playing for Guangzhou FC, with 4.46 per 90. Like Dembélé, Xu Xin also contributes to the defensive phase and registers 7.49 successful defensive actions per 90. Xu Xin came through Atlético Madrid academy and at 26 it could be a good time to try his luck in Europe again. Zhou Tong (31, Wuhan FC) is also worth mentioning with 4.21 successful attacking actions per 90.
On the opposite side of the chart, we find Zheng Zi and Tim Chow as the players with the most successful defensive actions per 90 with 11.92 and 12.11 respectively. Zheng Zi (Chinese) ranks decently in attack (1.39 successful actions per 90) but the former Celtic and Charlton defensive midfielder isn’t likely to move from Guangzhou aged 40. Tim Chow (born in Wigan and with Taipese nationality) is a more realistic target for foreign clubs. At 27, he has experience in the Scottish Premiership, the Serbian SuperLiga and the EFL.
There are four players, two Chinese and two Brazilian, with a very complete profile who are in the top 25% for both successful defensive and offensive actions per 90. The two local players are Che Shiwei (24, Tianjin Teda) and Cui Ming’an (26, Dalian Pro), both on our shortlist. They have 3.27 and 2.61 successful attacking actions and 10.68 and 10.9 successful defensive actions per 90 respectively. Both are entering their peak age and look very interesting in this analysis. Fernando (29, Beijing Sinobo Guoan) and Jailson (25, Dalian Pro) are the Brazilian ones.
The remaining shortlisted player is He Chao, who ranks well in successful defensive actions per 90 with 10.65 but in the bottom 50% for the attacking ones with 1.28.
In this section of the data analysis, we’ll look at how the central midfielders contribute with goals and assists. In the next graph, we show expected goal contributions per 90 (xGC, non-penalty xG plus xA) in the y-axis and goal contributions per 90 (GC, non-penalty goals plus assists) in the x-axis. By considering not only the actual contributions but the expected ones too, we can also spot those players who are getting into good scoring positions or making good passes even if the end product isn’t the best.
There are six players here who stand out from the rest: five Brazilians and one Chinese. The Brazilians are quite well-known. Paulinho (32), now at Guangzhou FC after playing for the likes of Spurs and Barcelona, leads the race with 0.76 GC from 0.54 xGC per 90. Second, comes former Chelsea star Oscar (29), now at Shanghai Port, with 0.53 GC from 0.84 xGC per 90. Next comes Renato Augusto (33) from Beijing Sinobo Guoan, another well-known name with 33 caps for Brazil who has registered 0-43 GC from 0.44 xGC per 90. Augusto’s midfield partner Fernando (29) with 0.46 GC from 0.39 xGC also ranks very well. Last of the Brazilian quintet, and the least known as he has only played for Rijeka in Europe, is Moisés (32) with 0.38 GC from 0.39 xGC per 90.
In this elite group, we only find one local player: Xu Xin. The former Atlético Madrid man has 0.43 GC from 0.41 xGC in the last year, ranking above very well-known names like Marek Hamšík. Even if all his goal contributions came as assists, he also registers 0.05 non-penalty xG per 90, an interesting figure for a central midfielder. Xu Xin was the local player with the most successful attacking actions per 90 with 4.46 and here we have seen he does a lot of things in attack and his end product is good too.
Another interesting Chinese player when it comes to goal contributions is Cui Ming’an, already mentioned before, with 0.23 CG from 0.25 xGC, very close to Marouane Fellaini (0.23 and 0.25 too). He ranks in the top 25% both for xG (0.08) and xA (0.17) per 90 but has registered all his goal contributions in the form of assists. This is quite interesting considering he was one of the players with the most successful defensive actions per 90 with 10.9 in the previous sections of the analysis. At 26, Cui Ming’an has spent his whole career with Dalian Pro, achieving promotion to the Chinese Super League and becoming an important player in a team with no fancy superstars.
The last Chinese midfielder we’ve highlighted is Zhang Xizhe, also from Beijing Sinobo Guoan who has 0.32 GC from 0.19 xGC. He’s the second-best Chinese assists provider with 0.24 assists from 0.16 xA per 90 and also scores 0.08 goals per 90. He was already at Wolfsburg for six months in 2015 but didn’t make his Bundesliga debut and it seems unlikely that he’ll get another chance outside China at 30.
The other two shortlisted players are He Chao, who’s overperforming his 0.11 xGC with 0.22 GC per 90, and Che Shiwei, who hasn’t registered any GC from just 0.08 xGC.
One of the crucial roles of a modern midfielder, at least in the attacking phase, consists of helping his team progress and carry the ball forward. This can be done through passes or carries and we’ll look at both in this section of the analysis.
In the first graph below, we see how the midfielders progress through passes. In the x-axis, we see the number of progressive passes attempted per 90, and in the y-axis, we see the accuracy of those passes.
Two of our usual suspects are the best ones in this category: Oscar and Renato Augusto. With 16.23 and 13.19 progressive passes attempted per 90 and an accuracy of 89.45% and 93.51% respectively, both Brazilians show a fantastic vision and passing technique to get the ball forward. Another interesting foreigner is Odil Akhmedov. The ex Shanghai SIPG and now free Uzbek midfielder attempted 11.24 progressive passes per 90 and hit the target with 84.8% of them.
When it comes to Chinese players, two of the players we’ve already highlighted and included in the shortlist standout. Xu Xin is the best one again. The Guangzhou FC midfielder attempts 10.94 progressive passes per 90 and completes 88.16% of them. Slightly less accurate than Xu Xin, Cui Ming’an also ranks very well with 9.99 progressive passes attempted per 90 and a completion rate of 82.95%.
There’s also a local player who hasn’t stood out before who ranks in the top 25% for both statistics: He Chao (25, Guangzhou FC). He Chao attempts 8.54 progressive passes per 90 and has the second-best completion rate just behind Renato Augusto with 91.57%. He’s an interesting one as he also ranked very well in successful defensive actions per 90 with 10.65. With 99 Chinese Super League appearances to his name and seven caps for China, He Chao is still quite young and could deserve a chance at a higher level.
The remaining shortlisted player, Che Shiwei, doesn’t rank very well here. The 24-year-old midfielder only attempts 5.01 progressive passes per 90 and completes 78.26% of them, a quite average rate. As we’ll see later on in this analysis, he stands out in other statistics.
In the second part of this section, we’ll look at the other way players can progress the ball: runs and dribbles. Dribbles aren’t progressive by definition but they are still an interesting measure of how a player escapes pressure and if combined with progressive runs per 90 (x-axis) they give us a good insight into how these midfielders run and move with the ball at their feet.
Again, the top players in the league here are foreigners. Renato Augusto and Oscar are the best two in progressive runs with 4.62 and 3.48 per 90 respectively while also completing lots of dribbles (4.11 and 3.42 per 90). Moussa Dembélé, another former EPL star, also looks excellent with 3.2 progressive runs and 5.7 completed dribbles per 90.
Focusing on our targets, the best Chinese player here is Hao Junmin (33, Shandong Taishan). The former Schalke 04 midfielder completes 2.27 dribbles and makes 2.56 progressive runs per 90, ranking third and first among Chinese players respectively. At his age and being his team captain, a move looks unlikely and he will probably stay in his country and keep adding caps to the 80 he already has to his name.
The second-best local player when it comes to progressive runs is Cui Ming’an with 2.04 per 90. The Dalian Pro midfielder doesn’t complete too many dribbles (0.79 per 90), suggesting he often runs with the ball when he’s not challenged and there’s space in front of him. This isn’t a bad thing as running at a good speed with the ball, especially in transitions, is a great way of getting forward quickly and creating chances.
As a different profile to Cui Ming’an, we find Zhou Tong (31, Wuhan FC), who’s the best Chinese midfielder when it comes to completed dribbles with 2.68 per 90. He also progresses a decent number of times with 1.53 progressive runs per 90. He was also the second-best Chinese player in xA per 90 with 0.22 but at his age and with no other standout qualities, it seems difficult to think of him as a candidate to prove himself at a higher level.
The other three shortlisted players have varied profiles. He Chao completes a good number of progressive runs (1.6 per 90) but rarely dribbles past the opponent (0.64 per 90). Oppositely, Che Shiwei dribbles a lot (2.4 completed dribbles per 90) but doesn’t progress driving the ball (0.65 progressive runs per 90), suggesting he mostly escapes pressure with turns and movements but doesn’t run forward afterwards. In the middle ground, we find Xu Xin with 1.87 completed dribbles and 1.01 progressive runs per 90.
In the last section of this data analysis, we’ll look at how the central midfielders in the Chinese Super League behave in the defensive phase. In the next graph, we see defensive duels per 90 on the x-axis and defensive duels won % on the y-axis. The number of defensive duels gives us a good idea of how hard the players work to recover the ball, while the winning rate says more about their effectiveness, be it because of strength or defensive technique and intelligence.
We can see how non-Chinese players are much less involved in the defensive phase as most of them are luxury players who aren’t expected to work as hard and yes to make an impact in attack.
Two of our shortlisted players rank very well here. Cui Ming’an, who was already highlighted in almost every other metric we’ve seen so far, is one of the central midfielders who gets involved in the most defensive duels per 90 with 9.53 and still wins a very good percentage of them (58.52%). He’s the second midfielder with the most defensive duels won per 90 in the Chinese Super League.
Slightly better than Cui Ming’an in both aspects is Che Shiwei, with 9.81 defensive duels per 90 and a winning rate of 62.22%, which turns him into the central midfielder with the most defensive duels won per 90 in the league.
Another two players worth mentioning are Jailson and Song Zhiwei (31, Wuhan FC). The Brazilian gets involved in 8.66 defensive duels per 90 and wins 67.24% of them (third-most). The Chinese isn’t involved as much (7.85 defensive duels per 90) but wins a very good percentage of 66.96%.
The other two shortlisted players also rank decently, being between the 50% and 25% best central midfielders on both statistics. He Chao gets involved in 7.99 defensive duels per 90 winning 56% of them, while Xu Xin registers 7.06 and 55.1% respectively. Considering both of them are creative passers, these are very good figures. It’s worth noting that He Chao also ranks 6th in the league for possession-adjusted interceptions with 8.95 per 90.
Aged 26 and used mostly as a left central midfielder in a 4-4-2 at Dalian Pro, Cui Ming’an has stood out in almost all the metrics we’ve considered in the analysis. He’s very active in the defensive phase registering 10.9 successful defensive actions per 90 and recovering 3.04 balls in the opposition half per 90. He’s among the best midfielders in defensive duels, both in number (9.52 per 90) and effectiveness (59.52% won).
On the ball, Cui Ming’an stands out as a very creative passer, completing 8.29 progressive passes per 90 and being the best midfielder in the league for expected assists with 0.36 per 90. He’s also a good runner with the ball in transitions and completes 2.04 progressive runs per 90, almost doubling those of players like Marek Hamsik or Aaron Mooy.
Cui Ming’an is valued at just 100 thousand euros by transfermarkt and doesn’t have any senior cap for China but he seems to have found his best level under Rafa Benítez last season and would be an interesting signing.
Che Shiwei plays mostly as a left central midfielder in a 5-3-2 formation for Tianjin Teda. Aged 24, he’s the youngest player on our shortlist. He’s a very complete profile, ranking in the top 25% both for attacking and defensive successful actions per 90 with 3.27 and 10.68 respectively but his main strengths lay in the defensive phase. Che Shiwei is the player in the league with the most defensive duels won per 90 (6.1), combining his involvement and hard work (fourth-most defensive duels per 90) with very good physicality (183cm / 6’0”) and a winning rate of 62.22%.
On the ball, Che Shiwei is skilled enough to dribble out of pressure, completing 2.4 dribbles per 90 (second-best Chinese midfielder) but keeps his game simple and doesn’t stand out in any progression or finishing statistics.
He’s valued at just 75 thousand euros and only has 18 appearances in the Chinese Super League at his age but after being managed by the likes of Manuel Pellegrini or Chris Coleman, he seems to be reaching a good level and his hard work and ability to recover the ball all around the pitch and then give it to a more creative teammate would be a good asset for any team.
Aged 25, He Chao usually plays as the lone defensive midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation or a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 for Guangzhou FC, covering the back of very offensive-minded players like Anderson Talisca or Paulinho. He Chao stands at just 178cm / 5’10’ but is well-built and strong in duels, ranking in the top 25% for defensive duels won per 90 with 4.47. He also reads the game very well and is the best central midfielder in the league for possession-adjusted interceptions with 8.95 per 90.
On the ball, He Chao stands out as a very safe and effective ball progressor. He attempts 8.84 progressive passes per 90 (more than Dembélé) and completes 91.57% of them (second-best, just behind Renato Augusto). He also adds something in the final third with 0.22 goal contributions per 90 (0.11 goals and 0.11 assists) so he’s a quite versatile player in the attacking phase.
Valued at 350 thousand euros, with seven caps for China and 99 games in the Chinese Super League, He Chao is a well-established name in Chinese football. He has never left China but has international experience in the AFC Champions League and is young by Chinese footballers standards so he would be a reliable acquisition for a foreign club.
The last player in our shortlist is He Chao’s partner in midfield, the 26-year-old Xu Xin. He complements his teammate very well and is the Chinese central midfielder with the most successful attacking actions per 90 with 4.46, just behind Oscar, Renato Augusto and Dembélé. Xu Xin is a very creative midfielder, registering the highest assists and expected assists in the league (0.43 and 0.36 per 90 respectively). He’s also excellent at progressing the ball, completing 9.64 progressive passes per 90. If this wasn’t enough, he’s also the second Chinese midfielder with the most completed dribbles per 90 (2.4), making him a very press-resistant player.
Off the ball, Xu Xin has a decent contribution. He ranks in the top 50% both for defensive duels and success rate, winning a total of 3.89 defensive duels per 90. He’s very close to Aaron Mooy and Moussa Dembéle in successful defensive actions per 90 with 7.49, very close to the median of the league.
Xu Xin would be one of the safest choices for a European club. He was at Atlético de Madrid’s academy for more than four years between 16 and 21, playing for their C and B sides in the Spanish fourth and third tiers. He has won three Chinese Super Leagues, one Chinese Cup and one Super Cup and has been managed by top names like Fabio Cannavaro or Luiz Felipe Scolari. With this experience and still at a young age, he should be considered by good European clubs.