How Javier Pereira’s tactics have propelled Shanghai Port to the summit of the CFA Super League – scout report
In recent years, China has embarked on an ambitious project of acquiring renowned players from across the globe, and Shanghai Port has emerged as a prominent force in this endeavour.
They have successfully attracted the UEFA Europa League and English Premier League winner Oscar, as well as ex-Porto player Paulinho. Additionally, their new coach, Spaniard Javier Pereira, adds further attraction to their story.
Shanghai Port, a team that was just founded in 2005, currently leading their league with 26 points after just 10 games, is a testament to the shifting dynamics within the CFA Super League, as they finished fourth in the past two seasons.
In this tactical analysis article, in the form of a team scout report, we delve into Shanghai Port’s journey until now, dissecting their tactics, exploring the impact of Javier Pereira and examining the wider implications of China’s pursuit of football excellence.
Since assuming the helm of the team on March 1, 2023, coach Pereira managed 10 matches in the tournament and his team has remained unbeaten with only two draws and eight victories.
The 57-year-old has preferred the 4-3-3 structure for approximately 90% of the games with a distinct Spanish identity in their style of play. They prioritise building from the back, employing short and progressive passes and a modern positional rotations approach.
Their short horizontal passes for possession can easily be seen in the graphic below, as they have an average of 55.86% possession while their opponents have 44.14% and their overall rate for any given match is 480.5 passes (85.3% accuracy) versus 329.6 (81.3% accuracy) for the opponents.
From the back, Shanghai Port build with a 4-1 base. Goalkeeper Junling Yan focuses on short passes and playing to areas less vulnerable to being pressed, aiming to penetrate through the sides, utilising the deeper positioning of their fullbacks.
Against a narrow pressing scheme deployed by Changchun Yatai, they explored building through the right side with an instant dynamic drop-off movement from the nearest number ‘8’ to create a 6v4 numerical advantage.
The movement and timing of pivot Cia Huikang are crucial in receiving the ball and finding the spare man through third-man combinations when direct access is blocked. In the example provided, the centre-back is reached by Cia Huikang, allowing him the space to carry the ball forward.
The goalkeeper usually plays long in the areas less predicted to be pressed. Below, against Qingdao Hainiu’s hybrid press, Shanghai applied a 4-1 base with varied movements from the number ‘8s’ and the goalkeeper played to the right-back Wang Shenchao into the space while the winger pinned the opposition’s fullback.
Higher during the progression and final third phases, Oscar becomes the maestro, as he owns the freedom to drop off to the first line as a deep-lying playmaker, so the team forms a lot in a 3-2-5 shape, a 2-3-5, and even a 3-1-6 when facing back five structures like in the below graphic. Oscar drops and the players frequently recognise the space and occupy it dynamically, and the positional rotations are used to provoke opponents to get out of their positions.
At this time, both the Red Eagles’ wingers often move horizontally inside to the half-spaces, luring the opponent’s fullbacks there, and then the fullbacks dynamically overlap.
In their 3-0 win against Changchun in the graphic below, Oscar had the ball deeper. The right-hand side trio started their different runs (the right-back overlapped, the right-winger attacked the half-space diagonally and the right ‘8s’ moved horizontally inside).
Unfortunately, Oscar was unable to find them and plays to the centre-back Jiang Guangtai.
Furthermore, the striker Paulinho dropped off to gain a +1 advantage which created a 3-2 base and attracted the opposition’s striker away from Oscar. Guangtai played long to the left side towards the overlapping left-back Wenjun…
…who was isolated in 1v1 and played to the vertical penetrator Paulinho in the left half-space. Meanwhile, Liu Yun pinned the nearest centre-back.
Once the latter received the ball, the reverse players (the right-back, number ‘8’, and the right winger) attacked the backline’s blindside with diagonal and vertical runs.
The right-back Wang Shenchao moved diagonally on the blindside of the fullback while gaining the dynamic advantage over the winger and then hit the cross but unfortunately missed it.
The team is distinguished by controlling the tempo from ex-Chelsea star Oscar, through a diverse range of short passes or long passes to exploit the space behind the opposition’s fullbacks towards the overlapping fullbacks. He has an average of 4.2 key passes and 70.1 passes with an 87 percent accuracy, which is the highest in the league.
In the final third, Javier Pereira employs the wide positional rotations to have the density to lure as many opponents as possible and then switch the play or deliver direct crosses to the reverse attacking players, who run into the uncovered areas.
Below, during the game Henan Songshan Longmen, five players from Shanghai Port attracted seven opponents to ball side.
The left-back Wenjun passed to the drifted Oscar, while the right-back Shenchao Wang was deeper in the right half-space, waiting for any grounded switch.
As soon as Oscar received the ball, Wenjun initiated a vertical run towards the box, positioning himself on the blindside of the opposing team’s fullback. The Brazilian successfully delivered to Wenjun, who scored the goal.
The significance of the team’s fullbacks, Shenchao Wang on the right and Wenjun Lyu on the left, cannot be underestimated, as their contributions and involvement in attacking the penalty area play a crucial role in the team’s playing style.
In the past, Wenjun predominantly played as a left winger, but under the guidance of Javier Pereira, his position was transformed into that of an offensive left-back, which is a testament to the manager’s attacking acumen and his ability to adapt and study the team.
As a variation, when the team aims to penetrate the opposition’s defence from deeper positions, they employ the same principles mentioned earlier, utilising short progressive passes and third-man combinations.
Here below, when they faced Cangzhou Mighty Lions’ low block, Li Ang played to Cai Huikang. At the same time, Oscar, the drop-off striker Markus Pink and Paulinho positioned themselves well between the lines. Wu Lei attacked the backline diagonally, which pulled the defender down, leaving Pink isolated.
Cai Huikang plays vertically towards Pink which provoked the opposition’s defender to press him, leaving Wu Lei alone in a large space in the last line.
Pink layed the ball to the third-man Oscar.
Oscar played a through pass in a space to Wu Lei. The ball hit the defender, yet the latter finished it well.
Wu Lei’s heatmap reveals the extent of his movement and freedom (part of the positional rotation) to attack the space behind opponents’ backlines or gain positional superiority between the lines.
Shanghai maintains a proactive defensive approach, often opting to press high and regain possession quickly in order to initiate counterattacks.
This can be observed in the graphic below, which compares their defensive territory to Chengdu, the second-ranked team in the league. Shanghai’s defensive line is positioned higher up the field, indicating their intention to apply pressure closer to the opponent’s goal.
Furthermore, their defensive actions are concentrated more centrally, suggesting a focused and coordinated effort to disrupt the opponent’s play in the central areas of the pitch.
Below against Changchun Yatai, when they lost the ball, they immediately pressed instead of dropping back into a mid-block.
Oscar curved his run to press the ball holder while covering Changchun’s shadow. meanwhile, Kallon was covering the shadow of the more dangerous player and was ready to press the lesser immediately if he received the ball.
Paulinho had closed the central lanes while Murahmetjan and Shenchao in the second wave of the were press ready to press their men immediately if needed.
These attitudes usually are applied to push the play to the back to re-initiate the high pressing again or force it sideways to apply a trap there.
Once the ball reached the side, the trap was applied and the players in the second wave succeeded, as the right-back moved straight to press the bad orientation of the ball-holder who played his pass but Cai Huikang intercepted.
Cai Huikang has had an impressive season, showcasing his defensive prowess with an average of 1.3 interceptions per game and 2.1 tackles per game. Cai Huikang’s ability to anticipate and break up opposition plays makes him an integral part of the team’s defensive strategy, providing stability and control in the midfield.
Further up the pitch during the high press, they implement a positional press to force the play wide. Here, in the below graphic, when the left centre-back received, Wu Lei moved to press him and Paulinho as well to mark the nearest man and Oscar (out of the scene) was ready to press on the right side.
Wu Lei and Paulinho succeeded in intercepting the ball into this vulnerable area and then scored.
During this season, Shanghai Port has been successful in executing 99 high regains, indicating their efficiency in winning the ball back in advanced positions on the pitch. 154 counter-pressing recoveries demonstrate their commitment to pressing immediately after losing possession on top of 23 dangerous recoveries.
In deeper defensive situations, Shanghai implements a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-2 narrow midfield block, depending on the structure of the opposition. These formations allow them to maintain compactness and limit space for the opposition to exploit in the midfield and attacking areas.
Shanghai has established a strong defensive mind as the team that concedes the fewest goals (only seven in 10 games). Shanghai faced a total of 14 shots from the left side of the field, with an expected goals (xG) value of 5.03. Additionally, they confronted 15 shots from the right side, which had an xG value of 5.19.
In this tactical analysis article, we have explored Shanghai Port’s journey in the CFA Super League and examined their playing style under the guidance of coach Javier Pereira. The team has shown impressive performances and currently leads the league with an unbeaten record.
Let’s see if they can persist and achieve their second title after the first in 2018.