The Dalian Project: Can Rafa Benitez Build a CSL Dynasty?

At long last, the Chinese Super League has started. Five months after the first ball was originally supposed to be kicked, the 2020 season got underway on Saturday with reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande defeating FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a revamped format of the CSL is being played; split into two groups of eight, with the top four in each group advancing to the knockout phase, while the bottom four will fight it out for their survival. One team foreign viewers will be sure to keep tabs on is Dalian Pro, managed by former Liverpool and Newcastle manager Rafael Benítez.

It’s the Spaniard’s first full season in charge of the Blue Hawks after taking over in the summer of 2019 following the dismissal of renowned South Korean head coach Choi Kang-hee. Benítez will be keen to build on last year’s 9th place finish, but anyone expecting him to deliver silverware this season will be in for a rude awakening. Dalian Professional, formerly Yifang, are anything but a historical giant of the Chinese game, having only been founded in 2009. The club achieved its highest CSL positions as Dalian Aerbin in 2012 and 2013 when they surprisingly finished fifth in back-to-back campaigns. Since then, it’s been a slog. After a failed merger with local rivals Dalian Shide, a managerial resignation just 63 days into the season because of match-fixing, and mounting financial problems, Aerbin were relegated in 2014.

The following year, the club was bought by Dalian Yifang Group and renamed after their new ownership in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt at promotion back to the top flight. It would take them another two years before they returned to the promised land once again. Beijing-based Wanda Group sold its shares in Atlético Madrid and began investing in Dalian a little over a week before the start of the 2018 campaign which led to plenty of confusion. The club had already announced the signing of their second foreign player in Mate Maleš, but Wanda wanted bigger names and terminated his contract as only four foreigners were allowed to be registered. Jose Fonté, Nicolás Gaitán, and Yannick Carrasco were signed following the takeover. Things looked grim after an 8-0 opening day beatdown at the hands of eventual champions Shanghai SIPG, but by the end of the term, their new stars had steered them to a respectable 11th in the standings in their first season back in the CSL. Earlier this year, Dalian announced that they had dropped the Yifang from their name and replaced it with Professional.

Five foreigners can be registered for matchdays this season, but only four can take to the field at the same time. Yannick Carrasco rejoined Atleti in January and was replaced by Feyenoord’s Sam Larsson. Rounding up the remaining four internationals are Larsson’s compatriot Marcus Danielson, Salomón Rondón, Emmanuel Boateng, and the great Marek Hamsik. In addition to those two Swedish marquee players, experienced national team veteran Long Zheng was signed from Evergrande, as well as some other pieces.

Improvement should be expected given Benítez’s track record, but a title challenge seems highly unlikely. That was already evident on opening day when Dalian were downed by a 7-minute Marouane Fellaini hat-trick. Rondón and center-back Danielson scored for the Liaoning outfit in a 3-2 defeat against Shandong Luneng. There’s always a chance that Dalian might sneak into pole position, though, with defending champions Evergrande relying heavily on their superior talent as Fabio Cannavaro is, by all accounts, a fairly mediocre manager – the same can be said of 2019 runners-up Beijing Guoan in Group B – and given the unprecedented nature of the times coupled with the new format, a slip-up by one of the big boys is a possibility, however unrealistic it may seem. At the end of the day, silverware isn’t really Rafa Benítez’s main priority – at least not right now – although it would obviously be a welcome by-product.

In one of his columns for The Athletic, he outlined his intention of building a sustainable, healthy club with an overhauled academy system to prevent Dalian from suffering a similar fate as Tianjin Tianhai, who were dissolved after the 2019 season. In short, he wants to leave a legacy.

To achieve those lofty goals, a new state of the art training ground along with an academy center was built, reportedly costing well in excess of £200m. To further establish a local youth pipeline, a number of Spanish coaches were hired to work with school children in an attempt to pique their interest in the sport and improve their skills and understanding of the game. There was some concern to start the year, however, when news began filtering through that Wanda might pull the plug on their investment, but luckily for Dalian, nothing came of it, although players did have to take pay cuts during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Besides the obvious adversities brought about by the COVID-19 outbreak, Dalian had to come to grips with the Chinese Super League’s new salary cap, coming into effect for the first time this season. As reported by Chinese state press agency Xinhua:

“According to the notice (sent out to the clubs), a CSL local (domestic) player will not be paid more than 10 million yuan (1.45 million U.S. dollars) and foreign players could not be paid more than 3 million euros before tax every year, including incomes from contract signing bonuses, image rights, real estate, cars, stocks, and bonds. Local players who are called up by the national team could not be paid more than 12 million yuan (1.74 million dollars)”

Even though the cap mostly only applies to new signings as of right now, it is worth remembering that someone like Shanghai SIPG star Oscar reportedly makes $27 million a year, so it could still throw up problems in the future. The installation of the salary cap was a completely fresh and unique challenge for every club in the league, but especially Dalian, who were undoubtedly looking to fill their open foreigner spots with more high-profile names than what they eventually ended up with – no offense to Larsson and Danielson, of course.

It’s guaranteed that there will be strong interest in Benítez this summer and over the course of the year, but with his contract running for at least another two seasons – which means that any offer would likely command a high buyout fee – and his stated rule of thumb of never leaving his job in the middle of the season, a move back to Europe would definitely come as a mild surprise.

Marek Hamsik and Marouane Fellaini contesting for the ball on opening day (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

So what can Rafa Benítez actually build in China? His track record speaks for itself. Benítez won silverware with Valencia, Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea, and Napoli, but perhaps more pertinent to his current role is his most recent stint in England with Newcastle. The Spaniard endeared himself to the Toon faithful by, well, deciding to coach the struggling side in the first place, but more importantly by getting them back to the Premier League and keeping them there despite modest investment from much-maligned owner Mike Ashley. Getting the most out of what were essentially Championship and, at best, bottom half of the Premier League level players was what he was tasked with and he faces a similar problem at Dalian.

Given the CSL’s roster-building constraints that prevent teams from completely overhauling their squads and Wanda’s previous insinuations that they are not afraid of tightening the purse strings, Benítez will be working with a mid-table squad for the foreseeable future. This season’s goal will be advancing to the Championship Stage, i.e. finishing in the top four of Group A. While the opening day defeat has already made this task noticeably harder, there is still more than enough time to put things right, with teams facing each other twice. Shenzhen currently top the group after a 3-0 win over Guangzhou R&F, but realistically they are the team Dalian should aim to supplant in the top four; Shenzhen were only saved from relegation by Tianjin’s dissolution at the end of last season.

I don’t envision the club becoming a CSL powerhouse anytime soon, so in the long-term, they should strive to become the league’s top producer of domestic talent. Although Dalian itself is comparatively scarcely populated in relation to some of its Southern and Western counterparts, the Liaoning province as a whole can boast some 40 million inhabitants. There’s plenty of sea in the fish so to speak, and not just literally (Dalian is a major port city), but also in terms of potential talent.

What Benítez’s legacy in China will ultimately be, can perhaps only be quantified after his tenure. Success is measured in trophies, but for Dalian, the true value of hiring a manager of Rafa’s pedigree could become apparent in his work with the local youth, rather than the first team. Benítez has the chance to ring in a new dawn of youth development that could well swell beyond the limits of Liaoning and sweep across the land if executed properly.

China is a blank canvas right now; the country is crying out for youth reform. Its constant underperformances at the national team level have left it struggling to keep up with the likes of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Iran. Benítez could leave as a legend not just at Dalian, but of Chinese football at large. Admittedly, that is the best-case scenario. Worst case is Benítez leaves in a year or two with no visible progress having been made. It remains to be seen what the eventual outcome will be, but nevertheless, it is a hugely exciting project for Benítez, the Chinese Super League, and Asian football and its followers.

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