March 12, Beijing time, the Chinese U20 men’s national team, which were trying to qualify for the U20 World Cup, conceded two goals in overtime and lost 1-3 to the championship favorite South Korea, regrettably stopping at the last 8. But it was a pleasnt surprise for the team to advance from the “Group of Death” with Japan and Saudi Arabia. And it was enough to satisfy the outside world to drag South Korea into the extra time, as the young team showed enough fighting spirit and toughness in the four games of the U20 Asian Cup. In an interview, the Chinese assistant coach and Changchun Yatai Legend Du Zhenyu said that the team had prepared for two years for these four games.
Focusing on Counterattack to play with Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran
When the whistle was blown for the quarter-final of the U20 Asian Cup, the young players of the Chinese team were overwhelmed by a huge coming of emotion. Li Hao, the goalkeeper who was selected for the best team for the group stage and the quarter-final, sat on the field and cried. The sad vibe did not dissipate for a long time, and until the next night, the emotions of many players still had not returned to a stable state. Du Zhenyu sighed, “Everyone did have a hard time because we were only one game away, or rather, only 30 minutes away from qualifying for the World Youth Championship in overtime.”
A regret, but also a surprise.
Turning the clock back to January 23, 2021, the Chinese Football Association organized a selection camp for the 2003-born men’s national team that opened at the Kunming Jialize Training Base in Yunnan. Nearly 50 players made onto the longlist for the selection camp, and the Chinese coaching team for that edition was extremely large – Shao Jiayi, Han Peng, Yang Zhi, Zong Lei, Du Zhenyu, Du Wei, Wang Xinxin, Zhang Xinxin, Wang Yun, all veteran international players. Du Zhenyu described that training camp as a mass election, “These 50 people were selected from hundreds of people in China in the early days of Antonio (Puche, the team Head Coach), and we then went to help the team select people and finally determine the framework of the current U20 team.”
At that time, the outside world was not optimistic about the prospects of this team – before them, the Chinese team had failed to get out of the group stage of the U20 Asian Cup for two consecutive terms; the individual ability of the 2003-age group players was also considered inferior to previous teams, and there was a considerable gap between their technical level and ability and the strong teams of the same age in Asia. Puche was well aware of this, so Du Zhenyu also felt strange when he first arrived at the team, why, as a Spanish coach, Antonio did not choose the passing and control play, but developed the overall tactics of defensive counter-attack?
“Later I learned that Antonio’s benchmark is Japan and Korea and Saudi Arabia and Iran, the strong Asian teams, and he thought about how we should play against these teams. There is indeed a gap in individual player ability, and it’s not the kids who are to blame for this gap, but there is no one to help them build a good foundation when they are young, and it’s too late to catch the skills when they are adults. But the team needs to fight against strong teams through targeted tactics, so what we showed to our fans across the country in the Asian Cup is: we just want to play defensive counterattack, we just want to do well in defense first, and as long as we don’t concede the ball, we can definitely get chances in counterattack.” Du Zhenyu said that if the team is obsessed with the pursuit of passing and control, it is likely that it will not even be able to pass the hurdle in the qualifying round.
In the four games of the U20 Asian Cup, China’s numbers were not good, with only the possession rate in the final round of the group stage with Kyrgyzstan exceeding 30 percent. In the face of criticism from the outside world in this regard, the young players’ determination to implement the technical and tactical arrangements of the head coach did not waver. Du Zhenyu admitted: “These kids are just starting their soccer careers, they know what this Asian Cup means for the future. Our Chinese coach usually tells the kids that in the cup, defense is a very practical tactic. We can see that in the last two World Cups, many of the world’s strongest teams also chose this tactic, especially the one where France won the title, and the French team with so many stars was also based on defense first.”
China has been practicing for two full years since the team was established in 2021 with the overall tactical idea of defensive counter-attacking, and finally finished among the top 8 of the tournament. This team’s preparation is reflected in various details, such as by tactical requirements, the team attaches the greatest importance to the offensive and defensive transitions and confrontation ability, in order to better adapt to the intensity of the international game and the scale of penalties, the team will hardly blow fouls in internal confrontation.
“In our training we almost never call a foul. There is normal physical contact, the coach will not blow the whistle. So the kids got used to it, and when they get kicked down, they immediately get up and grab the ball again, instead of sitting on the ground and waiting for the whistle.” Du Zhenyu hopes that this training style can be promoted in more national teams. “Since our benchmark is to become an Asian powerhouse, we must be physical in international matches, and we take all these objective factors into account, that’s why we practice and prepare so much.”
With the head coach as the core, the national anthem is played before any game
Execution and discipline are among the characteristics exhibited by this Chinese team. But it should be noted that the 3 epidemic years, head coach Puche and the team together is not long, last year before playing U20 Asian Cup qualifiers, Puche and the foreign coaching team didn not meet with the team for more than six months; this year, the preparation period before the Asian Cup, Puche and his team is also in the overseas training phase before meeting with the team.
Treating the role of the head coach as the core is the basic requirement that Shao Jiayi, who takes up the day-to-day duties to run the team, and the rest of the local coaches, usually instill into the players.
Puche’s team is never really absent – the team uses the lesson plan drawn up by the head coach for each training session; the Chinese coaching team has video conferences with the foreign coaching team every night during the training period, giving feedback to the foreign coaching team on the video of the training session and the players’ physical data, which is used by Puche’s team to formulate the specific content of the next day’s training session.
Du Zhenyu told the interviewer: “All the training requirements are set by Puche, without adding any Chinese coach’s requirements, because the big brother (Shao Jiayi) has also been emphasizing that the Chinese coach has good experience, but may deviate from the head coach’s requirements. So whether it’s the players or the Chinese coach, everyone listens to Antonio and the head coach is the core of the team.” Of course, the Chinese coaches sometimes makes suggestions to the foreign coaching team, and everyone fully communicates and agrees before conveying them to the players.
Fighting spirit is another distinctive feature this team shows.
Du Zhenyu attributes this to Puche’s infectious spirit, “When it comes to this team, the first scene that comes to mind is when our whole coaching team worked together, that is when Antonio gave the whole team a preparation meeting.” During the past two years, the U20 national team has been in a low-key state in terms of preparation, and the whole team had only one goal – to speak with results. Du Zhenyu revealed, “Our team is the first national team to participate in international matches in this tournament year, so we can’t disgrace the national team.”
This low profile makes the outside world know little about this team, after the four games of the Asian Cup, Puche impressed people “golden words” is not much, representative is “like a wolf bite the opponent” (before the South Korea). “Chinese football needs this kind of victory” (after the group stage victory over Saudi Arabia).
This is also a pity.
Du Zhenyu used the phrase “hot blooded” to describe Puche’s mobilization at each pre-match preparation meeting, “He didn’t shout slogans, but told the players step by step why we should play this game, why we should try our best to win, and what it means to us. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our Chinese coaching team wanted to play and fight after hearing that. It was a spiritual power from the heart and everyone was unconsciously infected. The strong fighting spirit that the players showed in the game really came from the support given to them by the head coach on a spiritual level and a psychological level.”
The U20 national team also adheres to another tradition: the national anthem is played before the start of any game, including official intra-team rivalry matches, to reinforce the players’ sense of national honor. “When you wear this team uniform, you are playing on behalf of your country, and every minute you have to be worthy of the national flag on your chest.” Du Zhenyu said.
Olds Leading the Young
In recent years, the formation of national teams at all levels, you can see the figures of veteran international players in the U20 national team as well. The team leader Shao Jiayi, the Chinese assistant coach Du Zhenyu and Yang Zhi, all had international careers of their own.
In Du Zhenyu’s opinion, veteran international players in the national team are useful role models, especially for the youth national team. He laughed and said, “Young players are also children, and they will privately discuss whether their coaches were bullish that year. Many old national players are actually the object of admiration for the kids because they have seen you play football. If you are their role model, the kids will be convinced of you and willing to accept your guidance.”
Although retired for many years, several veteran international players will also come on when the team is short of players; when the team is practicing set-piece attack and defense, Shao Jiayi and Du Zhenyu, the two former “golden left footers”, have let the young players see their footwork. Du Zhenyu, who doesn’t talk much about his past experiences off the field, is a fan of “speaking with strength” and is used to leaving a word of encouragement in the kids’ awe: “You guys practice well.”
Du Zhenyu, who is busy with the U20 national team preparation work, has not been home for a long time, “My second child was born six months ago, I have not seen a few eyes.” But what touches him more deeply is the efforts of this group of young national players, “these two years down, I feel from the heart that these children are not easy. The outside world does not know how we practice. But I do. Indeed we practice very hard. Although in the end we have regrets with the Asian Cup results, it will not trouble anymore for too long. Because they are still young, there is still plenty of time, just remember this preparation, the process of participation, will always help them.”
As a member of the “super platinum” team when Shen Xiangfu coached the national youth, Du Zhenyu has experienced the stage of being favored since as a young player. After the Asian Cup, the emerging Afrden Asqer, Mutellip Iminqari and Li Hao will also go through this stage. As a veteran, Du gave advice on the growth of young players, “After entering the first team, don’t get into bad habits, after all, it’s time to earn money by playing in the first team. You have to keep your heart, resist temptation and remember that you are a professional player both on and off the field. The future of Chinese football has to depend on young people, they have to know that they have to have a sense of responsibility for Chinese football.”