After a sensational season in the Chinese Super League, Beijing Guoan striker Zhang Yuning has been linked with a return to Europe this transfer window. However, it appears that a move may not be so certain after all.
The 2022 Chinese Super League campaign was certainly one to remember for Zhang Yuning, who had the best year of his professional career to date. While the capital city club were left trophy-less for a fourth consecutive season, finishing seventh in the league and suffering a shock second round exit to fourth-tier side Jingchuan Wenhui in the CFA Cup, their man up front caught the attention of many.
Zhang Yuning finished the year as the highest scoring domestic player in the top tier of Chinese football, netting an impressive 19 times, adding a further five assists, through his 30 league appearances. Had he managed to reach this mark in any of the previous two seasons, it would have been more than enough to win the league’s Golden Boot award. This year, however, that award went to Wuhan Three Towns’ Brazilian striker Marcão with 27.
Despite missing out on the award, Zhang Yuning’s impressive performances had reportedly attracted the attention of clubs outside of the Middle Kingdom. Rumours on social media indicated that Ligue 1 club AJ Auxerre were interested in brining the Chinese international back to Europe, with the club desperate to improve on their 16 total goals this season and determined to drag themselves out of the relegation zone.
A Second Chance
For Zhang, it would not be unfamiliar territory for him to make a move to Europe. In fact, the early years of his professional career saw him develop in the continent before eventually returning home.
A return to Europe would arguably give Zhang Yuning a second chance to impress in what could be considered the most competitive continent in world football. The 26-year-old began his career with Zhejiang FC, then known as Hangzhou Greentown, before moving to the Netherlands to play for Vitesse.
He spent two years with the Arnhem-based club, featuring in 24 league games and scoring three goals. Despite his infrequent appearances and overall production at the time, English Premier League side (at the time) West Bromwich Albion took a chance on him, handing him a three-year contract before immediately loaning him out to German Budesliga side Werder Bremen.
He failed to get off the bench during his one-year loan and found himself back in the Netherlands with ADO Den Haag, where he once again struggled to establish himself in the first team, making just six appearances during the 2018-19 season.
After his struggles in Europe, he returned to his home nation. This time, he joined Beijing Guoan and he has had a truly successful spell in the Chinese capital. His debut campaign saw him notch eight goals in 25 games as Beijing finished runners-up to Guangzhou Evergrande in the 2019 CSL season.
The next year, during the heavily altered and shortened 2020 season, he scored six goals in 18 league appearance. He then followed that up by recording back-to-back double digit seasons, with 10 and 19 goals respectively in 2021 and 2022.
Not The Right Time
With momentum clearly with him, a return to Europe will surely be on his mind. This may be doubly so for the Chinese FA, who have encouraged players to seek opportunities abroad in hopes that it can progress the fortunes of the national team. Wu Lei, Li Lei and Wu Shaocong are just some examples of players who have made moves to European clubs in recent seasons, so the same could be in Zhang Yuning’s future.
However, according to reputable French outlet L’Equipe, it seems that the purported move to Auxerre may not be on the cards after all. While they confirmed that Auxerre, who are owned by Chinese national Zhou Yunjie (James Zhou), were interested, it seems that a move may no longer be feasible.
Reports out of China indicate that the striker has had surgery on a shoulder injury and may be out an extended period of time. This would work fine for the Chinese Super League, as it is likely to resume play around April time, but for a European club looking to strengthen this month, it would not be ideal to bring in a player who would not necessarily be available for most of the remainder of the season.
This likely puts any hopes of a return to Europe on hold at least until the summer window, where clubs will have another opportunity to consider their options. Zhang Yuning having another strong start to the 2023 season with Beijing would certainly keep him fresh in the mind of clubs looking to add firepower up front in the summer.
If he desires to make a return to Europe, giving himself another shot at impressing and establishing himself outside of Chinese football, then his focus will surely be on recovering as best he can and getting off to a positive start with his current club. The door certainly isn’t closed on Zhang Yuning making a return to the continent, but right now doesn’t look to be the right time.