Words by Tom Danicek
Name: Wang Dalei
Club: Shandong Luneng (China)
If there’s one steadily positive aspect that could be firmly associated with the rather successful Chinese national team of the early 2000s, it’s some solid goalkeeping. Jiang Jin won the Asian Cup Golden Glove right after the turn of the new millennium, despite he and his teammates didn’t get any medals after all, while Liu Yunfei followed in his footsteps four years later as a hero of their journey to the final on home soil. And even the 2002 World Cup campaign wasn’t that much of a disaster from a goalkeeping standpoint. Brazil could’ve easily scored twice as many goals, if it wasn’t for the captain Jiang Jin.
Back then, goalkeepers used to be something like a display window of the Chinese football. No matter what, they happened to be distinctive and prominent figures on the team. To perhaps preserve such state of affairs, they even have a rule in the Chinese Super League forbidding clubs to buy a foreigner for any goalkeeping slot. Yet, despite this whole tradition, the precious and historically instrumental position for China had somehow managed to lose its glamour.
At two previous Asian Cup editions, we saw four different custodians desperately trying to rouse two unexciting Chinese sides and neither of them was particularly successful. They might not have been the first to be blamed for two consecutive group stage exits either, but nevertheless, that humble magic was simply not there anymore.
Now, thank God for Wang Dalei, as this guy possesses just about all charm you could wish for. During the recent Asian Cup, he celebrated his own birthday as well as his son’s birth. He has a tattoo with some proper mythical meaning to it. Of all goalkeepers, he models himself on René Higuita. And sure, he’s keen to have a nice little chat with a ballboy as he’s about to face a crucial penalty kick, too.
I admit that separately, these aforementioned attributes would have purely symbolic value and may even look to be totally irrelevant. But, in reality and within the context, they all participate on painting a bigger picture of laid-back yet adequately focused professional.
Once a highly temperamental, inconsistent net-minder, Wang Dalei has gradually adjusted his profile and suddenly seems to be able to control his explosiveness perfectly. He continues to show emotions, absolutely, and as a captain he commands his teammates in a loud, almost hysterical manner but, at the same time, he doesn’t lose his head in critical situations.
Granted, the avid hip-hop listener may seem to be panicking a bit every time he has to play the ball and it gets worse with every step further away from the goal, however these troubles occur mainly because Wang clearly doesn’t trust his feet and distribution skills in general. Therefore, this one flaw doesn’t have much to do with the way how he perceives all the action happening in front of him and how unconventionally spot-on he tends to be when assessing it.
Nowadays, you could possibly put ‘being crap on set pieces’ down as some kind of a goalkeeping norm, if not outright diagnosis. Even if a goalkeeper looks to be somehow too perfect, go ahead and slam him for some unconvincing play in the air – you simply cannot miss the target completely.
And China is obviously no exception here. “It’s a rare thing for a Chinese keeper to be level-headed in high pressure situations such as set pieces,” testifies Peter Davis, a respected Chinese football expert. Furthermore, Davis points out that even Beijing Guoan’s custodian Yang Zhi, who’s kept an impressive 14 clean sheets over the last season, is “a bit of a liability in that respect”.
Wang Dalei, you see, isn’t anything like that. Instead, he comes into the picture with a slightly unorthodox, rather non-committal approach. And it bears fruit to some surprisingly great extent.
Take the Asian Cup quarter-final against Australia as a shining example: the freshly 26-year-old had to cope with as many as 10 corner kicks, yet practically on all but one occasion (when he successfully claimed a difficult ball) Wang Dalei wouldn’t even leave the goal-line. And for good reasons. Given such brilliant consideration, he had enough time to react on both direct opportunities the Socceroos have generated from corners.
“He reads the game well and is definitely a thinker. I’ve seen in interviews he is always challenging himself to be better and I don’t think he likes to be beaten,” adds Davis. And often beaten Wang is not, which is really quite easy to grasp as well as prove.
Technically, the Dalian’s man doesn’t have much to improve. His handling skills come close to perfection, so he barely resorts to punching the ball under pressure (incredibly enough, he didn’t register a single ‘punch’ at the Asian Cup) and through that he rarely oversees any mayhem inside his own penalty area.
At the same time, Wang Dalei was endowed with some impressive arm span, which gives him huge advantage in almost all kinds of situations. And since he remains straightened up pretty much non-stop (unlike, say, Simon Mignolet), the Shandong Luneng star is able to reach out for some seemingly unstoppable projectiles. Finally, Wang is also known to be a one-on-one specialist, standing on his feet as long as possible and borrowing some useful technique from his hockey counterparts.
For all these qualities, it’s hardly shocking that Wang Dalei now embodies a proper difference-maker for his club as well as the Chinese national team. And to quantify something so abstract like that, I went to check on how many “result-supporting clean sheets” (RSCS) the Shandong Luneng rock has kept over the previous three years.
First up, I feel like I should explain what that scary-looking notion of mine even means. It’s nothing intricate, actually. I simply count only those clean sheets that stemmed from league games with the maximum of 2-goal margin, by which I make sure no 3-0s or 5-0s are included. The reason for this restriction is quite simple: in such cases, a (most certainly bored) custodian just doesn’t make any real difference.
Having clarified that, let’s now proceed to the actual findings, shall we? So, here are the rough numbers: over the last three seasons (i.e. 2012-2014), Wang Dalei hasn’t conceded on 28 separate occasions, while 25 of them (89,3%) made for tight affairs; 0-0s, 1-0s or 2-0s. Overall, Wang Dalei came up with 25 result-supporting shutouts in 86 starts (29,1%), whilst being a mainstay on two teams, whose average league position would equal a 7th place. That’s not bad, if you ask me. Not bad at all.
To truly embrace the value of Wang’s numbers, though, we need to make some comparisons, too. And so here, you can see how all his notable rivals have fared recently:
Now, of course this table doesn’t tell the whole story by any means. I wouldn’t dare to conclude, for example, that Guangzhou Evergrande could easily afford to play without a goalkeeper, even though the enclosed numbers cheekily suggest so. Also, goalkeepers commonly pull off man-of-the-match performances despite conceding once or twice along the way, hence clean sheets themselves are not the only and best indicators. But these valid objections notwithstanding, we can still learn something useful from that sheet of mine.
After all, the fact that Wang Dalei has finished at worst as a runner-up in all five categories only supplements this particular observation made by Cameron Wilson, founding editor of the brilliant website Wild East Football: “It’s impossible to give an accurate number of points Wang has won for Shenhua this season, but it must be in double-figures.”
By using those words, Wilson summed up namely Wang’s 2013 season, fittingly carrying on from his previous evaluation where he dubbed him a “possibly CSL Chinese Player of the Year”, although the Shanghai-based goalkeeper featured on a mediocre side at best (9th-placed). And in 2014, to top it all off, the new Shandong Luneng signing won his first nomination to the official CSL Team of the Year.
Naturally, it’d be now hardly controversial to tag Wang Dalei the best goalkeeper in the country. And to finally declare his rise to prominence, he’s been always destined for.
Exactly nine years ago, Wang became the youngest professional goalkeeper in the history of Chinese football. In the following years he would undergo multiple trials in Europe, and after some badly needed nurturing provided by Ian Walker (former England international) at Shanghai Shenhua, he‘s earned the rights to call himself ‘the most expensive goalkeeping acquisition in the Chinese Super League history’ by moving to Shandong Luneng for the equivalent of 3,6 million Euros.
All these feats considered, you wouldn’t be terribly wrong to conclude there’s nothing more left for Wang Dalei on Chinese soil. He’s 26 years old, hence mature as well as young enough to move on, so why not? “He just needs to play within a domestic side that works well and in my opinion should be looking for a move abroad to further his skills,” proposes Peter Davis, and it’s hard to argue with him.
At least until Shandong Luneng stop shooting themselves in the feet and start performing on a higher level, for which they surely boast enough talent across the squad, Wang Dalei simply deserves better. Much better.