An expert's guide to West Brom's Zhang Yuning deal after striker scores for Werder Bremen
Albion's Chinese striker Zhang Yuning scored his first goal on loan at Werder Bremen yesterday.
The 20-year-old, who was bought from Vitesse Arnhem this summer and signed a three-year deal with the Baggies, has been loaned to Bremen for two years.
His purchase is primarily a commercial one, with any footballing benefits a happy side-effect, so we spoke to Chinese football expert Mark Dreyer from China Sports Insider about the deal.
- What is Zhang Yuning’s profile like in China?
Zhang is pretty highly rated among Chinese football fans. He’s played nine times for the national team – scoring twice on his debut – so he’s very much on the radar, and while no one expects him to be the saviour of Chinese football on his own, he is definitely viewed as the best young player to have emerged from his generation.
Players tend to develop – or break into the first team – later in China than elsewhere, so 20-year-old players of his calibre are even more rare. Additionally, very few of the top Chinese players have tried to make it in Europe in recent years, so that also marks him out and gains him extra respect for trying to be the best player he can be.
- What are the commercial benefits of West Brom signing him?
Two sets of rules changes this year have put a premium on under 23 Chinese players in the Chinese Super League, so that has hugely increased his value. However, teams are only able to capitalize on that if they sell him back to a CSL club, and so far he has resisted the money he could undoubtedly get in China in order to stay in Europe.
Additionally, loaning him out immediately makes him a Werder Bremen player in the eyes of non-WBA fans, so any interest from China – and there will be some, especially if he can break into their first team – will be focused on the Bundesliga, not the Premier League. In other words, any commercial benefits for West Brom are pretty indirect, but he remains a valuable asset.
- What do you think the motives behind this signing are?
The club, their owner and their Chinese backers clearly want to establish as strong links with China as they possibly can – partly because that is the market they are most familiar with and partly because they see China as an untapped market and an area in which they can exploit their links in order to maximize revenues. But it’s important to remember that every club is trying to do the same thing!
West Brom, charitably, would not make it into many Chinese fans’ top 20 clubs in Europe and the Chinese connection is now increasingly common (AC Milan and Inter Milan are both Chinese owned), so Chinese fans won’t simply support a club because the owner is Chinese. What they will do is follow a player who is successful abroad – hence one of the main motives in buying Zhang.
Sticking him in a West Brom shirt for the signing and releasing the photo minutes before he became a Werden Bremen player was a smart move, but it won’t substitute pictures and video of him playing in a West Brom shirt.
- Albion admit he's not good enough for the Premier League yet, but what level is he right now?
He was struggling to get into the Vitesse side and the Dutch league is, at best, the sixth best league in Europe – or certainly below the so-called Top Five – but he’s still young and many players have jumped from the Dutch league to the Premier League at the age of 23 or 24 and been successful.
Work permit rules are tricky and with China well outside the top 50 in the FIFA rankings, it will be very hard for him to get a work permit in the next couple of years even if he has a breakthrough performance on the pitch.
His potential is exciting, because China doesn’t usually produce players this good at such a young age, but football is littered with examples of unfulfilled potential, so at this stage you would have to say the hype is outweighing the talent.
- In your opinion, will he ever be good enough for Premier League?
I’m not a bookie, but my guess is that the odds are against him ever becoming a Premier League regular. I would love to see it happen, though!
- What is the general mood in China about this sort of expansion into European football?
The government has taken steps in the past six months or so to reign it in, because it doesn’t really contribute much, if at all, to the core goal: namely, improving Chinese football.
From a fans’ point of view, I think they take an interest, but wouldn’t particularly have a strong opinion one way or the other. If it starts to improve things back home, then it would be applauded, but so far we haven’t really seen that.
- Can you see Chinese people supporting Albion because they're owned by Guochuan Lai and have bought Zhang?
In a word, no. If he plays for West Brom, then it’s a different story, but tens of top European teams already have decent – if somewhat fickle – followings among Chinese football fans and the Lai connection is just not strong enough to make a difference.
You can follow Mark on Twitter at @DreyerChina