This post has been done as a request, so strictly speaking wouldn’t normally have been available. Written basically in 10 minutes and off the top of my head, I’d appreciate any corrections or any views you might add. Cheers.
Towards the end of the noughties, the Asian market for players had proven to be a mixed bag for Celtic. Highly rated young Japanese winger Koki Mizuno never had the guile to usurp Shunsuke Nakamura as chief creative genius. South Korean internationalist Ki Sung-Yeung was (and is) considered a success, yet former China Captain Du Wei was an embarrassing disaster.
All, to varying extents were signed with marketing in mind, yet the only real disappointments – Mizuno and Du Wei – cost next to nothing. A low-cost gamble.
Tony Mowbray’s signing of Zheng Zhi back in September 2009, therefore, hardly set the imagination of fans on fire. An English Championship toiler signed on a free, there was also this damaging suspicion of being merely a shirt-selling device.
Mowbray was quick to dismiss such cynicism, pointing out that Celtic’s commercial employees had never heard of Zhi, that he was signed because “he’s a good football player”. And with respect, it’s difficult to imagine such an unfashionable, old-fashioned style player would have such a money-spinning following abroad. Charlton certainly didn’t feel that way.
Furthermore, Mowbray had tried to signed Zhi for £2 million back during his time with West Bromwich Albion. So what is it that Zhi brings to a side?
His debut for Celtic was a baptism of fire – the first Old Firm derby of the season that Celtic lost 2-1 at Ibrox. Somehow, in his first match for the club, he had shrugged off the challenge of team-mates Georgios Samaras and fan favourites Marc Crosas and Paddy McCourt to start as the fifth midfielder, playing behind the striker.
Tactically, it made perfect sense. The Glasgow Derby tends to bring out the more conservative styles of managers, and Mowbray needed somebody to bridge the gap between midfield and attack, while also offering defensive sensibility.
As the freest Celtic player, he was also revealed as the player central to most possession moves, and his energy and willingness to make space was invaluable – arguably Celtic’s best performer. Indeed, it was an ambitious burst forward into the Rangers penalty area that forced an illegal challenge, winning a penalty that Aiden McGeady tucked away.
He was withdrawn after 70 minutes, with his side 2-1 down, in favour of a more eccentric, attack-minded midfielder in Paddy McCourt. This trait of being more function and hassling energy over attacking flair turned out to be decisive in Zhi’s remaining days in Glasgow.
Mowbray’s Celtic quickly lost pace in the Scottish Premier League, with most matches being an exercise in gradually ramping up the attacking options in order to chase matches. An extraordinary 4-2-4 system became the norm – with up to 4 strikers on the pitch, though usually 3 with McGeady.
This left the more cautious, defence minded Zhi in a difficult situation – even with club Captain Scott Brown out injured for much of the season, Zhi could only muster 16 appearances with Landry N’Guemo, Barry Robson and Marc Crosas further ahead in the pecking order.
Zhi came to Celtic and justified his reputation as being tactically flexible. Though he only played either as a second striker or in midfield, he can apparently play in any position barring goalkeeper. His lack of appearances fuels the aforementioned cynical “marketing” suspicion, but as backup, he was never likely to feature heavily. It would be fairer to recall his time at the club as simply a mature, experienced backup to what turned out to be a disappointing squad.