The Enigma of Cheng Chin-lung

Merely five years ago, Cheng Chin-lung looked to be one of Hong Kong’s brightest prospects. Five years later, he’s failed to kick on and reach his potential. We watched over 20 hours of Cheng’s matches to try and comprehend what has happened to him.

Cheng Chin-lung could hardly believe his luck.

A year ago, he was recovering from a devastating ACL tear which cost him the entire 2016-17 season. But on this night in 2018, he was on top of the world.

Standing near the Kitchee supporters’ section at Hong Kong Stadium, Cheng receives a pass from Diego Forlan, a player who himself is no stranger to a big occasion. As he receives the ball near the touchline, he is immediately pressured by a Kashiwa Reysol player. He is shrugged off the ball, but steals it back and dribbles towards the corner of the 18-yard box.

To his left, Forlan is asking for a return pass, having made a run on the inside but Cheng only has one thought on his mind. The Reysol players choose not to close him down, daring the youngster to shoot.

That’s exactly what Cheng does. Switching the ball onto his left peg as he dribbles into the box, he curls a sublime strike into the top left corner.

In that moment, his life changed forever.

In hindsight, it was entirely predictable that Cheng’s career had peaked at that moment. Even as a 20-year-old, the chances that a player from Hong Kong could score a more important goal, on a bigger stage than the AFC Champions League, would be difficult to imagine. That goal was the capstone of an impressive 2017-18 season for ‘Lung Jai’ – as he is known in Hong Kong. He had spent the first half of the season on loan at Dreams FC before Kitchee recalled him for the second half. After amassing a career high five goals and six assists, it was no surprise when Cheng was named as one of two Best Young Player award recipients at the end of the season.

Five years on, Cheng has become one of Hong Kong football’s greatest enigmas. It was supposed to have been onwards and upwards for the then-starlet, who looked to have a promising future ahead of him. But a struggle for minutes at Kitchee and inability to put together a good run of form have defined the five years since for Cheng. Last season, he played in only 16.5 percent of the available minutes across all competitions for Kitchee, the lowest since the 2015-16 season when Cheng was only 18.

To better understand why Cheng is in the situation that he is presently in, we decided to watch over 20 hours of his matches between 2016 to 2023. We wanted to revisit his earlier work to see what made him so special in the first place, and attempted to ascertain whether he can ever rediscover that rich vein of form.

A question that we had going into our study was to try and ascertain Cheng’s best position. After 20 hours of study, we came to the conclusion that the answer may not be a position in which he has played as of yet.

To start, Cheng played the majority of his minutes at Dreams as a left winger in a 3-4-3 formation. This coincided with the best period of his career in which he scored two goals and contributed four assists in 13 matches for the team.

His coach at the club, Leung Chi-wing – better known as ‘Sai Wing,’ – had a number of tactical reasons to use Cheng as a winger. Cheng has above average pace by Hong Kong standards, but combined with his technique and intelligence, he could be dangerous when left one-on-one with a defender.

An example of this came in a November 2017 match against Rangers. Facing an experienced defender in Igor Miović, who is 12 years his senior, Cheng needed only one touch to fly past the Serb and in behind the Rangers backline.

Here is Cheng terrorizing Miović earlier in the match to set up the only goal in the game. The goal came off a set piece opportunity inside the Dreams half of the pitch, but having committed so many players, Rangers were exposed at the back. Cheng senses the opportunity to exploit the open space and then sits down the Serbian centreback in a 1-v-1 battle.

There were other times where Sai Wing used Cheng as a forward in a 5-3-2 formation, but never in a deeper position. The youngster was always used in an advanced position for both defensive and offensive reasons. Defensively, Cheng is a willing presser of the ball as one would expect from a player who came through Kitchee’s academy. But he is not necessarily skilled at winning back possession as his ability to tackle the ball is suspect. Offensively, Dreams were a counter attacking team, so it was a greater benefit for them tactically to have a player such as Cheng playing up top where he could run at the defenders with the ball.

The 3-4-3 used by Dreams in that season often contained two defensive midfielders serving at the central midfielders. The two wingers in the system operated more like inside forwards rather than traditional wingers, which meant that they often stood in the half-spaces while the wingbacks made over lapping runs down the wings in order to create overloads on either side. Thus, Dreams relied on the wing players to create chances for the team.

How would this be accomplished? One way to do this is by working the ball down the wing to an overlapping wingback. Once the wingback is able to get in behind, a winger or wingback on the opposite side is to make an out-to-in run to try and attack an incoming cross from the wingback, as shown in this example below:

While Lung Zai doesn’t score on this occasion, he once again shows off his pace when he sniffs out an opportunity.

Here is another clip where he makes an out-to-in run but in a different context. Whilst on loan at Southern during the abandoned 2021-22 season, Cheng spent half of his matches playing left wing in Zesh Rehman’s 4-1-4-1 formation. The difference between this and his role at Dreams was that he was asked to stay wide, but also to make runs inside when the opportunity presented itself. In this clip, he times his out-to-in run perfectly, although he was unable to control the diagonal from the centreback Dudu.

At Kitchee, Cheng has primarily played as a central attacking midfielder, a role with which he was familiarized during his time in the club’s youth setup. His roles have differed depending on the formation, whether it’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, but generally, his job is to attack the opposite post of the striker. For example, when the striker makes a near post run, Cheng attacks the back post, and vice-versa.

There have also been matches where Cheng has played as a centre forward and at right and left wing. Yet, despite the position, role, and quality of teammates around him, he has been unsuccessful in reproducing his form from the 2017-18 season.

A common criticism of Cheng’s performances at Kitchee is that he regularly plays without making an impact, rendering him invisible on the pitch. This is not an unfounded criticism, as many hours of his film revealed. Nearly every team in Hong Kong sets themselves up in a low block against Kitchee in deference to their talented attackers. But unlike his teammates, Cheng often struggles to find little pockets of space between defenders that he can exploit, nor is he able to read the game and anticipate the action nearly as quickly as his teammates in order to unsettle the opposition.

However, this criticism should not be limited to only his performances at Kitchee. At Dreams, there were many matches where Cheng would disappear for large stretches of the game, only to reappear in critical moments to make a clever pass or dribble, and then disappear again.

Quite simply put, Cheng is a player who needs the ball at his feet in order to be effective. When he has the ball, he is able to demonstrate his vision and his natural instincts take over. The question then becomes: How do you get the ball to Cheng so that he can influence the game?

The key may lie with the player himself. If he can’t get on the ball in the final third, why not try to get involved earlier in the buildup? An example of that can be seen here in 2021, in a match against Pegasus:

Cheng drops deep to play simple one-two with Huang Yang. In the process, he drags a centre back out of position in order to track him. Herein lies a clue to getting the most out of Cheng: What if, instead of playing in an advanced position, he was to play as a deep-lying playmaker, or even a regista?

The job of a deep lying player is to stand in front of the defence and initiate attacks from a central position. They look to get on the ball as often as possible, provide a link between defence and attack, and dictate the tempo of play. Undoubtedly, opposing coaches may counter this by pressing the playmaker, perhaps assigning players to mark the playmaker.

Accordingly, a playmaker needs to demonstrate a level of press resistance. Lung has shown his ability before to shield the ball under pressure from oncoming defenders. While he lacks the physical traits to shield the ball with his body as well as teammates Mikael and Cleiton, he relies on his first touch and footwork to compensate for this.

Part of the job of a deep lying playmaker is to spot the runs of his teammates early and deliver passes accurately to start the attack. This, too, is one of Cheng’s skill sets. On this occasion, he picks up the ball in midfield as a winger and is able to deliver a 40-yard pass over the top whilst being pulled back.

Here he is again receiving the ball under the ball under pressure, this time, inside the opposition half. Cheng demonstrates good composure here to control the ball on the half turn and spraying the ball down the wing to a teammate on the left. He won’t get an assist on the goal, but without that composure and technique, this goal doesn’t happen. 

Now on this play, Cheng is able to find Mikael on the back post with a pinpoint diagonal from the pocket. Although he was technically playing as an attacking midfielder in this match against Southern last season, his instincts tell him that he has to drop deeper in order to find space. Same as the previous clip, he won’t get an assist on the goal, but it doesn’t happen without him.

Then comes the big question of whether he can play this position for Kitchee? Often, playmakers are good at distributing the ball but weak at covering defensively. This describes Lung Jai’s strengths and weaknesses, as discussed previously, which is why teams who utilize this type of role also employ a holding midfielder beside them who will focus on winning the ball and guarding the black line. Kitchee have various players who can do this, including the aforementioned Huang, as well as Charlie Scott and the newly-signed Tan Chun-lok.

The problem lies more so with the way that Alex Chu wants to set up his team. The 4-3-3 formation is the default formation for the Bluewaves and it has worked well for them. It is unlikely that Chu would redesign his system to accommodate Cheng in a deeper role when the current tactics are working. Unfortunately for him, this means that in order to play, he would need to improve his performances at wing or as an attacking midfielder.

How then, can he hope to improve if he doesn’t play? As mentioned before, his minutes declined last season as he is seen as only a squad player. Perhaps it is time to confront the reality that he needs to cut ties with Kitchee and start fresh somewhere else.

Positions, tactics, clubs – these are all secondary concerns. The biggest impediment to Cheng’s success is Cheng Chin-lung himself. We have established in this piece that his technique, his vision, or his pace haven’t declined in the past five years, so what has? Again, we can refer to the tape.

Here is Cheng in 2019, slaloming past two Happy Valley defenders before slipping in a teammate:

Now, here is Cheng in 2021, in a similar area of the pitch:

In the second clip, not only does he hesitate to take on the right back, but he also looks indecisive. He appears to be surprised when the ball is returned to him from Ju Yingzhi, although granted, the pass was a little bit behind him. When he turns to his right to try and play in another teammate down the wing, he gets the weight of the pass completely wrong.

An even more egregious example is this play in which Southern have a counterattacking opportunity. At the time that Southern win the ball back, Cheng is the most advanced player, standing near the centre circle. By the end of the play, he is on the edge of the box and is the fifth most advanced player.

It is understood, of course, that attacking players should not all arrive in the box at the same time, lest there be no one to recover the second ball. However, on this play, there appears to be a lack of effort on Cheng’s part not to get into the box sooner. He seems to lack any belief that he can affect the play.

Confidence is a delicate thing in sport. The best athletes are able to stay on an even keel in good times and bad, but all athletes go through a crisis of confidence at some point.

This all goes to the heart of what we observed to be the biggest difference in his play over time. Call it what you want – confidence, self-belief, or swagger – but they all mean the same thing. When you watch Cheng Chin-lung at his best, you come away with the impression that the boy is fearless.

This is Cheng in 2017, finding a little bit of space at the edge of the box. He exhibits great presence of mind to cut back inside with the ball and wait for the right moment to slip in a no-look, through ball in between three defenders.

It’s hard to believe that Lung Jai was only 20 years old at the time of his loan spell at Dreams. He shows great swagger in this clip, not only to draw the foul, but also toying with players who are several years older than him.

Here he is again less than two years later. After collecting the second ball with his chest, he backs himself to score with no hesitation.

When you cease to be fearless, defenders no longer have a reason to fear you. The goal against Reysol doesn’t happen because of hours of practice on the training ground. It happened because a boy from Hong Kong had the audacity to back himself instead of passing the ball to a big-name foreigner.

Whilst watching hours of his tape from 2020-onwards, we began to notice that Cheng’s game has devolved into one focused on playing sideways passe as opposed to going vertical and trying to unlock opposition defences. What has happened over the years for Cheng to go from a player who was fearless to one who is unsure of himself, is a question that only he can answer. But if one wants the best for Cheng, then one must be willing to consider all possibilities.

Part of the reason could be that this comes down to coach Chu’s instructions. It seems doubtful that this is the case, but if Cheng is being limited to playing only safe passes, retaining possession, and pressing opposition midfielders when out of possession, this would be a gross misuse of his talents.

Cheng must confront the possibility that Kitchee are no longer the best place for him to develop anymore. Chu has said before that the club now abide by an ‘Elite Players Policy’, part of which means they strive to have two players at every position who are good enough to play in the Champions League. Even if Cheng were one of those players deemed to be ‘elite’, the club are never satisfied with the players they have, and will always look to bring in improvements.

Now ask yourself this: When was the last time Cheng successfully took on a defender? When was the last time he tried a through ball in between three defenders? When was the last time he showed real fearlessness whilst wearing a Kitchee shirt?

It could well be the case that his sense of self-doubt is greater than his sense of self-confidence because he’s constantly looking over his shoulder. It could be that Cheng is paralyzed by the fear that he is always one mistake away from being substituted in favour of one of Kitchee’s highly paid foreigners. If he can’t handle this pressure, then his career will remain stagnant so long as he remains at Kitchee.

There is another possibility one must consider: That his time at Dreams was a simply a mirage; a purple patch that will never happen again, much like his goal against Reysol. That because of his over-performance during that magical 2017-18 season, he has been overrated by observers, and there is no point in fantasizing about what he could be because he never will be.

He just is what he is.

Of course, no one wants this to be true, the least of whom is Cheng Chin-lung himself. The Hong Kong team lacks creative players who can play 40-yard diagonals and dribble past defenders like they’re pylons. All of the talent, the class, and the potential is still there for Cheng, but the question is whether he realizes this? He is only 25 after all, and he still has time.

The greatest danger, however, is believing that he will always have time.

The Enigma of Cheng Chin-lung
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