Aleksandar Mitrovic: If Slavisa Jokanovic does take charge of Sheffield United, prepare for the inevitable rumour to start swirling
If, and it remains ‘if’ Slavisa Jokanovic becomes Sheffield United’s next manager, one player will inevitably be linked with a move to Bramall Lane.
His name is Aleksandar Mitrovic; the former Chelsea midfielder’s fellow Serb, who despite firing Fulham into the Premier League less than 12 months ago is now being tipped to leave Craven Cottage if Scott Parker remains at the helm after they were also relegated back to the Championship. Even though owner Shahid Khan has different ideas.
For a whole host of reasons, money being the most obvious, Mitrovic is unlikely to move north later this year. United would have to finalise a deal with Jokanovic and his people before they could even start doing the maths.
But in the event they are able to broker one - crucially, both parties involved in the discussions are interested in progressing them beyond the preliminary stage - it would still be a major surprise if Mitrovic was not flagged by others as a potential summer signing. Particularly by those looking for an easy line ahead of the transfer window. One which, whilst not being forensically sourced, still seems plausible enough to generate interest and traction.
Clearly, Jokanovic and Mitrovic enjoy an excellent relationship. Even though Khan’s billions ultimately made the switch happen, the centre-forward made it clear Jokanovic’s presence at Craven Cottage was what persuaded him to turn his back on Anderlecht, where he was supposed to be heading on loan after falling out of favour at Newcastle, and accept a posting in the Championship instead.
Speaking at the time, soon after Mitrovic had single-handedly condemned his side to defeat in SW6, Chris Wilder questioned why a player with World Cup experience would choose to perform in the second tier. It was a backhanded compliment of sorts. And Mitrovic had already provided the answer.
“I went to Fulham because of the style and because of the coach,” Mitrovic said, explaining how Jokanovic had first got in touch via Snapchat. Later, when Fulham dispensed with the 52-year-old’s services soon after he had led them into the top-flight, Mitrovic admitted the decision was “very bad news” for him personally. “Everyone knows what he has done for my career,” he lamented. “So I feel it much heavier, yes.”
Despite being stuffed to the gills with strikers, many of whom are proven scorers in the second tier, United’s squad is still likely to benefit from an injection of power, pace and nous ahead of the new campaign.
Like Jokanovic himself, Mitrovic, who has struggled for gametime of late under Parker, appears perfectly suited to United’s approach and playing style.
However, estimated to earn more than £60,000 a week in the capital after commanding a £27m fee following his departure from St James’ Park, Mitrovic is likely to be beyond United’s reach should he be sacrificed during the overhaul Fulham are planning after they were demoted alongside United and West Bromwich Albion.
Despite apparently being on a much firmer financial footing than when Wilder took charge in May 2016 - one of his gifts, after parting company with them in March, was an enhanced parachute payment following last season’s ninth placed finish - the Covid-19 pandemic and loss of PL broadcasting revenues will have a big effect on United’s balance sheet. Much bigger, one suspects, than officials insisted after recently releasing their latest set of accounts. Particularly as, despite enjoying some support from their owner, United are essentially an organically grown institution. Their success under Wilder, until things began to go south in September, is responsible for the growth in spending power. Not a sugar daddy.
Despite briefing they plan to retain the core of their playing staff, whoever does take charge of United on a permanent basis will want to make personnel changes to suit their own tactics and strategies. Paul Heckingbottom, placed in interim charge in March, has been involved in helping plan United’s recovery programme following a wretched campaign which sees them travel to Everton this weekend hoping to avoid a 29th defeat in 36 outings. The former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief, whose name also features on the shortlist of candidates identified as Wilder’s potential replacement, has argued widespread upheaval would be a mistake; acknowledging confidence inside the dressing room is at an all-time low but noting the positive chemistry its inhabitants enjoy.
However, although attack is one area of the pitch where United would be better served trimming rather than strengthening their options, making at least one ‘statement’ signing would help reinvigorate a fan base which has also been left dispirited by results of late.
United have played to the gallery in the past, and seldom performed well. But after spending two years at the highest level, they should be able to shop in a more attractive market now. If United do stick to their word and resist offers for their most exciting talents - something the right managerial appointment would help them do - the team still appears in need of freshening up.
“It’s been tough, as people would expect,” Heckingbottom said, before Saturday’s loss to Crystal Palace which saw United draw a blank for the 22nd time this season. “Goalscoring has obviously been a problem for us, that goes without saying. If you don’t take chances when you create them, especially when they are so hard to create in this division, then it is always going to be an issue.”