Four reasons why Sheffield United have a shot at promotion ...if Slavisa Jokanovic is allowed to do his job
In an ideal world, Sheffield United would be sitting pretty at the top of the table right now with Fulham, AFC Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion and all the other Championship big-hitters trailing in their wake.
Instead, following Saturday’s controversial defeat at the Vitality Stadium, they enter the latest international break ranked 14th - 13 points behind Scott Parker’s side who have seized control of the race for automatic promotion after making an unbeaten start to the campaign.
Although Slavisa Jokanovic admits to being disappointed by results at the beginning of his reign - “I can’t be satisfied. We can’t be satisfied. There is always space to do better” - United have undoubtedly made significant improvements since the last pause in the domestic fixture schedule.
In the first installment of a two part study, The Star’s United writer James Shield examines the reasons behind this upturn before identifying the things Jokanovic and his players will be working on ahead of their return to action later this month.
United finished the latest round of competition in 14th place; six points behind the play-off positions and 10 short of second-place, which is currently occupied by West Brom. Five and a bit weeks ago, when football last switched its attention towards the race for next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar, they were 23rd - seven off sixth and averaging only 0.4 points per game.
Since then, after beating Peterborough, Hull City and Derby County en route to Dorset, this figure has risen to 1.09. After being held to a goalless draw at Luton Town - actually, given how the contest unfolded, make that ‘holding onto’ one - United have returned 1.66. That is just short of the 1.67 needed to qualify for the end of season knock-outs last term but more than the number necessary the year before.
United’s performances in front of goal have improved too. They have found the back of the net an average of 2.2 times per game in their last six outings. That was something they achieved only once in their opening five games.
By Jokanovic’s own admission, United are still a work in progress. But they have made plenty of late, despite also losing to Middlesbrough before travelling to Dorset.
FOUND AN IDENTITY
Having started work at Bramall Lane only a month earlier, and having seen his pre-season programme descend into chaos thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jokanovic changed United’s shape in each of their opening four league fixtures. After lining them up in a 4-4-2 for August’s curtain-raiser against Birmingham City, he then switched - prophetically as it turned out - to 4-2-3-1 at Swansea City before experimenting with a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 during meetings with West Brom and Huddersfield Town. United also deployed in a 3-5-2 formation at Kenilworth Road.
Some observers will argue he should have simply utilised the same tactics employed by his predecessor Chris Wilder - particularly given his board of directors’ failure to make any early breakthroughs in the transfer market. But why? With Jack O’Connell’s absence limiting their effectiveness, United had just spiralled out of the top-flight. So something different was clearly required.
The only trouble was, having been handicapped by the inertia of his employers, Jokanovic obviously couldn’t decide exactly what that was. Returning to a 4-2-3-1 following their visit to Luton, United have used it in all of their six matches since. They now have an identity and defined way of playing, which they didn’t before.
Whatever the why’s, how’s and wherefores, it was a grave error of judgement by United’s hierarchy to appoint a new manager - particularly one they knew would instigate a change of approach - and then force him to start the season without any new players. It also smacked of complacency, suggesting some of those in charge of running the club believed the Championship would be a cakewalk compared to the Premier League.
Okay, standards in the second tier might not be as high. But they’re still pretty damn good, and it wasn’t as if United had been unfortunate to go down. They’d actually been demoted, and deservedly so, with six matches remaining.
Jokanovic repeatedly warned that an injection of fresh blood, or “clean minds” as he preferred to put it, was the only way to ensure the psychological wounds United had sustained during the previous campaign healed quickly. And guess what? He was right.
It is no accident that United’s improvement in fortunes coincided with the arrival of Conor Hourihane, Robin Olsen and Morgan Gibbs-White on loan, after Ben Davies’ temporary switch from Liverpool. The emergence of Iliman Ndiaye, whose development had previously been hampered by internal politics, has also brought a much needed freshness to the squad.
A CHANGE OF FOCUS
Football and footballers are obsessed by possession as everyone, whether they’ve got the players or not, attempts to become the next Barcelona. Circa 2014/15 or course, not the present, pretty pathetic, model.
But as the statistics surrounding United’s season demonstrate, this fixation can be a distraction from the whole point of their job. Which, not that anyone needs reminding, is winning matches.
United’s upturn in fortunes has actually coincided with a downturn in how much they see of the ball. Before the last international break, they kept it for an average of 68.4 percent. Since then, with their points return increasing five fold, that number has dropped to 64.3. That is less than the 65 percent United enjoyed during their 4-0 thumping at The Hawthorns two months ago.
Jokanovic still wants his team to dictate the pace and pattern of the games they are involved in. But they are becoming more efficient at doing so.