Fresh blood needed, patience and the case for Luke Freeman: Five talking points from Sheffield United's draw at Swansea

Sheffield United got their season up and running with a point on the road at last season’s Championship play-off finalists – but it wasn’t enough to prevent a great deal of frustration being aired in the aftermath of the final whistle in south Wales.

Sunday, 15th August 2021, 2:00 pm

United had only just over a third of possession all evening, but Aaron Ramsdale was only tested with one shot as both sides picked up their first point of the new season after a disappointing end to the last campaign.

Here, The Star’s Danny Hall offers a few talking points from the game…

Shapeshifters

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Another game, another system for United under Slavisa Jokanović, who fielded FOUR strikers from the start against Swansea.

It’s a novel idea of fixing the old ‘how do I get my strikers in the squad?’ conundrum but although the system looked attacking on paper, it did not translate that way on the field.

Billy Sharp, up top on his own in front of David McGoldrick, Oli Burke and Rhian Brewster, was often too isolated to receive any real service and although Burke had a couple of decent openings down the right, Brewster was essentially playing as an auxiliary left back for much of the game because he was so deep.

David McGoldrick of Sheffield United reacts after missing a chance at Swansea: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Jokanović is clearly still tinkering with his shape because he hasn’t found what he feels is the right one yet – a fact only exacerbated by the lack of pre-season games his side played – and, with the players at his disposal, it is tempting to wonder if he would be best served sticking with the 3-5-2 system that this squad was assembled to play, at least until he can put his own stamp on it in the transfer market. Which, on the showing so far, cannot come soon enough.

Fresh blood needed

Again, on paper, United’s squad is one of the strongest in the division. But in reality, this is a squad that, no matter how talented, lost 30 games last season alone. That is bound to take a toll on confidence and belief – it would on even the very best – and unfortunately, such mental issues cannot be easily solved with a bit of extra work on the training ground.

It is becoming clearer by the week that this squad needs some fresh impetus, some players who don’t carry the inevitable baggage and scars that such a bruising campaign resulted in.

Ronaldo Vieira and Ben Davies will be a start, if and when they are signed, sealed and delivered, plugging two of the more imbalanced areas of Jokanović’s squad. But will it be enough?

Energy

United’s manager didn’t try to dress up his side’s performance in his post-match press briefing, admitting United have huge work ahead of them and that he hopes his players can get up to the level he wants them to be at soon.

He did point to a lack of energy in his side and although he has been at pains to not use it as an excuse so far, the lack of pre-season games is bound to have a knock-on effect when it comes to Championship action.

The Blades have now played four games since the end of May – one against an outfit from Gibraltar, the other against a League One side in Doncaster Rovers and two in Championship combat, against a Birmingham side who finished last season strongly and Swansea, who reached the play-off final a few months ago.

There is a big difference between an excuse and a mitigating factor; United are essentially still playing pre-season games in terms of fitness and getting used to how their manager wants them to play, after being ingrained with his predecessor Chris Wilder’s approach.

There is significant room for improvement, especially if United want to be considered as genuine promotion challengers in a division as competitive as this one. But it can also help to consider all the factors at play before writing them off completely, too.

Have a little patience

It’s not something that’s always been in plentiful supply at Bramall Lane, but it may be needed more than ever now. In between the social media messages comparing Jokanović to David Weir and wondering how much longer a manager who has been in charge for 180 competitive minutes has got in the job, there were some from fans of the Serb’s former clubs which offer interesting food for thought.

“Remember we didn't win any of our first four under Slav the year we went up,” wrote a Fulham supporter. “If they're top six by Christmas expect them to kick on.”

“Be patient United fans,” another added. “Slavisa’s teams always start slowly and then tear it up second half of the season.”

Jokanović’s Fulham were as low as 17th in the Championship in November 2017 when they came to Bramall Lane, beat United 5-4 in their 18th league game of the season and were promoted via the play-offs six months later.

At Fulham, Watford lost four and drew two of Jokanović’s first eight games before sealing automatic promotion that same campaign with 13 wins in their final 18 matches.

There is no guarantee that history will repeat itself at Bramall Lane, of course; but overcoming a slow start to secure promotion is nothing new for the straight-talking Serb.

Free’ spirit?

Whilst every single striker on United’s books has been utilised in their three games so far - all 364 of them, it seems – Luke Freeman has watched his teammates draw a blank in both league games so far from the bench.

The Blades have managed four shots on target in those two games and Freeman has so far been restricted to one appearance in the EFL Cup. Freeman’s creative talents in this very division for QPR persuaded United to make him their record signing at the time and although his time at Bramall Lane has not worked out as anyone would have wanted it to so far, there is little doubt that Freeman offers something different to arguably every other player on their books – that bit of trickery, a drop of the shoulder and a stepover, the ability to do something out of the ordinary and perhaps create something out of nothing.

It will be interesting to see how Jokanović approaches Wednesday night’s trip to another team expected to go well this season, West Brom; whether he goes to keep things tight, or tries to play expansively.

But in games when United are expected to dominate more of the ball, against – for the want of a better word – the weaker teams in the second tier, Freeman could still be a dangerous option in Jokanović’s already-substantial attacking armoury.