Jack O'Connell: The big dilemma facing Sheffield United and Slavisa Jokanovic as fans wait for a detailed update on defender's injury situation
You don’t need to be an orthopedic surgeon to realise the situation isn’t great.
Ten months after first succumbing to injury - and five since making what Chris Wilder used to describe as a “return to the grass” - Jack O’Connell is still seemingly no closer to receiving his comeback date. Which is hugely troubling. For both the player himself and Sheffield United as a whole.
Speaking at his official unveiling on Friday, Slavisa Jokanovic admitted he was unsure about the exact details of O’Connell’s condition and whether or not he is still meeting the schedule those tasked with overseeing his recovery from a serious knee operation have set. Well, the revised schedule - because Wilder, Jokanovic’s predecessor at Bramall Lane, suggested it would have been completed by now before leaving his position in March.
That in itself wasn’t concerning. After all, the Serb had only introduced himself to his squad for the first time in the flesh a little over 24 hours earlier. But what was, given Jokanovic’s understandable reluctance to discuss the issue, was the fact he already suspected O’Connell would miss pre-season. And so, inevitably, the start of the new campaign too.
“From the medical department, I don’t have any feedback that he will be ready soon to start working with me,” replied Jokanovic, after being asked to provide an update on O’Connell’s progress. “Right now, he is not in my plans. I don’t expect him to be available for this pre-season. That is not the feedback I am getting from the medical department.”
Even if O’Connell suddenly makes a miraculous recovery, he will have been out for over a year by the time he completes the fitness and tactical work required to be considered for selection. Supposedly now in his prime - he turned 27 soon after Wilder’s departure - the Liverpudlian will be distraught that what should be one of the peak years of his career has been spent on the operating table, the treatment table and in the gym.
O’Connell’s absence also presents Jokanovic with a dilemma as he tries to steer United back into the Premier League at the first time of asking. A vital cog in the 3-5-2 system which saw them challenge for Europe after being promoted from the Championship, O’Connell’s importance and influence became even more apparent when his withdrawal from the firing line coincided with a dramatic slide in United’s performance levels. By the time Wilder began to fathom how to cope without the defender, United were already as good as down.
Appointed in May but choosing to see out the remainder of his contract with Qatari club Al-Gharafa before arriving in South Yorkshire, Jokanovic told United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his unofficial director of football Jan van Winckel that he planned to retain the core of the formation and strategy which, until internal politics and O’Connell’s deteriorating fitness levels got in the way, had proved so effective under his predecessor.
But with the former Brentford and Blackburn Rovers player unavailable, Jokanovic must be wondering if there is any point? Perhaps the only convincing argument for doing so is that John Egan is perhaps United’s only traditional centre-half, although this is expected to be addressed in the transfer market when they return from a training camp in Spain.
Jokanovic is obsessed by detail, with people who have worked under him at both Watford and Fulham testifying to the thoroughness of his approach. So, after using the time between the announcement he was taking charge and last week’s public coronation studying footage of every single United game since September, it will not have escaped Jokanovic’s notice that they looked disjointed and lacked penetration once O’Connell was ruled-out.
There is, to put it simply, no direct replacement within United’s existing squad. Not one as effective as O’Connell anyway, although Jack Robinson showed signs of getting to grips with the position after recovering from an injury issue of his own. Finding one will be almost impossible as well, given that central defenders aren’t encouraged to charge forward on the overlap and spray crosses into the box.
With his interpretation of a shape made famous by Carlos Bilardo praised by Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa alike, Wilder initially refused to try something different - calculating that it made little sense to disrupt an entire starting eleven because O’Connell was out of action. But United’s solution to the problem caused by his absence simply created a number of others elsewhere. By moving Enda Stevens inside as cover, United simply weakened themselves in two positions rather than one. Then Kean Bryan was asked to learn on the job, when it became apparent that switching Stevens from wing-back was not the answer.
Last month, O’Connell published a photograph on social media showing him being put through his paces by a personal trainer. Furiously punching a heavy bag, the keen boxer appeared in shape and trim.
But there is a world of difference between being ripped and ready for the rigors of professional football. Something Paul Heckingbottom alluded to during his spell in caretaker charge.
“It’s all about building Jack up slowly, taking it step by step and making sure every single box is ticked,” he told reporters in April. “There are certain things that the medical and fitness people want to see him be able to do before they move him on to the next step. Until he’s ticked one box, they won’t let him try and do another, which is how it should be.”
Clearly, O’Connell has either suffered another set-back in his recovery battle or is struggling to complete one particular task.
Jokanovic, as he awaits for more news from the doctors, physiotherapists and consultants who are working with O’Connell, must now take a view as to whether he can still make good on his promise to tweak rather than revolutionize United’s modus operandi.