James Shield on Sheffield United: Slavisa Jokanovic should be the big winner following a decent week for The Blades
There’s still work to do. Sheffield United, as Slavisa Jokanovic is fond of saying, are going through “a process”.
But rather than trying to dissect that or discussing exactly what it might entail, let’s talk about progress instead. And plenty, despite conceding a gut wrenching late equaliser during Tuesday’s game against Preston North End, has been made since the international break. Had United remained focused right until the bitter end, they would be entering this weekend’s meeting with Hull City searching for a third win on the bounce having filleted Peterborough 6-2 five days ago.
Performances since then prove a number of things, including the theory put forward when Jokanovic was first appointed that this would be a season United would grow into, not seize by the scruff of the neck. But the most important - even though it is becoming increasingly unfashionable in boardrooms up and down the country as access to wealth gets confused with inherent intelligence - is that, when it comes to footballing matters, owners are best to trust their managers. Managers who, presuming those in charge have done their due diligence and devised a proper strategy behind the scenes, fit the culture of the club and are capable of operating within its financial parameters.
There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Towards the end of the transfer window, there was tension behind the scenes at Bramall Lane. Initially, Jokanovic tried to hide his exasperation at United’s failure to deliver the signings he felt had been agreed upon in May when, after being relegated from the Premier League, they eventually asked him to take charge after flirting with several other candidates. But, having probably bored himself senseless by trotting out the same lines to the press, the Serb’s mask eventually cracked. He didn’t directly call out his employers in public. But by talking about “promises” rather than prospective targets, he definitely made his displeasure unknown - particularly after spending the best part of two months arguing that bringing in “fresh faces” was quickest and surest way of removing the mental baggage United’s squad were carrying following their horrendous experiences in the top-flight last term.
Finally someone listened, ensured people pulled their fingers out, and the job got done. And guess what? The addition of some new blood has made a remarkable difference, with Morgan Gibbs-White in particular helping to improve the vibrancy and dynamism of United’s attacking play. Just as Jokanovic had predicted too, those already in situ have benefited from the introduction of some different personnel. John Fleck, passive and pretty anonymous at the beginning of the campaign, is suddenly starting to resemble his old self. Fellow midfielder Oliver Norwood is also much improved, as Gibbs-White and Iliman Ndiaye provide him with different passing options. But the presence of Conor Hourihane and Adlene Guedioura, now working with Jokanovic for the third time in his career, is also bound to have had an effect.
“Sometimes people get comfortable,” the former Yugoslavia international said before the meeting with North End, noting that becoming a professional sportsperson does not remove your human traits.
Ndiaye’s emergence also provides a lesson about the importance, when it comes to pure footballing matters, of trusting those best qualified to make a decision. Aged 21, the Frenchman appeared to have slipped off the face of the earth despite impressing on his debut during a fixture against Leicester City in March. According to a number of well-placed sources, this was a direct consequence of his refusal to accept the contract offer he received soon after that match.
Given his fine displays since being invited back into the fold by Jokanovic, there surely can be no other plausible explanation for Ndiaye’s failure to feature again until last month’s Carabao Cup victory over Derby County.
Superb against Darren Ferguson’s side, scoring two goals and creating another, he was less influential in midweek but still showed flashes of brilliance. Just think how good he might be now, or how different results might have been at the start of the season, had politics not hampered his development.
United were perfectly within their rights to stand firm in their negotiations. But if someone did apply pressure not to select him, either directly or in more subtle ways, it doesn’t look like an inspired decision right now. Nor was it one Jokanovic seemed to agree with, having invited him to take part in United’s pre-season sessions.
“The situation Iliman had,” he said, explaining why he was withdrawn with cramp during the meeting with Frankie McAvoy’s men, “Is that he started work with me, then stopped and started again.”
United’s squad is not the finished article. The fact United’s recruitment has so far focused exclusively on loans, while most of their rivals brokered at least some permanent deals, raises questions about the coherence of their masterplan.
Borrowed from Liverpool, Ben Davies’ return from injury can also not come soon enough. Had he been on the pitch against North End, it is unlikely Emil Riis would have been granted the opportunity to fire home beyond Robin Olsen with only seconds remaining.
But a lapse in concentration, and lack of depth in one specific position, were responsible for that set-back. Not the type of systemic failures which saw United pick up only two points from their first five league outings before the pause in the domestic schedule.
Having guided both Watford and Fulham to promotion from the second tier before pitching up in South Yorkshire, Jokanovic was the right man for the job then regardless of the match outcomes.
The insights, calls and predictions he has made since should - must - serve to increase his influence on issues of sport as United’s hierarchy, by their own admission, look to become more involved in footballing affairs. Because that is what they meant when they briefed, before the start of the season, that a more consensual approach was being pursued.