James Shield's Sheffield United Column: As they head to Bournemouth, why The Blades' fate this season could be shaped off the pitch as much as on it
It wasn’t the most erudite of questions. And yes, I’ll admit it, unfortunately it was mine.
But having been asked by yours truly if Sheffield United’s performance against Middlesbrough was a sign their confidence is still fractured after being relegated from the Premier League, Slavisa Jokanovic’s response highlighted one of the biggest challenges facing the club right now. A problem which, despite relinquishing top-flight status last season, ensures it still has something in common with two of the biggest in English football: Arsenal and the second oldest ‘United’ - the one from Manchester.
I could try and pretend that was thanks to my intelligent probing. But that would be a lie. After politely declining the invitation to accuse me of peddling this tired old trope, the Serb veered off on a tangent and relayed the message he wanted to instead.
“This is the Championship and there are no easy challenges,” Jokanovic reminded, after watching his players succumb 2-0 on Teesside. “There is always an opponent in front of you. No result is surprising.”
Clearly United, who produced a lacklustre and ineffective performance, are a work in progress. But then, as they prepare for this weekend’s visit to AFC Bournemouth, we knew that anyway. Jokanovic only took charge three months ago. The approach and strategies he wants to adopt will take time to perfect. There are also unresolved issues for the board of directors to address, not least the speed with which transfers are negotiated and state of the Shirecliffe training complex.
But what United aren’t, having entered the meeting with Neil Warnock’s men effectively unbeaten in seven in all competitions - their Carabao Cup ‘defeat’ on penalties to Southampton is actually recorded as a draw - is a squad still high on self-doubt and low on belief. Because if that was the case, they wouldn’t have been able to piece together that sequence of results. Or score 16 goals en route.
“Sometimes, when you are in a process, you take a step back,” Jokanovic continued during his post-match media conference. “I don’t get the sensation that we are taking lots of steps back. This was a set-back, yes. But lots of steps back? No, that’s not what I am feeling or seeing.
“You have to trust in what you do, be positive and committed to the things you are doing, knowing that it is going to take you to where you want to be. In three days, we will get a chance to wash our faces and offer more. It is not a good thing, and not necessary, in my opinion, to get depressed.”
If you sign-up to become a professional sportsperson, or supporter for that matter, then defeats are part of the deal. The only trouble is, the level of analysis, particularly in soccer, has become so detailed and insightful, it’s convinced many of us that every loss must be symptomatic of a wider issue. On occasion they are. But mostly they aren’t. Not every goal conceded is down to poor defending. Sometimes - and this was the case when Duncan Watmore scored Middlesbrough’s first on Tuesday, it’s just a damn good finish.
Warnock, one of the canniest operators in the business, also ensured his men had an advantage by unveiling a slight change of formation and ensuring they were equipped to exploit some of United’s weaknesses. Having entered the contest under a little bit of pressure, he also reverted to a line-up full of tried and tested talents. People he could trust.
“I think it was a great appointment by my old club,” Warnock, who 15 years ago led United into the top-flight, reminded afterwards. “Slav is one of the best and they’ve got some really exceptional people out there on the pitch.
“I thought we deserved it. I thought we played some really good stuff. I told the lads beforehand ‘This is a brilliant night for it - two good sides, two great crowds, a great surface and a little bit of rain in the air. What more could you want?”
“Listen, they (United) are going to be there or thereabouts come the end,” he added, getting to the really important bit. “Sometimes, though, i don’t think it does the big boys any harm to get a little kick, a little reminder, about what you have to do. I don’t think it does anyone, for that matter, any harm at all providing you learn from the experience and then respond. That’s what we did and that’s what Slav will ensure his boys do as well.”
Suggestions they aren’t qualified for the roles they currently occupy apart - a charge which definitely can’t be be levelled at Jokanovic - Mikel Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his counterparts at the Emirates Stadium and Old Trafford, are being handicapped by the narratives surrounding their respective clubs. Win, and they are about to enter a bright new era. If they lose, well, let’s not even go there. We all know the script.
The tightrope United are walking isn’t quite so razor thin. But in order to maximise their chances of pushing for promotion - or, as Jokanovic prefers to call it, “the big prize we set in pre-season” - the players and coaching staff must ensure what happened last term no longer becomes a talking point whenever they get beat. As well as improving their position in the table, going on another decent run should change the conversation surrounding United’s campaign and help cultivate a more sober working environment.