Revealed: The subject of the meeting Slavisa Jokanovic held with Sheffield United's squad
Towards the end of last week, after watching his players contest a series of small-sided games at Sheffield United’s training complex, Slavisa Jokanovic summoned them to a meeting inside its canteen and spoke for around a quarter-of-an-hour before lunch was eventually served.
The Serb didn’t raise his voice. In fact, according to those who work under him, his brooding demeanor on the touchline is misleading. Rather than being a disciplinarian, Jokanovic prefers to govern through consensus rather than fear.
But as he addressed United’s squad in the spartanly furnished room which overlooks the site’s indoor football pitch, the 53-year-old’s tone and body language confirmed the importance of this get-together. It concerned what Jokanovic likes to call “personality” but which might be better described as ‘personal responsibility’ - the ability to carry out instructions under pressure and, even when a match is becoming increasingly stretched, execute a game plan.
Jokanovic returned to the theme on Sunday afternoon, having seen United come agonisingly close to surrendering the lead they had established during a bizarre match against Barnsley.
“You can be scared of water, you can be scared of lions,” he said, after seeing Markus Schopp’s side score twice during the closing stages following strikes from Lys Mousset (2) and Ben Osborn. “But football? You should not be scared of football, no. That is not something to be scared of. There is no need at all.”
As they oversee preparations for this weekend’s visit of Blackpool, events at Oakwell are likely to ensure United’s coaching staff again focus on psychology instead of obsessing over tactical minutiae.
More than a quarter of the goals Jokanovic’s side have conceded in the Championship this term have come during the final 15 minutes of a contest, including the efforts Devante Cole and Aaron Leya Iseka netted during the South Yorkshire derby. It is a troubling statistic Jokanovic, although he has resisted the temptation to say so explicitly, attributes to the damage caused to their confidence and self-belief during last season’s relegation from the Premier League. Repairing that, changing the mindset of those who had grown used to being beaten before his appointment in May, is arguably the most important challenge facing the former Yugoslavia right now as he attempts to unlock United’s potential.
“If you expect bad things to occur, then very often they will,” Jokanovic said. “What you must do is trust in yourself and also the process. Maybe we expected bad things to happen (at Barnsley) and they nearly did. But we must be satisfied with the result.”
Fourteenth in the table following their latest assignment, United’s performance levels have steadily improved over the past month or so. But their efforts to climb the rankings and force themselves into top-six contention are being undermined by the mental fragility which so nearly cost them dear against Barnsley. It is revealing that United are often at their most effective immediately after the half-time interval, when Jokanovic and his assistants have had an opportunity to repeat some of the messages they have relayed ahead of kick-off. Issue reminders about the importance of following a script or, at the very least staying as true to it as possible. Both of Mousset’s efforts, after 45 largely forgettable minutes of action, came within 10 of the restart. Morgan Gibbs-White was also on target in the 56th minute of their clash with AFC Bournemouth while John Egan completed a brace at Hull City after finding the back of the net in the 50th and 61st.
“You must show trust but also be ready to play the game,” Jokanovic continued. “And you do that by showing that trust in yourself and the things you have been working on. Football is not complicated. It is a simple game with simple objectives. But you must also be clever and sharp to realise that, especially in certain situations. It comes with time. How long depends on how brave you are.”
Chris Basham provided some details of the monologue his manager delivered before making the short journey up the M1 two days ago.
“He spoke to us about the importance of being in the right positions, in possession and out of it,” the United defender explained during a conversation with journalists via Zoom. “It was really good, because it was all about how doing that can help you stay in control and make sure things pan out in the way you want them to, not letting the opposition dictate things.”
“The manager and the people around him are very big on that,” he added. “It’s something they are really working with us a lot on and it teaches us a lot.
“There’s always things you can get better at and that is obviously going to be one of them.”
Introduced during the closing stages of the clash with Barnsley to help his colleagues do exactly that, Basham’s entrance confirmed Jokanovic still values his experience and match-craft despite settling upon John Egan and Ben Davies as his preferred pairing at centre-half following United’s switch from a back three to a back four.
“How you think is, from one side, as important as anything else,” Jokanovic said. “Do not fear the worst, because you know you are good players otherwise you would not be at Sheffield United or at this level. Yes, the other (tactical) side of your work is necessary. But so is your mind and your belief in your ability to do positive things and what will happen if you do. That is my sensation.”