Sheffield United: Bullish claim made about the progress Slavisa Jokanovic's team is making

It might not be as quick as he, his board of directors or team’s supporters would like but Slavisa Jokanovic is convinced Sheffield United are making progress in their attempt to become the team everyone thought they would become when the Serb was appointed last summer.

Friday, 12th November 2021, 3:40 pm

After taking the lead and then surrendering it against Blackburn Rovers, United entered the international break 18th in the Championship table - 12 places and seven points outside of the play-off positions following an indifferent start to the season.

Although a top six finish was the bare minimum Bramall Lane’s hierarchy expected Jokanovic to achieve when they appointed him six months ago, more experienced operators within the English game predicted it could take longer than one season to refresh, reprofile and revitalise a squad which had just been relegated - and relegated emphatically - from the Premier League.

Despite highlighting a number of areas where United must improve in order to challenge for an immediate return to the top-flight, Jokanovic has also detected several where there has been an upturn in performance levels since the last pause in the domestic fixture schedule.

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Dismissing claims he affords aesthetics the same importance as effectiveness, the Serb said: “Yes, I see progress although of course there are also problems.

“People ask me about lovely football. I don’t like lovely football. I like winning football.

“We need to see improvement, that is obvious. But I also believe we are closer today than yesterday to being who we would like.”

Despite their obvious failings, Slavisa Jokanovic still believes Sheffield United are making progress: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Some of the areas where United have improved, such as their returns in front of goal and average points per match haul, can be displayed statistically.

But some of the most important qualities in football are impossible to quantify. They include imagination, vision and, perhaps most crucially for a team which has conceded 10 times during the final quarter-of-an-hour of its matches this term, confidence and game-management.

Four days before travelling to Ewood Park, United also relinquished an advantage towards the end of what proved to be a creditable draw with Nottingham Forest. Although the sight of Lewis Grabban cancelling out Morgan Gibbs-White opener was a disappointment, particularly given that he was preparing to make a substitution at the time, Jokanovic should take heart from the fact a lapse in concentration was responsible for tossing away two points. Not the type of dramatic, panicked response which had threatened to become a trait of United’s play before their visit to the east Midlands.

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic says Sheffield united must trust in the process: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“I talk about process and I talk about confidence,” Jokanovic continued. “Two months ago, I had a situation with people who had their heads down. I don’t want to defend results with positivity. But the reaction, to pressure and stress situations, wasn’t good. That was different.”

It reveals much about the scale of the challenge facing Jokanovic, and also the problems he inherited after starting work in July, that how United relinquished the lead at the City Ground was viewed as being a step forward. But you can understand the argument.

Events in Lancashire, however, represented two or three back. A first league goal in United colours for Rhian Brewster provided their coaching staff with something good to talk about afterwards. Only briefly though, as those on display went on to produce a performance so lacking in fight and conviction it lent further weight to the argument a major refresh is required.

“I don’t want my team to play like (Manchester) City,” said Jokanovic. “I also believe they can do what we are asking them to do. I believe the players in my hands at this moment, they can make this work.

Sheffield United return to action when they face Coventry City later this month at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“I repeat, of course we need to see improvement and we need some better players in the future. But we must trust in ourselves, trust in what we are doing and stay with the process. Because that is important.”

Although United’s pitiful display against Rovers will colour people’s thinking, Jokanovic’s insistence they are getting better at some aspects of their profession is not without merit. There have been times in recent weeks when United, whose average possession rate this term is a whopping 62 per cent, produce periods of football which are a joy to behold. The only trouble is, after meandering their way through the beginning of the campaign, those currently at Jokanovic’s disposal struggle to translate those into a dominant 90 minute performance. And, as their abject body of work against inexperienced opponents seven days ago demonstrated, they are terribly inconsistent.

In a sense, even though he is loath to admit it, that makes it even more difficult for Jokanovic to identify exactly what the problem is and how best to solve it.

Work, hard work, it is important because that is all we can do right now.”

Providing the necessary funds are placed at his disposal, that comment suggests Jokanovic will look to the January transfer market for solutions. Those include a holding midfielder, whose presence he believes will enable Oliver Norwood to focus more on the creative side of his game, and two wingers. That suggests a potential change of position for Gibbs-White, whose pace and technique could make him an asset through the middle. Likewise youngster Iliman Ndiaye, whose partnership with the on-loan England under-21 international offers a wealth of tactical possibilities. United no longer have any difficulty fashioning chances; taking nearly 14 shots per match. Converting them, though, is a different story with only a tenth of those ending with the ball in the back of the net.

“I came here because I wanted to work with these players and because I believe they are good players,” Jokanovic said. “I have not changed my opinion on that. We can all make each other better, we should not be scared to do that.”