Sheffield United: Four key issues The Blades must address during the international break
Barring a handful of notable exceptions, including the post-match interviews he conducted following last weekend’s refereeing controversy at AFC Bournemouth, Slavisa Jokanovic’s poker face has remained intact throughout the majority of his time with Sheffield United.
It came close to cracking towards the end of the transfer window, when he was clearly growing frustrated by the club’s lack of progress in the market. But with that eventually being rectified - albeit too late to prevent United effectively granting Fulham and West Bromwich Albion an 11 point head start - the Serb has remained a model of calm and composure in some pretty testing circumstances. Outwardly at least.
With the last international break proving to be a pivotal moment of his reign - despite entering it having suffered back to back defeats, United now resemble the team we all thought they would be under the 53-year-old - Jokanovic hopes to put his time before October 16th’s game against Stoke City to equally good use.
Having identified the areas where United improved during the last pause in the domestic fixture schedule, The Star’s James Shield analyses some of the issues they must address before the visit of Michael O’Neill’s side in order to truly unlock their potential.
ACHIEVING A BETTER BALANCE
United struggled to buy a goal during their first five games of the Championship season, scoring only once in more than seven-and-a-half hours of football. However, they were difficult for opponents, unless they were wearing West Brom jerseys, to prise apart. A horrible night at the Hawthorns apart, when they conceded four times without managing to land a decisive blow themselves, United’s rearguard was breached on only three occasions.
Since then, Jokanovic’s players have become much more ruthless in the final third. From last month’s evisceration of Peterborough onwards, they have scored 15 in all competitions despite contesting only seven matches.
This improvement has come at a price, though. In their first seven fixtures, even taking into account their pummeling in the Midlands, United let in an average of 1.1 goals every 90 minutes. In their last seven, that has risen to 1.6.
Clearly, some solidity has to be sacrificed in order to become more expansive. But by working on United’s positioning out of possession and at the breakdown, Jokanovic and his staff will try to use the next few training sessions to ensure they rediscover some of their old miserliness without losing that new-found cutting edge.
A GREATER GOAL SPREAD
Let’s be honest, Billy Sharp really shouldn’t still be the best finisher at United. But he is, despite being only four months short of his 36th birthday and with the club having spent two of the past three years in the Premier League. Some people might claim that is being disrespectful to Bramall Lane’s very own Captain Marvel, who has shown great self awareness and dedication to ensure he is still Jokanovic’s go-to man in attack.
Together with Morgan Gibbs-White, whose arrival on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers has brought some much needed dynamism to United’s work, Sharp is responsible for scoring 43 per cent of United’s goals in the Championship this term. Ordinarily, that would not be an issue. But with Wolves in control of Gibbs-White’s future - not Jokanovic - United must try and get some of their other forwards firing to ensure a greater goal spread. Because if something happens to Gibbs-White, Sharp will be in desperate need of support.
Iliman Ndiaye, a wonderful talent, could be a solution. But a lack of experience means he is bound to be inconsistent over the coming months. Likewise Oli McBurnie, providing he is allowed to be himself rather than required to masquerade as a targetman. Lys Mousset’s return from injury could be timely - providing the Frenchman, whose career in South Yorkshire has been beset by off-the-pitch problems, can stay fit and focused. But as Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder discovered, despite initially treating Mousset with kid gloves, that is easier said than done.
United’s record transfer signing, Rhian Brewster really should be the answer to the above problem. But the youngster, a £23.5m acquisition from Liverpool, has netted just once since leaving Anfield 12 months ago.
Clearly low on confidence, Brewster can not be absolved of all responsibility for his problems at United. Failing to take ownership of your game, blaming others for all your failings, is unfortunately a growing trend in football.
But the way he has been handled - being given sporadic opportunities in different positions - hasn’t helped either. Although Brewster is away on international duty with England’s under-21 squad, United need to discover if they can find him a proper role in their squad. If not, it is probably better for both them and the player if they part company during the next window.
It is a problem Jokanovic has inherited rather than created. But he is now the guy, with Brewster’s help, who must solve it.
GETTING MORE OUT OF BERGE
The midfielder, the second most expensive purchase in United’s history, has missed their last five matches through injury. That is not his fault. But neither does it stop the fact Berge has sat out 48 per cent of their fixtures since completing a £22m move from Genk being a concern either.
The serious damage he sustained to a hamstring midway through last season was, almost certainly, unavoidable. The Norwegian, like Brewster, is clearly a supremely gifted footballer. But like Brewster, he needs to impose himself on the action more rather than simply showing flashes of his ability every so often.