Sheffield United: Slavisa Jokanovic provides an intriguing - and very revealing - insight into his methods ahead of this weekend's clash with AFC Bournemouth
Sheffield United hadn’t been beaten but Slavisa Jokanovic’s patience was still being stretched.
“I didn’t enjoy watching that,” he growled, after watching his Sheffield United side enter the last international break on the back of a goalless stalemate with Luton. “I don’t suppose my players enjoyed being part of it and, although I’m only guessing because I obviously have not talked to all of them, I don’t think the people who came to watch us enjoyed watching it either.”
Scroll forward five weeks and the Serb’s demeanor has improved. Results have helped. Performances too. But Jokanovic’s response to Tuesday’s set-back at Middlesbrough, United’s penultimate appearance before football’s attention once again turns to the race for next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar, confirms he isn’t only obsessed by systems and strategies. The 53-year-old recognises the ability to understand people, not complex tactical theories, is actually the most important part of his profession.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s visit to AFC Bournemouth, where United will look to bounce back from their 2-0 defeat on Teesside, Jokanovic was again measured in his criticism of the work his squad had produced 48 hours earlier; telling journalists during Thursday’s media conference they had “tried to create lots” and succeeded “to some degree” but failed to exploit those openings. It was the latest example of the former Watford and Fulham manager, whose old colleague at Craven Cottage - Scott Parker - is now in charge at the Vitality Stadium - being critical after draws and victories but adopting a much softer tone following losses. Particularly those when, as they were by Neil Warnock’s side, United have been convincingly beaten.
“When I checked the game again,” said Jokanovic, who only a fortnight ago was complaining about United’s “body language” during their emphatic wins over Hull City and Peterborough, “I was not as negative about it as I was straight away afterwards. John Egan our centre-half for example, he won all of the challenges he had.
“Yes, eer had some problems in the second phase. But I want to encourage all of my people. Even in defeat we did some very positive things. Now the next game is the most important one and we hope to have the power to push our performance to the highest level we can.”
Although he is visibly frustrated whenever someone mentions their relegation from the Premier League last season, particularly as it didn’t even happen on his watch, Jokanovic’s decision to go easy on United following poor displays is revealing. It suggests, despite seeing them win three of their four Championship matches en route to the Riverside, he suspects the ghosts of a campaign which saw them beaten 29 times in 38 outings have not been completely exorcised despite the addition of “clean minds” such as Ben Davies, Morgan Gibbs-White and Conor Hourihane, who could be recalled against Bournemouth, during the closing stages of the transfer window. Composing the right kind of mood music for his audience in the dressing room is, as a result, hugely important.
“Ten games in, our honeymoon period is now over,” Jokanovic acknowledged. “We must produce more wins and take even more steps forward. We must do that if we want to fight for the targets I believe these players can fight for.”
“We have done lots of good things and improved in lots of areas,” he continued. “But we know what our responsibilities are and what we must do. I believe these players, as they have shown me already, are capable of continuing that improvement and pushing to achieve what they want to achieve.”
Parker, who succeeded Jonathan Woodgate at Bournemouth last summer, played under Jokanovic in west London before being appointed to his coaching staff following Fulham’s promotion to the top-flight in 2018. The brief he inherited after leaving the capital was a lot more straightforward than the one handed to Jokanovic following his move to South Yorkshire in July, with Russian petrochemicals trader Maxim Demin prepared to bankroll moves for Celtic’s Ryan Christie and former United loanee Gary Cahill - previously of Chelsea and England.
That has been reflected in results with Bournemouth, who also fended-off interest in another ex-United star - David Brooks - losing only one of their opening 12 fixtures in all competitions this term. That solitary loss - a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Norwich City - came in the Carabao Cup.
“It is not how you start, it is how you finish,” reminded Jokanovic, as United look to begin gnawing away at the 10 point gap separating them from their latest opponents. “We must get better. But they can not afford to sit back and take it easy, precisely because of that.”
Second-placed Bournemouth were labelled “a little bit too tippy-tappy” by Parker following their draw with Peterborough earlier this week. United, in 13th, could recall Lys Mousset after the centre-forward, who joined them from Parker’s employers two years ago, confirmed his return to fitness. Another attacker, David McGoldrick, suffered no ill-effects from his second-half cameo against Middlesbrough having also recovered from injury, Jokanovic stated. However hopes that Sander Berge could take part in the contest have been scotched, with the midfielder still receiving treatment.
“We have no new problems, no news on that front,” he said. “Other than that Lys could be an option for us after training, which is good. So there are choices for us to make."