Sheffield United: Slavisa Jokanovic reveals what life is like in his dressing rooms as The Blades approch a potentially season defining moment
Win, lose or draw, there won’t be any shouting. Well, not from Slavisa Jokanovic.
The Sheffield United manager, whose side face Luton Town at Kenilworth Road tomorrow afternoon, might cut a brooding figure down on the touchline. But in the dressing room, despite possessing a stare which could freeze the Sahara, the Serb prefers to adopt a cerebral approach.
“I am not a guy who talks a lot after a game,” Jokanovic said, explaining why he believes cajoling rather than confrontation brings the best out of footballers.. “I am not talking for five minutes after the final whistle because it is not necessary to shout in this particular moment.
“If we do well, great. If we don’t, I can hear them and can see they are hurting. I am too. I take the biggest responsibility, always. But if I need to motivate my guys after a defeat, something is wrong with them.”
Although he is determined to mastermind Luton’s downfall, Jokanovic also knows the visit to Bedfordshire is a prelude to the most critical period of his two month reign. Suggestions that United’s faltering form can partly be attributed to their chaotic pre-season have been emphatically dismissed, with the 53-year-old insisting that “everyone” has been affected by the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic.
He is right. They have. But in the Championship, few teams have been hit harder than United. The international break, which begins after the meeting with Nathan Jones’ side, will be the first time since July’s trip to Estepona that Jokanovic, who relies on repetition, repetition and more repetition to convey his ideas and implement his methods, has enjoyed any quality time on the training ground with his players.
What happens over the next fortnight, having taken only a point from their opening four league matches, could decide if United are equipped to start climbing the table and secure a top six finish. Even at this early stage, a poor sequence of results against Peterborough, Preston North End and Hull City - their first three opponents when the domestic calendar resumes - would leave them facing an uphill struggle to fulfil the most important item on Jokanovic’s brief: Promotion back to the Premier League. At the first attempt.
“There are different ways and I trust my way,” said Jokanovic, who has guided both Watford and Fulham out of the second tier. “I believe it is the right way. I don’t need to explain why.
“Everything is clear and face to face. I don’t have any secrets and there is nothing they will read or hear me saying that I haven’t said to their faces. I am always honest and will say what I think about different situations. That, for me, is the most important thing.”
In his memoir, ‘The Accidental Footballer’, Pat Nevin recounts how one of his old coaches at Celtic Boys Club used to routinely bawl him out during games. The young Pat later discovered it was supposed to be character building. “You do know I only shout and scream at the good players...there’s no point in shouting at the others,” the guy in question told him, before publicly admonishing officials at Parkhead for failing to sign the wee attacker up. Nevin appreciated the sentiment. But, having gone on to represent Chelsea, Everton and Scotland, still felt the haranguing was counterproductive.
“Too much shouting too easily becomes bullying,” he wrote, arguing the higher the decibels, the lower the creativity. “It quickly kills off any short-term productiveness the technique might have had.”
Jokanovic, who also enjoyed a spell at Stamford Bridge before entering the technical area, is cut from the same cloth. Having seen at least three summer warm-up matches fall victim to the global health crisis, United’s squad also spent 10 days isolating when two of their number tested positive for the coronavirus. Little wonder, during their recent encounters with Birmingham City, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town, they have looked exactly what they are: A team which knows what it’s supposed to do but not quite sure exactly how to do it. That confusion, an inevitable consequence of their disrupted schedule, has often bred inertia - although there were signs, during the defeat by Huddersfield and Tuesday’s Carabao Cup victory over Derby County, that they are beginning to grasp what Jokanovic wants.
“It is only one victory but hopefully it will give us a little more confidence, although we still need more,” he said, reflecting upon a contest which saw United come from behind to win 2-1. “Of course, we chose the more difficult way and that wasn’t a choice we wanted to make.
“I can’t complain about the grit shown. I can complain, maybe, about some of the quality. But desire? No,”
Jokanovic doesn’t want to unpick every trick and technique employed by his predecessor Chris Wilder, who spent four-and-a-half largely successful seasons at the helm. But he does want to weave some new ones into the fabric of a football club which, until his arrival, had become famous for playing a particular way.
As well as being hampered by the events of the past two months, that process has also been undermined by United’s painfully slow progress in the transfer market. New faces, unscarred by last term’s relegation, would have brought fresh confidence. But only one - defender Ben Davies - has so far arrived. Predictably, he was one of United’s better performers against Huddersfield.
Luton might not be the most glamorous name in the division. But beating them will be a tough ask, with Jones piecing together a team greater than the sum of its individual parts. Rhys Norrington-Davies, now back at Bramall Lane, spent the first half of last season on loan there and was impressed by the work of Jokanovic’s counterpart.
“Luton will be tough,” Jokanovic said, stressing Jones will be expecting a response after their 5-0 loss to Birmingham last weekend. “But we expect to build too.”