Sheffield United: The man who could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Slavisa Jokanovic's arrival at Bramall Lane
At the beginning of last month, long before his appointment as Sheffield United manager was even confirmed, Slavisa Jokanovic began compiling a video library of the players still under contract at Bramall Lane and also those expected to depart at the end of the Premier League season.
The team was low on confidence, consistency and already destined for relegation following a wretched campaign overshadowed by injury, missed opportunities and the internal politicking responsible for Chris Wilder’s departure. But members of the Serb’s inner circle, plus plenty of folk on the periphery, have told The Star his heart was already set on a move to South Yorkshire - calculating the decline of a team which had taken the division by storm only one year earlier was temporary rather than terminal.
“Slav has taken sides up there before and always come away impressed,” one of his close friends explained following what proved a successful pitch to owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a series of Zoom calls. “He feels it is somewhere with history, tradition and a real substance which makes it attractive. On top of that, even though things aren’t going well, he is firmly of the belief that good players are good players, even if they are out of form. And he knows there are lots of good players there.”
That was exactly the message Jokanovic delivered to United’s hierarchy soon after getting the gig, telling Prince Abdullah and his advisor Jan van Winckel that he felt the squad he would soon take over was actually in better shape than the ones he inherited at Watford and Fulham. He won promotion from the Championship with both. That didn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t in need of some tweaking and strengthening in a couple of key areas. Jokanovic recognised, indeed recognises, that United must strengthen their options in a couple of key positions in order to bolster their top two credentials.
One of those is midfield, where with Sander Berge expected to follow John Lundstram through the exit door a vacancy exists for an attack-minded individual capable of creating and scoring goals.
Although Jokanovic could scour the loan market for a solution to this problem, one might already exist within United’s ranks.
Luke Freeman whose opportunities since leaving Queens Park Rangers have been extremely limited, should view his parent club’s return to the EFL and Jokanovic’s arrival as a chance to finally make his mark in South Yorkshire.
Signed for an undisclosed fee in 2019, which was reported as a record for his new employers at the time, Freeman made only 16 appearances for United before being dispatched to Nottingham Forest term. The move was supposed to be temporary. But a clause was inserted into the agreement which took him to the City Ground that it could become permanent. Providing officials there were willing to pay a set fee. With Forest struggling, and Freeman suffering several injuries, that was never triggered.
Jokanovic will recognise, however, that the Londoner possesses proven Championship calibre. At QPR, he was one of the division’s most sought-after and accomplished performers - capable of being deployed in a variety of different positions and mastering them all.
On reflection, Freeman was always going to find it difficult to break into United’s starting eleven after leaving the capital. Circumstances conspired against him. His problem wasn’t a lack of talent. It was United’s tactics - or rather a subtle tweak Wilder and his coaching staff made to their game plan after climbing out of the second tier.
Supposedly a replacement for Mark Duffy, who had been surprisingly culled following a contractual issue, Freeman was recruited to bring a touch of ingenuity to United’s operations in the middle of the park. But after reviewing the challenge ahead, Wilder decided that with their possession percentages likely to plummet, United required more physicality. Lundstram was the beneficiary, despite struggling for game-time the year before. Then, when Berge was recruited for £22m, the Norway international became United’s preferred option in the role.
Like Lundstram, who is poised to become a free agent, Berge seems destined for pastures new with Arsenal and Napoli among those monitoring his situation.
Crucially for Freeman, providing he can prove his fitness when United return to training, Jokanovic is searching for a different dynamic. He wants his team to dominate the ball rather than spend their time chasing it; cutting out passes before trying to catch opponents on the break. Against some of the most gifted forwards in the world, United had to be patient. Now, given the difference in quality between the two competitions, they can be more proactive. This could work to Freeman’s advantage.
With Jokanovic letting it be known that he wants to study United’s players in the flesh before beginning the rump of what is expected to be a carefully considered rather than major overhaul of the squad, the next four weeks could be crucial for the 29-year-old - effectively deciding how - and where - the next phase of his career will unfold.
The system he will audition in is set to be familiar, after Jokanovic confirmed he is ready to try and persevere with the 3-5-2 which served United so well until Jack O’Connell’s troublesome knee brought the whole thing crashing down. The centre-half hopes to declare himself available for selection shortly although Rhys Norrington-Davies, currently on Euro 2020 duty with Wales, could be a ready made replacement if he experiences another set-back.
What is certain, though, is that Freeman should view Jokanovic’s presence - and United’s demotion - as a chance to prove his worth.