Sheffield United: The most difficult decision facing Slavisa Jokanovic ahead of the new season
Just over a decade ago, a centre-forward with one of the country’s biggest clubs found himself cornered by journalists in the mixed zone of the stadium where, around an hour or so earlier, Sheffield United had just faced one of the most expensively assembled attacks in world football.
He should have been in a good mood. But unfortunately he wasn’t. And the reason wasn’t the fact he had just watched the entire match unfold from the bench.
“There’s just too many of us here,” the player in question complained, clearly desperate to get a couple of things off his gold adorned chest. “Listen, this is all off the record right. I’m trusting you lot not to say anything. But because you’re in one week and then, no matter what happens, you’re out the next it’s impossible to get any rhythm. Feel free to put that out there, Just don’t mention that I said it.”
Most people who listened to his stream of consciousness probably dismissed it at the time. After all, how could it be a bad thing to have six of the game’s finest marksmen at the time in the same prodigiously talented squad? But when the opportunity came to properly consider what he was saying - and why he was saying it - the more obvious it became that he actually had a point. When managers are spoilt for choice, they are tempted to make changes. And change for change’s sake is seldom good news for strikers who thrive on consistent selections and opportunities.
Although it was impossible to disagree with his reasoning - that, because they were never going to outscore the opposition, he needed different tools for different jobs - perhaps, on reflection, Chris Wilder was seduced into tinkering a little too much towards the end of his reign at United. Admittedly, it wasn’t a charge you could level when they were challenging for a place in Europe after just coming up. But last season, as United went into a tailspin and hurtled out of the Premier League, there were times when you couldn’t fail to sympathise with the likes of Rhian Brewster, Oli McBurnie, Billy Sharp and Oliver Burke as they found themselves performing the Hokey Cokey alongside David McGoldrick. United simply have too many strikers for those strikers’ good.
Having officially taken charge earlier this month, following Wilder’s departure in March, Slavisa Jokanovic has now assumed responsibility for solving this problem. With teenager Daniel Jebbison’s emergence towards the end of last term making it even more complex, the Serb has some tough decisions to make before the end of the transfer window. Because some of them, for both their own sakes and United’s, are going to have to be cut loose.
Inevitably, at this time of year, most people are focusing their attention on who might be arriving at Bramall Lane rather than leaving. Unless, of course, it is one of United’s leading names.
But arguably the most interesting aspect of what is expected to be a reprofiling, not a wholesale makeover, of their playing staff is how Jokanovic will seek to rectify this imbalance. United’s frontline will have to be trimmed. But who will be culled when the former Yugoslavia and Chelsea midfielder has been able to properly assess the options at his disposal?
Jebbison’s seamless transition from prospect to pro isn’t the only thing which has complicated matters. Injuries - and United suffered a glut of them last term - have too. Sharp, McBurnie and Burke all sat out the friendly against Europa Point eight days ago as they recover from the problems which forced them to miss the end of the previous campaign. Covid-19, or a couple of positive tests to be exact, is another issue.
Sharp, despite his advancing years, remains United’s most clinical finisher and is expected to be declared fit soon. But McBurnie and Burke, who would almost certainly have represented Scotland at the recent European Championships had they been available for selection, could both miss the forthcoming warm-up with Doncaster Rovers and maybe even Norwich City’s visit to South Yorkshire three days later. That is United’s final outing ahead of their return to competitive action.
Despite struggling for goals in the PL, something which can largely be attributed to the role he was asked to perform, McBurnie has been prolific in the Championship; netting 22 times in his final 42 league appearances for Swansea City. Brewster, United’s record signing, has yet to find the back of the net since completing a £23.5m move from Liverpool. But he scored 11 in 22 during a spell on loan at the Liberty Stadium the season before. Burke possesses the type of potential which, if Jokanovic can succeed where countless other managers have failed and unlock it, would make him a devastating weapon.
The same goes for Lys Mousset, whose professionalism off the pitch seems to be the only thing preventing him from becoming a £50m plus player. Like Burke, whose dedication and focus is not in question, that explains why he keeps being awarded chances to prove himself when others would have been cut adrift.
McGoldrick has formed a devastating partnership with Sharp in the past, with the pair helping to power United’s climb into the top-flight.
Daniel Jebbison, aged 18, has already shown that age is not a handicap if you have ability - becoming the youngest player to score on his full PL debut towards the end of last term. Like Antwoine Hackford and Tyler Smith, he will be hoping Jokanovic makes good on his promise to select on the basis of performances rather than birth certificates.
Jokanovic will be forced to let some of his centre-forwards go. For both their sake of their own careers and United. Because nine into two, or at a stretch three, does not go. The trouble is, all of the ones at his disposal can present compelling cases to stay.