Sheffield United: The season-definng task facing The Blades as they prepare for Barnsley

One common trait binds together every great team in history and also those who achieve a modicum of success.

Friday, 22nd October 2021, 4:30 pm

The Mighty Magyars definitely had it more than half a century ago. So too did all the great sides constructed by Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, even though they were polar opposites in terms of philosophy. Oh, and the same goes for Wimbledon’s infamous ‘Crazy Gang’ which stunned Liverpool, Wembley and the entire footballing world by winning the 1988 FA Cup final.

An identity. A clearly prescribed approach. Or, to put it another way, a distinct ‘personality’ - a word which has become one of Slavisa Jokanovic’s favourites in recent weeks.

By shoehorning it into nearly every conversation about his Sheffield United side, including those he shared with journalists today ahead of Sunday’s visit to Barnsley, the Serb appears to be implying the team he is still trying to construct since starting work at Bramall Lane in July has yet to truly finds its niche in the tactical maelstrom that is the English Championship. Progress has been made, with a switch in formation delivering some encouraging results. But perhaps the best thing that United are known for right now is staggering inconsistency. Three days after beating high-flying Stoke City last weekend, they predictably succumbed to Millwall. Gary Rowett’s side had made the journey north one place below them in mid-table.

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Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“The manager has been over it,” defender Chris Basham said. “We need to show more maturity in terms of our performance, our play and also someone saying ‘come on lads now’ in certain situations.”

Having prepared for the trip to Oakwell 17th in the table, Jokanovic’s work will inevitably come under increasing scrutiny if United lose to opponents on a five game losing streak. A win could spell the end of Markus Schopp’s time in the home dugout, with the Austrian coming under increasing pressure from above.

Although Jokanovic must shoulder some of the responsibility for United’s dissonance - and, to his credit, he does - questions must also be asked why a manager who steered Partizan Belgrade to back to back league and cup doubles, lifted the Thai Premier League title with Muangthong United and then guided both Watford and Fulham into the top-flight is yet to truly find his feet in South Yorkshire? In order to discover the answers, it is necessary to scroll back right to the beginning of the season when, for some inexplicable reason, he was forced to begin his reign without any new signings. Eventually five did arrive, albeit with four of those recruited on loan. But not before United had already contested five games and, having failed to win any, effectively handed some of their most capable rivals a double digit head start.

“We didn’t start well and we’re chasing,” captain Billy Sharp said, joining the dots in the most diplomatic fashion possible following their latest defeat. “We need consistency.”

Billy Sharp and his Sheffield United team mate George Baldock: Alistair Langham / Sportimage

When United’s hierarchy turned to Jokanovic following their relegation from the Premier League - albeit after their flirtation with Oostende rookie Alexander Blessin, who had neither the presence required to galvanise the dressing room nor experience to qualify for a work permit - they knew exactly what they were getting: A teacher. One who would look to transform United’s style and introduce what some might label a more sophisticated strategy to the heavy metal football which, before last term’s catastrophic collapse, had lifted them to ninth in the PL under his predecessor Chris Wilder.

To some degree he has achieved that, introducing Iliman Ndiaye into a team which, setting-up in a 4-2-3-1, revolves around the creativity of the Frenchman, Morgan Gibbs-White and Ben Osborn’s industry. But most of the work Jokanovic is undertaking now should have been completed long before they faced Birmingham City on the opening weekend of the campaign. Let alone as they get ready to enter the second third of the competition. The fact it hasn’t been can be attributed to United’s inaction at the beginning of the transfer window, meaning his squad is being forced to learn on the job.

“Can we do better? Yes,” Jokanovic said. Are we working hard? Yes.

“We need to continue with this process. How long for? That depends upon the level of the learning and how brave we are. Bournemouth are top. Is the job done for them? No. It isn’t for us, either. But we show personality.”

Sheffield United visit Barnsley on Sunday: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

United used to have an obvious motif, combining wing-backs with overlapping centre-halves to create a tidal wave of attackers which overwhelmed opponents until Jack O’Connell’s knee injury precipitated the end of an era. But it has been wiped from the Bramall Lane playbook. Partly out of necessity, with O’Connell still no nearer a return to action despite spending a year on the sidelines. But those responsible for designing the club’s strategy, off the pitch more than on it, have also accelerated the process. A comprehensive, coherent blueprint on how United plan to rebuild over the coming years has yet to be published although some clues, including the ‘United World’ network, do exist.

After being forced, against his better judgement, to persevere with tactics Wilder employed before leaving his position in March, Jokanovic and his assistants have now identified what they believe is the best way forward although Gibbs-White’s suspension for the meeting with Barnsley will force a brief change of plan. Directly involved in five of the 16 goals United have scored in their last eight league outings, the 21-year-old’s absence creates a huge headache with Jayden Bogle, now that George Baldock has returned to training, among those vying to fill the void if he is passed fit.

But when he returns, and when the market reopens for business in January, United must do everything within their power to help Jokanovic continue with his project - creating a new personality for the football club. United’s dream of returning to the top-flight anytime soon depends upon it.

Slavisa Jokanovic is preparing for Sunday's derby: Simon Bellis / Sportimage