Sheffield United: What Slavisa Jokanovic's first game in charge tells us about the future at Bramall Lane
It would be foolish to make any grand sweeping statements or read too much into the performance and result.
After all, although Europa Point proved much more stubborn than their pre-match billing had suggested, Sheffield United will face much tougher tests than the one they were confronted with in Estepona yesterday evening.
But the fixture, staged at a purpose built footballing academy on the outskirts of the Spanish resort, did provide a few clues about how Slavisa Jokanovic plans to approach the challenge of leading his new team to promotion. Changes, one of them much more radical than had previously been suggested, appear to be afoot.
Until government travel restrictions forced a last minute change of schedule, United had planned to begin the Jokanovic era with a match against Portguese Primeira Liga outfit Braga. Instead, after moving their training base from the Algarve to the Costa del Sol, they found themselves facing a side from the Gibraltar National League. Even the most patriotic of fans from the British overseas territory will admit the rock’s blue riband competition doesn’t possess quite the same pizzazz as its Iberian neighbour.
Although it is still far too early to accurately assess United’s promotion credentials - and the quality of the opposition must also be taken into account - what EP lacked in calibre they more than made up for with commitment.
Indeed, despite dominating the contest from start to finish, it wasn’t until the closing stages of the first-half that John Egan broke the deadlock. Lys Mousset quickly stretched United’s lead before Tyler Smith, one of several youngsters introduced after the break, netted the third.
After lining up in a 3-5-2 during the overwhelming majority of their outings under Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder - and, until being relegated from the Premier League last season, winning an army of admirers for their interpretation of a system devised by the Argentine Carlos Bilardo - United set up in a 3-4-2-1 during Jokanovic’s first match in charge.
The former Yugoslavcia and Chelsea midfielder later explained this was because “I have six strikers” at the club “so we try to get as many on the pitch as possible”. But he also suggested United will trial “something different” during their remaining warm-up games against Doncaster Rovers and Norwich City. Even then, referencing his players’ familiarity with Wilder’s strategy, Jokanovic reserved the right to “go back to that” when the new Championship campaign begins next month.
Clearly, it would be wrong to read too much into the shape United adopted for their meeting with EP. But his reasons for trialing it confirms Jokanovic is a pragmatist, rather than someone wedded to a particular set of ideals.
The Big Winner
David McGoldrick impressed in the deeper lying role he should be perfectly suited for but has never quite been able to master. Paired alongside Rhian Brewster, just behind Mousset, United’s leading goal-scorer last term showcased his passing repertoire and positional sense. Ben Osborn was also his usual busy self.
But United’s stand-out performer was Rhuan Norrington-Davies. Before being withdrawn at the break the Wales international, who declined an invitation to enjoy an extended break after representing his country at the European Championships, excelled along the left flank. Jokanovic is certain to have been impressed. Both with his performance and commitment.
The Enduring Dilemma
Rhian Brewster looked lively. Certainly a lot livelier and more involved than he was for the majority of last season, after completing a record breaking move from Liverpool. But, with all due respect to EP, if a £23.5m player can’t get involved against effectively semi-professional opposition then something is badly wrong.
Nestling just behind Mousset and alongside McGoldrick, Brewster used his pace to good effect and cut a more physically imposing figure than he did last season. But his strength, as a prolific spell on loan at Swansea City earlier in his career proved, is first time finishing. Unless he leads the line, one of Jokanovic’s biggest tests could be devising a strategy to bring the best out of his talents.
The Big Opportunity
Mousset has spent so long drinking in Bramall Lane’s Last Chance Saloon, he probably has his own pewter tankard hanging behind the bar. But the reason why he keeps getting them, despite infuriating coaches and supporters alike with his sometimes dubious idea of professionalism is because he is a genuinely nice guy with ridiculous ability and potential.
Jokanovic’s appointment could provide the fresh start Mousset needs after his recent off the pitch issues. The centre-forward scored United’s second against EP. But, more importantly, he looked in pretty decent shape, as the pictures from training through the week had also suggested.
A fit Mousset could score goals for fun in the Premier League, let alone the Championship. If he has anything about him, he will make the most of the opportunity Jokanovic is clearly prepared to give him.
United brought on a number of homegrown talents after the interval, including Regan Slater, Iliman Ndiaye, Daniel Jebbison, Zak Brunt, Femi Seriki and of course Smith. Their appearance coincided with the tourists’ best spell of the evening too. Although in fairness, this probably had more to do with the fact EP were visibility fatigued after spending most of the opening period chasing the ball.
All of them caught the eye, with Slater and Seriki particularly effective thanks to their impressive industry. Whatever happens next term, this group of youngsters all have bright futures ahead of them.