Sheffield United: What to expect during Slavisa Jokanovic's first week in charge and the changes he is planning at Bramall Lane
Later tonight, before he checks everything is packed for the move to South Yorkshire, Slavisa Jokanovic will open his laptop, load-up his emails and click on one flagged ‘important.’
Then, after studying the contents - an array of charts, graphs and spreadsheets detailing his new players’ fitness levels - the Serb will click the reply button and send a series of private observations to his guy on the ground.
Despite not officially taking charge until Thursday, Sheffield United’s first overseas manager will still know every last particular of this morning’s first pre-season training session; from the result of the sprints, the longer endurance runs right down to the identity of the person who ends-up painting the turf with their breakfast. Because there’s always someone.
“He might not be there in the flesh, but Slav will still be all over what happens,” a source with a personal insight into his methods told The Star over the weekend. “He’s big on the small things, if I can put it like that. Nothing gets past him and, as far as he’s concerned, what happens now is just as important as when the games actually get underway. Well, not quite but you know what I’m talking about. This is the base that the success he wants is built on.”
This week marks the start of a new era for United. One, if things go exactly as Bramall Lane’s hierarchy envisage, will see them not only regain the Premier League status they surrendered last term but also herald the start of their journey towards becoming an established top-flight club. There will be a few hiccups along the way. Some wrong turns and missteps. But in Jokanovic, United have hired someone not only with the presence to replace Chris Wilder but also the pedigree, leading both Watford and Fulham to promotion out of the Championship before taking up a position with Qatari outfit Al-Gharafa.
The sense of anticipation at the Steelphalt Academy today will be almost palpable. United’s squad have already received a series of communiques from Jokanovic, via their own personal computers and official club WhatsApp group. But until he makes his first appearance in the flesh, Oliver Norwood, who worked under the former Yugoslavia international at Craven Cottage, will be their best source of information on his expectations, methods and modus operandi. One of the midfielder’s long-serving team mates has admitted to telephoning Norwood when Jokanovic’s appointment was confirmed.
“I won’t have been the only person either,” he laughed. “Oli knows what the gaffer is about and how he’ll go about things. I bet his phone’s been red hot all summer. To be honest, I know it has been.”
Norwood, and others who know him well, can testify that Jokanovic is an obsessive details man. He also likes repetition, believing it is the best way of embedding his tactics and play patterns into the brains of those under his command. The next four of five weeks will be as much about muscle memory as physical preparation.
“Everything is about winning the ball back, it’s ‘press, press press’, pressing after you lose the ball and then looking to do something with it,” Kevin McDonald, previously of United and Fulham, once told a national newspaper when asked to describe life under Jokanovic. “He wants people who are ready to learn and listen. But most of all, even though he likes to play attractive football, he also wants people who are ready to work hard. That’s because he says before you can play, you have to earn the right to play. He’s demanding, but in a good way.”
When it comes to system and strategy, United’s senior players are unlikely to notice much difference between life under Wilder - who led them from League One to the PL during his hugely successful reign - and Jokanovic. During the discussions which led to his coronation, Jokanovic told United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Jan van Winckel, who effectively operates as their director of football, that he was minded to retain the 3-5-2 system adopted by his predecessor before taking a final decision later this summer. With United reluctant to tear-up their roster and start afresh, Jokanovic is a pragmatist. He has calculated the best way to ensure his squad realises its potential quickly is to preserve the strategy it was constructed to follow.
But there will be changes too. Some will be subtle, such as the drills designed to whip those now under his command into shape. Others, including his determination to dominate territory and possession, less so. Wilder wasn’t too worried about either, reckoning that United would be fighting a losing battle if they tried to suffocate the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea - where Jokanovic spent two seasons around the turn of the millennium. But against Championship opposition, the 52-year-old will expect - actually make that demand - that United return figures of over 50 per cent in both.
“I believe in that way of playing,”Fulham’s Tom Cairney, who has inevitably been linked with a move to United, once told a journalist keen to discover what life under Jokanovic is like. “If you look at the teams who have dominated football over the last five or 10 years, that’s what they are doing.
“It’s incredibly brave - to play out from the back and take it into hostile stadiums. It’s all about believing in your ability and how to win games. You stick by that no matter how loud the crowd is or how big the game.”