Sheffield United: What Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk have taught Slavisa Jokanovic as his team prepare to face Stoke City
It was the early hours of Sunday morning and Slavisa Jokanovic, the Sheffield United manager, was still sitting in front of his television screen watching the drama unfold.
But on this occasion, rather than some obscure World Cup qualifier taking place in a faraway country or surreptitiously obtained video of future opponents, the focus of the Serb’s attention was a ring in Las Vegas where Tyson Fury was making the first defence of his WBC heavyweight belt.
“I saw it, yes, I stayed up for it,” Jokanovic said, confirming he witnessed the completion of The Gypsy King’s epic trilogy with Deontay Wilder. “I like it and I saw their previous contest too.
“I also saw (Anthony) Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk as well. Usually, I like basketball. But the fighters, they all have very interesting stories.”
Despite being seduced by its bizarre and sometimes bewildering mix of violence and glamour, Jokanovic’s interest in the noble art isn’t purely personal. A self-confessed football obsessive, the 53-year-old spends most of his spare time studying players, systems and formations. But he is convinced there are lessons from other sports, including boxing, which can be applied to his own profession. They include, as Fury and Usyk both emphatically demonstrated, that brute force is no match for skill and intelligence.
Jokanovic will remind his players of that fact ahead of Saturday’s game against Stoke City, their first Championship outing since the international break. Having undergone a makeover since Michael O’Neill’s appointment two years ago, the visitors no longer rely solely on strength and muscle to deliver success on the pitch. However, despite acknowledging they are more tactically sophisticated than many people give them credit for, Jokanovic was quick to highlight the fact that City remain a physically formidable unit. Albeit, after adopting aspects of the strategy they employed under his predecessor Chris Wilder, one many members of United’s squad should be able to recognise.
“Physically, they are strong but they are about more than that,” Jokanovic said. “They attack with opposite full-backs, like Sheffield United a few years ago, with sometimes two of them in the other box.
“I mentioned this characteristic, their power, because they also press well and are brave and aggressive. But there is more to them than that.”
United will not look to stand toe to toe with a team which arrives in South Yorkshire fourth in the table and fresh off the back of a statement win over second-placed West Bromwich Albion. Instead, like Fury and Usyk, they will attempt to lay traps for the visitors to stumble into and dictate both the tempo and the pattern of the game.
Despite seeing his 14th placed team beaten by Middlesbrough and AFC Bournemouth before the pause in the domestic fixture schedule, Jokanovic was encouraged by United’s performance at the Vitality Stadium where, after taking the lead through Morgan Gibbs-White, two contentious refereeing decisions eventually cost them dear.
“I am not sad, because I feel we are showing good signs and moving forward in our process,” Jokanovic said. “Stoke, you can see the same thing happening - where they tried to find the right way for the club and the staff. Now they have clear instructions and shape. We do too.”