The plan Sheffield United had devised for their trip to the Vitality Stadium was beginning to unravel. But the person responsible for helping AFC Bournemouth navigate their way past a series of skillfully laid traps wasn’t Scott Parker, as the visitors’ manager was quick to point out afterwards.
“They didn’t come back into the game,” Jokanovic said when his temper had subsided. “Some guy, some other guy, put them back.”
The subject of United’s ire was referee Robert Jones, who awarded a penalty following Stevens’ foul on Dominic Solanke when the offence, if indeed there was one, occurred outside the box. Behind on the scoreboard and in danger of losing their first Championship game of the season, Bournemouth are too good a team not to grasp the lifeline they had been offered so, after Solanke had recovered his poise to convert from the spot, there was an air of inevitability about the sight of Philip Billing turning home Ryan Christie’s cross only minutes later. Game, set and according to the Serb who felt an offside flag should have been raised, one match skewed by two “joke” decisions.
“If I answer you honestly it will be ugly,” said Jokanovic, who had earlier seen Morgan Gibbs-White fire United in front. “If I answer you kindly, it will be fake.”
Saturday’s contest, played out in terrible conditions on the rain-swept south coast, proved to be a bizarrely bittersweet experience for United. They lost, and finished the afternoon 13 points behind their opponents who climbed to the top of the table. But the performance United produced, following the strategy Jokanovic had concocted almost to the letter, suggested that with a fair wind they can begin eating away at that gap when competition resumes following the international break.
After 45 minutes of footballing chess, United broke the deadlock with an expertly crafted strike; Gibbs-White, gracefully adjusting his body shape to meet Billy Sharp’s cross, smashing the ball into Mark Travers’ net. The match officials’ interpretation of Stevens’ challenge on Solanke, which so enraged Cesarini that United’s head of medical services appeared in need of a sedative, and Billing’s finish from the excellent Christie’s centre turned the contest on its head. But the tactical discipline and when it was required - resilience - United displayed confirmed genuine progress is now being made following a slow start to the campaign. Even if the rankings do not yet reflect that, with Jokanovic’s men slipping to 14th.
With the arrival of Gibbs-White bringing extra guile to United’s attacking play, goalkeeper Robin Olsen proving his worth with fine saves to deny Billing and Solanke before they eventually pounced and John Fleck rediscovering his form in midfield, the Jokanovic project is taking shape. The problem United must now solve in order to truly unlock their potential, as Lys Mousset’s near miss in added time revealed, is how to better exploit the ‘big moments’ fixtures like this swing on. Returning from injury against his former club, the striker appeared odds on to score when the ball reached him but headed against the crossbar instead.
“I can’t be satisfied,” Jokanovic admitted. “But I can’t be unhappy either.”