The most important issue Sheffield United's next manager must address

There was a moment, soon after Crystal Palace had scored their first of the afternoon, which highlighted perfectly the first issue Sheffield United’s next manager must address.

Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 4:30 pm

Twelve months ago, when they were challenging for Europe and at the pugnacious best, falling a goal behind after only 90 seconds would have provoked a furious response from a squad stuffed to the gills with streetfighters.

One year on, and having endured the type of fall from grace that would make Beelzebub blush, United simply stood back and watched as Palace sprayed passes across the pitch; piecing together more than 20 before running the ball out of play. Complacency was the greatest threat they appeared to face at that stage.

Although United improved, albeit only slightly, as the contest wore on, it has become abundantly clear they are suffering a crisis of confidence. Paul Heckingbottom placed in caretaker charge following Chris Wilder’s departure, later denied it will prove an issue in the Championship next term - where United are preparing to return after being relegated last month. But then he could hardly say anything else, for fear of undermining United’s campaign to regain top-flight status before it even starts.

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It is that lack of self-belief and conviction which has led United back to Slavisa Jokanovic’s door; only a fortnight after failing to include his name on a five man shortlist of candidates vying to replace Wilder. Unless talks between the former Chelsea midfielder and his representatives bomb, which they are unlikely to do given the fact both parties are interested in discussing the vacancy, then that is likely to become six before the end of the week. Sources within the game have told The Star, who revealed news of United’s imminent approach to the Serb after their meeting with Palace, they hope to unveil the identity of Wilder’s successor around seven days after that.

Despite the progress the club has made since appointing the 53-year-old, rising from mid-table in the third tier to ninth in the Premier League less than 12 months ago, the situation facing it now is similar to the one Wilder was forced to confront after taking charge in 2016. Long since consigned to relegation ahead of this weekend’s visit to Everton, United are in danger of drifting on and off the pitch, where supporters have watched the team cut adrift at the bottom of the table.

Back then, Wilder employed shock therapy to shake United out of a coma; embarking upon a major recruitment drive which delivered a promotion at the first time of asking and then another two seasons later. Despite being on a much stronger footing now, something similar is required this summer. With another major makeover unlikely, it will take presence and personality to reinvigorate a side which appears devoid of direction at present. Jokanovic, with a CV which includes successful spells in charge of Watford, Fulham, Partizan Belgrade and most recently Al-Gharafa, would provide both. Not to mention the injection of fresh ideas which, thanks to a debilitating injury list, Heckingbottom has been unable to implement.

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Paul Heckingbottom (R) is in interim charge of Sheffield United: David Klein / Sportimage
Sheffield United look a psychologically beaten team at present: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage