The old heads, the young guns and the (so far) unfulfilled potential - The Sheffield United striker options currently at Slavisa Jokanovic's disposal ahead of the new season
As Slavisa Jokanović dissected his first pre-season friendly as Sheffield United manager on Saturday evening, speaking to journalists via Zoom from United’s team hotel, the Blades’ new manager perhaps inadvertently touched on a situation that may yet prove either a blessing or a curse as he bids to lead his new club back to the Premier League at the first attempt next season.
“I have six strikers here with me. So I try and play three in each half,” was the Serb’s reasoning for playing two different formations, each with three forwards, in United’s comfortable victory over Europa Point in Spain.
Starting with David McGoldrick and Rhian Brewster either side of Lys Mousset, the Blades rounded off their 3-0 win with Luke Freeman supporting Daniel Jebbison and Tyler Smith, who scored the third goal, in attack.
Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie missed the game as they recovered from injuries picked up at the back end of last season, instead putting themselves through an intense bike ride with some of United’s backroom staff and defender Enda Stevens, while another forward in Oli Burke was not in the squad for the game.
As things stand, United have SIX senior strikers on their books, with the likes of Jebbison, Smith and Antwoine Hackford also pushing for more senior minutes. Jokanović will be acutely aware of the need to not block the path for those young guns that have shown such promise, but must balance the clamour to promote them with the need to plot a course through a challenging, 46-game Championship season that will also call for experienced heads at crucial times.
BILLY SHARP AND DAVID McGOLDRICK
That is where two of United’s senior statesman come in. Instrumental in United’s promotion season, despite being written off in some quarters of the media as journeymen, both players are in the twilight of their respective careers but seem to be in as good shape as ever.
McGoldrick was United’s top scorer last season in the Premier League and was perhaps unfortunate not to be named the club’s player of the year, while Sharp, now 35, is as determined as ever to overcome the injury that forced him to go under the knife last season and impress the new manager.
Both players have the added incentive of playing to extend their contracts at United, which are both set to expire next season.
RHIAN BREWSTER AND OLI McBURNIE
The new campaign seems like it will be a big season for a lot of United players, following last season’s sorry relegation, but especially so for United’s young strike pair. Signed at a combined cost of almost £45m, they are two of the most expensive players in this club’s long, illustrious history and will feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders to go about repaying those fees.
Both men struggled last season, scoring once between them, but they have proven track records in the Championship. McBurnie notched 24 times for Swansea in 2018/19, earning his £20m move to United in the process, and Brewster scored 11 times in 22 games for the same club on loan from Liverpool the following season.
Rediscovering that form, devising a plan to get the best out of two bright attacking talents, will be towards the top of Jokanović’s list of priorities this summer.
LYS MOUSSET AND OLI BURKE
Possibly two of the biggest enigmas in this current United squad. At 24 and 25 years old respectively, the potential the pair of them have is frightening but, for one reason or another, you feel that it has not yet been fulfilled.
On the face of it, both players have the raw attributes most managers long for in their forwards; pace, power and plenty of both. Mousset showed during his first-season Premier League purple patch that he has the ability to be a regular scorer, but could not replicate that often enough to fully convince United’s fans.
The same could be said for Burke, too. But a player transferred twice for a total of almost £30m obviously has something. He was more of a punt from previous manager Chris Wilder, who was well aware that Burke the finished article would be well beyond United’s reach.
Does he have the composure required to become a successful striker? His body of work in a United shirt so far would suggest not, with a number of chances going begging last season when the Blades needed them to be converted. Perhaps his Bramall Lane future could be better suited as a winger, if Jokanović tweaks his formation. Mousset does not have the same luxury of multiple positions, and time is beginning to run out for him to make good on his potential – whether that happens at Bramall Lane or elsewhere.
TYLER SMITH AND DANIEL JEBBISON
Both youngsters travelled with United on their pre-season trip to Spain so Jokanović could cast his eye over their progress, and they did their hopes no harm with their second-half displays against Europa Point.
Smith made up for two earlier misses with the third goal, finishing confidently from Max Lowe’s clever pass, while Jebbison was a threat throughout with his trickery and physical prowess.
With so many players blocking his path, as things stand you would imagine the next, and best, move for Jebbison would be a good, senior loan move – get him out in the EFL, to the right club, and let him hone his craft in senior football.
Smith’s case is a little different. He turns 23 before the end of the year – he is actually 15 months older than Brewster – and is still yet to play a minute of senior football for the Blades. Instead, he has completed loan placements at five EFL clubs and, as a boyhood Blade, may have a difficult decision to make in the future as he balances head and heart for the sake of his career.