Why new Sheffield United boss Slavisa Jokanovic was at the Champions League final
When Chelsea’s Kai Havertz wheeled away in celebration after scoring what proved to be the only goal of Saturday’s Champions League final between Thomas Tuchel’s side and Manchester City, one end of the Estadio do Dragao erupted with joy while the other fell deathly silent.
Meanwhile, up in the posh seats which bisect its ginormous North Stand, Slavisa Jokanovic began furiously scribbling across the pages of the notepad he had slipped into his jacket pocket before making his way to the ground.
The Serb wasn’t only there to cheer on his former club as they contested one of the most coveted trophies in world sport. He was also on a mission: an information gathering exercise to study new tactical trends and identify which ones Sheffield United might adopt next season.
Forty-eight hours earlier, in the restaurant of a Geneva hotel more than a thousand miles away, Jokanovic had officially agreed to take charge at Bramall Lane over lunch with owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his associate Abdullah Alghamdi. Those who know the Serb will not be surprised that he chose to celebrate by attending a match rather than enjoying an intimate dinner with friends and family. Jokanovic is a football obsessive. Someone who regards picking apart systems and analysing strategies as a labour of love, not a chore.
It is precisely that attention to detail United believe can help them win promotion from the Championship, after surrendering their Premier League status following a wretched campaign both on and off the pitch in South Yorkshire.
Last weekend’s showpiece in Portugal’s second city was a mixture of business and pleasure for Jokanovic, who made 53 appearances for the west Londoners before calling time on his playing career with the now defunct Ciudad de Murcia. He still boasts connections at Stamford Bridge, and sided with Chelsea against City. But Jokanovic also welcomed the opportunity to study the decisions Tuchel and Pep Guardiola made both before and during a fascinating game which highlighted how decisions taken in the technical area can influence the outcome of matches.
Although he will shed more light on his ideas about how to bring the best out of United after reporting for duty next month, Jokanovic has already identified some of the qualities the players he will inherit from Wilder and caretaker Paul Heckingbottom will be expected to demonstrate.
By citing “pace”, “power” and a desire to “defend our values” as being non-negotiable, the 52-year-old knew his words would resonate with a support base which, until a change in fortunes towards the end of the fixture schedule, had grown alarmed by a series of uncharacteristically passive performances.
But it was Jokanovic’s assurance that he will not look to blind the squad with science, preferring instead to keep things simple, which grabbed the attention of those hoping to gain a more detailed insight into the approach he is set to employ. Witnessing Tuchel’s pragmatism trumping Guardiola’s more convoluted gameplan, which conceded both commentators and ex-professionals alike, will have only reinforced his belief that basic is best - basic in the sense that instructions are easy to comprehend, follow and then execute.
“It is not our target to be especially aesthetic,” said Jokanovic, who nevertheless has a reputation for producing teams which are effective and easy on the eye. “I know what supporters are waiting for on our side. I won’t spend all day talking about targets, but it is clear that if I have to choose between things it will be being pragmatic and trying to get Sheffield United back to where we believe they belong.”
Like Tuchel, Jokanovic is clearly prepared to bend to fit a club. Guardiola prefers to mould them to reflect his own philosophy and ideas about how the game should be played - something his CV confirms he is a master at but which, on occasions such as his most recent duel with the German, can cause him to overthink things.
In a sense, although the Fulham side he led out of the second tier in 2018 were dubbed the “Manchester City of the Championship” - three years after achieving the same thing at Watford - Tuchel’s Chelsea are the team Jokanovic would like United to be: Strong, organised, well-drilled and committed but also creative in possession. Albeit, given the difference in financial resources between the two clubs, on a much less grander scale.
“There’s a lot of things,” Jokanovic responded last week, when asked what are the secrets to a promotion winning season. “It’s complicated to explain in a few words but I have in my hands players with personality, power, speed and aggressivity. We need to add more things of course. I am a guy who wants to win respect and show people I am a guy who can help them.”
That also suggests, like both Tuchel and Guardiola, Jokanovic believes in the power of coaching. Despite providing Prince Abdullah with a list of transfer targets as he looks to bolster the options at his disposal, Jokanovic will also seek to educate and improve those already in situ. That is known to have impressed United’s board during their earliest meetings. There is a theory behind the scenes that a wholesale makeover would not only be unnecessarily expensive, but potentially disruptive too.
“The Championship is a tough league,” Jokanovic said. “I can not say anything new that people don’t know who already follow it. It’s exciting and with a lot of interest. I hope I will have an opportunity in front of me to enjoy Premier League football.”
An opportunity which would present him with the chance to pit his wits against the two men he watched go head to head four days ago.