Jokanovic and Sheffield United are in a directionless marriage
Sheffield United are headed nowhere under Slavisa Jokanovic. Neither party would shed a tear at divorce, so what’s the point in carrying on?
In many ways, Sheffield United’s stalemate at home to Coventry City encapsulated much of their season to this point: lethargic, frustrating, and we all knew it was going nowhere particularly good long before it was over.
It was the latest in a long line of performances which leaves everyone connected to the club – and plenty else outside – wondering what the point of it is.
This season didn’t have to be about an instant return to the Premier League, despite us believing the appointment of former Watford and Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic was a Championship cheat code in the making less than half a year ago. But there has to be more to this campaign than just plodding along. And anyone unfortunate enough to have watched the Blades on multiple occasions this season will already know that there is no better summation of the South Yorkshire side than ‘plodding’.
Right now, that word captures everything about a club that only two years ago was flying high in the Premier League, playing an exciting brand of football with trademark overlapping centre-backs under the tutelage of a boyhood Blade in the guise of Chris Wilder. If football is cyclical, and the good times are not permanent, this has still been a return to Earth to leave all that love Sheffield United as flat as a pancake.
The atmosphere at Bramall Lane on Saturday lunchtime reflected that. Save for a late 15-minute salvo in which David McGoldrick inspired something resembling zip and life into yet another overly defensive performance, Sheffield United never looked like taking more than a point from the game. If not for a comparatively limp performance up front from Coventry, this almost certainly would have been a defeat.
We are all old and wise enough to know that pre-season predictions rarely come off, but only a fool would have believed that come mid-November, the Blades would have been looking nervously over their collective shoulders at the bottom three, with Coventry battling for promotion.
Wherever you look, there is blame to be shared. The easiest fingers are pointed towards the hierarchy above the management team, and in particular owner Prince Abdullah. A lack of investment in the playing squad is lamentable. The £30million sale of Aaron Ramsdale to Arsenal filled a hole in the pockets, while leaving a gaping chasm between the sticks for the Blades; none of the trio of Robin Olsen, Wes Foderingham nor Michael Verrips have done a requisite job to improve United’s fortunes.
It is worth remembering that such a lack of investment – only Ben Davies’ loan fee from Liverpool was spent in the way of transfer funds over the summer – has left a squad which was already feeling stale going into their sophomore season back in the Premier League now resembling something more of a mouldy loaf.
There is some poetic justice and romanticism in the fact that the two veterans of the side – and two of the stars of Sheffield United’s rise under Wilder – in Chris Basham and Billy Sharp, were the outstanding outfield performers at the weekend, as they have been for much of the campaign. It is testament to their powers of aging like a fine wine, but again shows just how poorly neglected this squad has been in recent years.
It is a roster of players very much set up to play 5-3-2, as per the Wilder years, but does not lend itself to Jokanovic’s preferred methods. They have veered between a back four and a back three/five depending on how you look at it and how defensive they have been – all too often very defensive – but rather than the tactical fluidity that you might associate with successful teams, it reeks of a setup that has little idea how to succeed.
That was certainly the case for their most recent outing and many others this campaign, where the Blades have looked blunt through much of their own doing. For as good as Coventry have been for large swathes of this season, they were never able to get out of third gear at the weekend. But Sheffield United, like the learner drivers they are, kept stalling every time they had a chance to progress up the pitch.
Jokanovic has to take his fair share of the blame. Even with the lack of investment and the club being on a perennial downward spiral since the first Covid lockdown, this is still a group of players who could and should be achieving so much more than 17th place with 20 points at nearly the halfway mark.
This is a manager who achieved great success in the second tier with Watford and Fulham while always maintaining a professional and somewhat dour appearance on the sidelines, but who now looks largely glum like the thousands of supporters sat behind him watching United try and fail to attack with any real conviction.
Meanwhile, after nearly a year away from management, Wilder was back on the touchline looking resplendent and dapper like he used to at Bramall Lane. His new Middlesbrough side also picked up a home point against promotion dark horses in Millwall, yet the mood felt more positive than it has done at any point this season for Sheffield United.
Jokanovic has a knack for leaving jobs of his own accord, while both Watford and Fulham saw fit to cease his employment immediately or soon after winning promotion to the Premier League. He is not a manager used to failure, but he is also not an individual who sticks around for the long haul as soon as circumstances are less than rosy.
Likewise, Sheffield United have tasted such delectable highs in recent years that post-Wilder was always going to be a comedown, but misery is quickly becoming apathy in S2. One has to question what the point of it is. There is little serious worry of relegation, while promotion is a pipedream this campaign.
Transitional seasons are important, but there is little to suggest that either Jokanovic or Sheffield United are in this marriage for the long haul. If they were to split, it is difficult to envisage tears being shed for either party. Another transition may now be the best course of action if Sheffield United are to arrest the slide which currently engulfs them both on and off the pitch.