After last season’s horror show at Bramall Lane, with Chris Wilder exiting a toxic environment after doing the unthinkable with The Blades and Sheffield United finishing rock bottom, it hasn’t gotten any prettier for Slavisa Jokanovic since taking over from a strange temporary manager in Paul Heckingbottom. Losing such an iconic figure in Wilder, it seems the fallout from his departure still hangs in the air with Sheffield United 23rd in the Championship after four matches. Blunt in attack, out of ideas and a lack of players in at Bramall Lane, are we looking at a club in freefall? Or, can Sheffield United pull themselves back from the brink and see a resurgence under a serial Championship expert in Jokanovic?
Obviously, after four matches, you do see big sides near the bottom and struggling after a slow start to Championship life – just look at Nottingham Forest currently under Chris Hughton, without a point as the basement club. Yet, I don’t think most of us would have expected Sheffield United’s transition back to Championship life – after a breathless cameo in the top flight – to be so depressingly flat. Falling out of the Premier League without a whimper, rooted to the bottom with 23 points, you would have expected that The Blades would look forward to proving to supporters back in the flesh that they could get firing again in the second tier. Still gripped by the gloom of relegation, the confidence has been completely shot within the Sheffield United camp. A lot of the players also seem to be under the mindset that Wilder has never left – individuals tutored by Wilder from League One to the Premier League. Remove the cohesive glue that had players firing on all cylinders up to Wilder’s departure, and that buzz will be replaced by a loss of confidence in ability. For The Blades to succeed, and for Slav to get the best out of John Fleck, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell again, they will have to unlearn Wilder’s legacy and move on.
Even still, it feels as if Sheffield United are scared to go for new and daring players and instead persist with players that have underperformed throughout their careers in red and white. Rhian Brewster continuing to fire blanks under Jokanovic is a worrying trend amongst The Blades’ attacking arsenal, with the likes of Oli McBurnie failing to impress for The Blades also. Having to rely on Billy Sharp, the Sheffield born 35 year old, isn’t the most encouraging takeaway but the pride Sharp still has putting on a Blades shirt is something that can hopefully rub off on the other players around him. A lack of transfer activity at Bramall Lane hasn’t exactly made Slav’s job any easier, with the only incoming player in the form of Liverpool loanee Ben Davies who does bring Championship experience with him to South Yorkshire. When you look at the Championship promotions Jokanovic has under his belt as a manager (both coming in spells at Watford and Fulham), the sides Slavisa inherited were brimming with talent. The Hornets team he took charge of boasted the likes of Troy Deeney in his second tier scoring prime, Matej Vydra who is renown for scoring in the Championship, alongside the likes of Almen Abdi and Odion Ighalo for good measure. His Fulham side had even more talent arguably, with Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon breaking through under the Serbian’s guidance whilst Lucas Piazon starred on loan from near neighbours Chelsea. Safe to say, the Serbian had stronger and more exciting squads to work with at his ex London based clubs, compared to the more workmanlike players he has been given. This workmanlike approach was beneficial under the figure of Chris Wilder, hard work and togetherness the mantra under the much loved manager. With Slavisa Jokanovic, on the other hand, he demands his sides play an attractive brand of football but often has those skilful players at his disposal. With the likes of Billy Sharp, this approach by the Serbian might feel mismatched and will take time to truly bed in.
As a reactionary Sheffield United fan, you would worry as a supporter with your side in the Championship drop zone after a handful of matches. But, Sheffield United’s season does feel like one of a club in transition – working out how to succeed in the aftermath of Wilder’s almighty imprint on the club. Think to before Wilder – the likes of Nigel Adkins and Nigel Clough struggled – and it wasn’t exactly all smooth sailing at Sheffield United, struggling was common at Bramall Lane. Temper expectations, and Slavisa Jokanovic might well come good in South Yorkshire. When peril set in at Fulham, finishing 20th in the Championship in 2016, the Cottagers stuck with the Serbian and promotion was clinched a few seasons after. They won’t compete with the aforementioned Fulham or West Brom as a fellow parachute club – the 4-0 hammering West Brom served up at The Hawthorns a clear indicator of that – but a season of remaining in the second tier is crucial. Pull themselves out of the abyss created in these first few matches and consolidate, and Sheffield United can begin to succeed again even in the shadow of what has come before.
By Kelan Sarson