The team lacked confidence, consistency and were already doomed to relegation after a miserable campaign overshadowed by injuries, missed opportunities and the internal politics responsible for Chris Wilder’s departure. But members of the Serbian inner circle, as well as many on the outskirts, told the Star his heart was already set to move to South Yorkshire – calculating the decline of a team that had stormed the division a year earlier was temporary rather than terminal.
“The Slav has taken sides there before and always came out impressed,” said one of his close friends following what turned out to be a successful pitch with owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa ‘ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in a series of Zoom calls. “He feels it’s somewhere with history, tradition and some real substance that makes him attractive. On top of that, even though things are not going well, he has a firm belief that good players are good players, even if they are not in good shape. And he knows there are a lot of good players out there.
This was exactly the message Jokanovic conveyed to United hierarchy shortly after taking the job, telling Prince Abdullah and his advisor Jan van Winckel that he felt the squad he would soon take over was in better shape than those he inherited from Watford and Fulham. He won promotion to the championship with both. That didn’t mean, however, that it didn’t need tweaking and strengthening in a few key areas. Jokanovic has admitted, indeed admits, that United need to strengthen their options in a few key positions in order to strengthen their two best references.
One of them is the midfielder, where Sander Berge is expected to follow John Lundstram through the exit door, there is a vacancy for an attacking individual capable of creating and scoring goals.
While Jokanovic may scour the loan market for a solution to this problem, there may be some already in United’s ranks.
Luke Freeman, whose opportunities since leaving Queens Park Rangers have been extremely limited, is expected to see his parent club’s return to the EFL and the arrival of Jokanovic as a chance to finally make his mark in South Yorkshire.
Signed for an undisclosed amount in 2019, which was reported as a record for his new employers at the time, Freeman only made 16 appearances for United before being sent to Nottingham Forest. The move was supposed to be temporary. But a clause was inserted into the deal that took him to the City Ground that he could become permanent. Provided that officials are willing to pay a fixed fee. With Forest struggling and Freeman suffering from multiple injuries, it never happened.
Jokanovic will admit, however, that the Londoner possesses a proven championship caliber. At QPR, he was one of the most sought-after and accomplished artists in the division – able to be deployed in a variety of different roles and master them all.
On second thought, Freeman would still struggle to break into United’s starting XI after leaving the capital. Circumstances conspired against him. His problem was not a lack of talent. It was United’s tactic – or rather a subtle adjustment Wilder and his coaching staff made to their game plan after breaking out of tier two.
Supposedly replacing Mark Duffy, who had been surprisingly knocked out following a contract issue, Freeman was recruited to bring a touch of ingenuity to United’s operations in the middle of the park. But after considering the challenge ahead, Wilder decided that with their possession percentages likely to drop, United needed more physique. Lundstram was the beneficiary, despite struggling playing time the year before. Then, when Berge was signed for £ 22million, the Norway international became United’s preferred option in the role.
Like Lundstram, who is set to become a free agent, Berge seems destined to new pasture with Arsenal and Napoli among those watching his situation.
Crucially for Freeman, provided he can prove his fitness when United return to training, Jokanovic is looking for a different dynamic. He wants his team to dominate the ball rather than spending his time chasing it; cut passes before trying to catch opponents on the break. Against some of the most gifted strikers in the world, United had to be patient. Now, considering the difference in quality between the two competitions, they can be more proactive. It might work to Freeman’s advantage.
With Jokanovic making it clear that he wants to study United players in the flesh before starting the rump of what should be a thoughtful rather than a major overhaul of the squad, the next four weeks could be crucial for the 29-year-old. old – effectively decide how – and where – the next phase of his career will unfold.
The system he will be auditioning in should be familiar, after Jokanovic confirmed he was ready to try to persevere with the 3-5-2 that served United so well until the inconvenient Jack O’Connell knee make it all fall apart. The center-half will be hoping to declare himself available for selection soon, although Rhys Norrington-Davies, currently on duty for Euro 2020 with Wales, could be a ready-made replacement if he suffers another setback.
What is certain, however, is that Freeman should view Jokanovic’s presence – and United’s demotion – as a chance to prove his worth.