Little wonder Carl Asaba, the former Sheffield United centre-forward, was so perturbed by one journalist’s suggestion that Paul Heckingbottom was operating without a recognised striker that he blurted out Iliman Ndiaye’s name during the club’s last post-match media conference.
United’s manager, it transpired, was delighted by the interruption. Because it gave him an opportunity to set the record straight. Ndiaye, Heckingbottom insisted, has been viewed as a marksman for the past couple of years.
The only trouble was, with Billy Sharp firing on all cylinders earlier this term, the youngster couldn’t always operate in his preferred position.
The real history
“When I came in Iliman wasn’t a striker, no,” Heckingbottom, previously United’s under-23’s coach, said. “He was seen as a player who was fantastic with the ball.
“But I knew how Chris (Wilder) played and how he wanted to play. How he wanted to see the team develop. So that’s when I wanted Iliman to go up top. So in my eyes, he’s always been a centre-forward.”
Ndiaye, aged 22, has excelled after being tasked with spearheading United’s attack when Sharp succumbed to an injury which could rule him out until the summer. He enters Saturday’s first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest having scored four in his last half a dozen appearances. After netting only three during the first eight months of the campaign, that record lends weight to Heckingbottom’s argument that Ndiaye is a striker rather than offensively-minded midfielder.
Brennan Johnson, who is expected to lead Forest’s charge alongside Sam Surridge, has claimed two of his 17 goals this season over the same period. Surridge has hit the target 12 times since competition resumed in August, with four of those coming for Stoke City. Signed during the January transfer window, the 23-year-old has found the back of the net five times in his last six games.
The confusion about Ndiaye’s role, Heckingbottom suspects, stems from the changing perceptions about what centre-forwards do.
“The best players, they operate in that space between the midfielders and the defenders,” the former Scarborough, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley defender said. “That’s where they hurt people. That’s where they do their damage.
“I couldn’t have played there, no way. But they see the opportunities. Iliman scores and he also creates chances.”
Johnson is also Forest’s most dangerous performer by this measure, having accumulated 10 assists. United’s most creative player, Morgan Gibbs-White, has nine and has formed a dangerous partnership with Ndiaye in recent weeks.
“We always knew what he (Ndiaye) could do with the ball,” said Heckingbottom, who handed Ndiaye his senior debut during a spell in caretaker charge last term. “Now, though, you see him winning it back and that makes him even more effective. That is what has made him better.
“I’ve never had a go at him about what he does with the ball. When I have had a word with him, it’s about what he’s done without it. That’s changed now. And that, as a player at this level, is what you have to do.”