Sheffield United: Reda Khadra must follow Iliman Ndiaye's lead as he approaches pivotal period

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Sheffield United have tried plenty of different things to coax the best out of Reda Khadra. Everything except actually giving him a run in the team.

Which unless something changes, when the time comes to judge his stay at Bramall Lane, is possibly the greatest tragedy of a move that began with such excitement but has since descended into confusion, frustration and stasis. Sometimes, after being substituted 33 minutes into only his fourth league start of the season, even sheer embarrassment.

On Friday, with his team entering the World Cup break positioned second in the Championship despite a debilitating casualty list, Paul Heckingbottom could reflect on his first year in post with a high degree of satisfaction. United are well positioned to challenge for promotion. Their ability to eke out results, particularly with so many senior players unavailable for selection, justifies the wisdom of his decision to create a “no excuses” culture behind the scenes. But there are problems to solve looming on the horizon. And one of those, together with trying to persuade Iliman Ndiaye’s representatives that it’s in their client’s best interests to stay put when he returns from Qatar, includes what to do with Khadra. Because, despite all of the well-meaning words which have been uttered about the precociously talented 21-year-old in recent weeks, another six months of the same will benefit neither United, the player or his parent club Brighton and Hove Albion who, even if Heckingbottom’s employers back out of a deal to sign him permanently, won’t appreciate seeing his value diminish with every passing game.

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Four months ago, when Khadra’s move from The AMEX Stadium was first announced, the excitement among United followers was almost palpable. After excelling on loan with Blackburn Rovers the season before, scoring a goal during their side’s defeat at Ewood Park which effectively led to Heckingbottom’s appointment as manager, the former Borussia Dortmund youngster was viewed as one of the most exciting attackers in the second tier. His performances for Tony Mowbray’s men saw him become one of the most sought-after too. When it became apparent that Graham Potter, still in charge of Albion at the time, could not find a place for Khadra in his starting eleven, Rovers, Sunderland and, it later transpired following Nigel Pearson’s bizarre and unprompted outburst after United’s recent win at Ashton Gate, Bristol City were all keen on acquiring his services. But Heckingbottom got his wish and lured Khadra back north. With James McAtee and Tommy Doyle also being unveiled before the beginning of the campaign, the deal appeared part of a concerted effort to transform United into the most offensively-minded squad in the competition. Doyle and to a lesser extent McAtee have both flourished. Khadra, however, is in danger of drifting into obscurity. Before winning his latest under-21 cap for Germany, during a friendly against Italy in Ancona, he had completed only 20 percent of the minutes available to him since being unveiled at United.

All, though, is not lost. Speaking after United’s win over Cardiff City, their final outing before the pause in the domestic fixture schedule, Heckingbottom confirmed he plans to continue utilising the high-energy, high-risk approach which has proved so successful of late.

“It’s about identifying what we’re good at, what is important for us to be at our best,” he said. “We want to be aggressive, change tempo when we make passes. We want to risk the ball. It’s not about the stats or the possession, because that’s why I’m not interested in them. It’s about the quality of the chances created and taking them.”

Heckingbottom’s words bode well for Khadra, whose acceleration and eye for the unconventional should make him a compelling option. But United, for all of their commitment to offensive football, are still a tactically disciplined team. Heckingbottom is more conservative than he sometimes likes to make out. Shoehorning Khadra into the same line-up as Ndiaye would be a bold move, particularly as United’s coaching staff like to surround the Senegalese magician with more prosaic performers.

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Detailed analysis of Khadra’s 14 appearances for United, nine of which have come from the bench, reveals he is taking far fewer touches inside the opposition penalty box than he did at Rovers. To get the best out of him, Heckingbottom must find a way of getting him into more promising positions. A similar conundrum to the one he solved with Oli McBurnie who, after going nearly a year without a goal, has now scored nine times in 13 matches.

Scoring the winning goal against Swansea City is the high-point of Reda Khadra's career with Sheffield United so far: Ashley Crowden / SportimageScoring the winning goal against Swansea City is the high-point of Reda Khadra's career with Sheffield United so far: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage
Scoring the winning goal against Swansea City is the high-point of Reda Khadra's career with Sheffield United so far: Ashley Crowden / Sportimage

But Khadra, whose last gasp strike propelled United to victory at Swansea City in September, must also enter into a pact with Heckingbottom too. As Pearson unhelpfully, impolitely but accurately noted as he broke the unwritten rule among managers of never commenting on a rival player, Khadra can sometimes be negligent when it comes to his defensive responsibilities. He must demonstrate, not only during competitive fixtures but also during training sessions, of becoming more reliable. Without sacrificing any of his maverick tendencies.

“There’s got to be a point to it, and end result,” Heckingbottom said over the summer, during an assessment of Ndiaye’s progress which should also resonate with Khadra. “It’s great having the skills but you’ve also got to ensure they make a difference.”

The fact United have deployed Khadra in a number of different positions, including as a makeshift wing-back during a meeting with Birmingham City, suggests both parties are willing to adapt. Khadra also provides Heckingbottom with insurance if anything happens to Ndiaye, with the statistics the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief professes to hate revealing they have similar attributes.

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But with Sander Berge thought to be closing in on a return to action following a lengthy absence, one suspects United’s upcoming matches against Huddersfield Town and Wigan Athletic could set the tone for the rest of Khadra’s career in South Yorkshire.