Sheffield United: The big change in Iliman Ndiaye this season is discussed

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Iliman Ndiaye’s first goal of the new season, which laid the foundations for Sheffield United’s victory over Millwall, is one he wouldn’t have scored not so long ago.
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After latching onto the ball following Wes Foderingham’s punt upfield, having seen Rhian Brewster distract two visiting defenders, the Senegal international held-off Murray Wallace before caressing it into the far corner of Bartosz Bialkowski’s net.

It wasn’t the finish which raised eyebrows. Ndiaye, one of the most technically proficient members of Paul Heckingbottom’s squad, will have backed himself to break the deadlock after escaping his marker.

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Rather it was the manner in which he created the space in the first place, outmuscling the six foot two inch tall Wallace as they jostled for possession, which lent further weight to the theory that Ndiaye has bulked-up this summer.

Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary - five days earlier, when United began the campaign at Watford, he was noticeably more effective during physical confrontations - Paul Heckingbottom is adamant the 22-year-old did not complete a gym programme before reporting back for duty at the Randox Health Academy. If United’s manager was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when The Star questioned him on the subject, then Ndiaye has simply matured into the type of forward teams will find almost impossible to stop: Strong, quick and extremely skilled.

Sheffield United's lliman Ndiaye looks stronger without sacrificing any of his skill: Lexy Ilsley / SportimageSheffield United's lliman Ndiaye looks stronger without sacrificing any of his skill: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage
Sheffield United's lliman Ndiaye looks stronger without sacrificing any of his skill: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage

“He’s so strong,” Heckingbottom insisted. “He always has been, even though he looks like a skinny little thing. His centre of gravity is unreal.”

Ndiaye’s effort was his fifth in nine competitive outings for United, tracing back towards the end of last term. The youngster’s talent and imagination has never been in doubt. His strike against Fulham in December, which saw him unpick the Londoners' defence with a combination of pace and subtle feints, was a thing of beauty.

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However, bouts of cramp were also a regular occurrence. The one Ndiaye appeared to suffer against Gary Rowett’s side, almost certainly a result of the ground he covered during the first hour of the contest, seemed nowhere near as serious as those which regularly forced him off during Heckingbottom’s first six months in charge.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Lexy Ilsley / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Lexy Ilsley / Sportimage

One reason for the refusal of United’s coaching staff to publicly acknowledge what everyone else’s eyes are telling them, regardless of whether Ndiaye’s increased power is a result of weights or simply a late growth spurt, could be to ensure his new-found strength goes under the radar. It won’t of course, given the sheer volume of research teams undertake on their rivals in the modern age.

But that hasn’t stopped United performing psychological tricks in the past, with injured players routinely ruled-out for “two weeks” before it emerges their complaints are more serious than initially stated. Heckingbottom is also adept at making it sound as if those entering the final stages of their rehabilitation schedules are poised to return for the next fixture before the promised comeback is delayed. Chris Basham was supposedly available to face Millwall but failed to make the matchday squad. The defender could, however, return during Thursday’s Carabao Cup tie at West Bromwich Albion or Sunday’s visit to Middlesbrough.

“Iliman is doing more of his work now higher up the pitch,” said Heckingbottom. “That’s where we want him.”