At first glance, the partnership which could hold the key to winning what promises to be a finely balanced semi-final against Nottingham Forest is based on panache. Both possess the technical proficiency required to ensure the pictures they create are translated into something tangible on the football pitch, rather than remain figments of their vivid footballing imaginations.
But, as Heckingbottom has explained ahead of Saturday’s first leg at Bramall Lane, the partnership between Ndiaye and Gibbs-White isn’t based on poetry alone. Although the two 22-year-old’s were both encouraged to express themselves after being paired together in attack - an injury to Billy Sharp persuading Heckingbottom to resurrect an experiment first trialled by his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic earlier this term - there is also a prosaic element to their work.
The training ground work
Many of the moves the duo implemented to such good effect during last weekend’s 4-0 victory over Fulham have been patiently choreographed on the training ground. And, Heckingbottom told The Star as United finalise their preparations for the first of two meetings Steve Cooper’s side, would be impossible to implement unless those cast in supporting roles understand their responsibilities too.
“You need good players who can produce, of course you do,” Heckingbottom said. “But it’s teams that win and that’s why I always emphasise that’s exactly what we are.
“Everyone loves to talk about the things that catch the eye, and I get that. Because that’s what sticks in your mind. But it’s the unsexy things they and other lads out there do that really make a big difference. It’s things like tracing players or, when you know you’re tired and might not even end up getting to ball, making that run which creates space because you take someone with you.
“We always want people to show what they can do, to use their talents. But that’s only possible if the things people don’t often mention or get noticed happen as well.”
The key numbers
Although Heckingbottom is right not to overstate United’s reliance on Ndiaye and Gibbs-White - or, for that matter, increase the weight of responsibility being placed upon their shoulders - he requires both to be at their best in order to wreck Forest’s Premier League hopes.
The pair have scored exactly 60 percent of United’s goals over the past half a dozen games and 53 percent since Sharp last started a fixture. Brennan Johnson and Sam Surridge, the most clinical finishers at Steve Cooper’s disposal, have produced 55 percent of Forest’s over the same period.
Heckingbottom used Ndiaye’s brilliant solo effort against Marco Silva’s men in December to illustrate his point about the importance of team work and often small but insignificant details.
“What enabled him to do what he did, and make sure something came out of all his good work, was a little drop of the shoulder just before he shot. That meant (Fulham) defender Tim Ream couldn’t commit, he couldn’t shut him down. It gave Iliman that split moment to get his attempt off.”
“There were also runs going on, taking people away from him who might otherwise have flood the area he was going into,” Heckingbottom continued. “There was another one, not so long back, when it was a run from someone else peeling away that opened up space for us to score. I’m not going to mention which one, because I don’t want to go into too many details and give things away. But we spotted it and that’s what made what happened happen.”
The big difference
Although they were born only two months apart, Ndiaye does not possess the same experience as Gibbs-White; something which explains why Heckingbottom briefly dropped the Frenchman from his matchday plans earlier this year and must be taken into consideration when judging the former Boreham Wood player’s progress.
Having graduated from Wolverhampton Wanderers’ youth programme, the on-loan Gibbs-White had already amassed 92 competitive appearances and been capped by England at under-21 level before arriving in South Yorkshire. Ndiaye, by contrast, was plucked from non-league and had only completed a placement with Hyde before being handed his debut towards the end of last season. He is effectively learning on the job.
“We can all flick a ball and do tricks,” said Heckingbottom. “But there has to be an intent and an awareness about when and where you can create the greatest amount of problems.”
The run in
Despite finishing one place and five points behind Forest in the table, United, ranked fifth, ended the campaign in better form; winning all of their remaining three matches. Cooper’s men lost their penultimate match of the season and drew with Hull City last weekend. However, the defeat at AFC Bournemouth, who secured the second automatic promotion slot as a result, came following a run of 10 victories and only two losses. One of those came in the FA Cup, at the hands of Liverpool.
Providing further insight into his relationship with Ndiaye, and how the double act with Gibbs-White works, Heckingbottom said: “There’s been times when I’ve left Iliman Ndiaye out and, the same with any other player, times when I’ve praised him or had to have a word. That’s normal and, when I have, it’s usually been for something without the ball. Now, you see him doing that because he’s learning and listening.”
“We’ve had a lot of things thrown at us injury wise and we’ve had to change the dynamic at times,” he added. “Look at what we’ve got and take steps to make sure we can get the most out of that.”