The strange, swift and miserable decline of Kelechi Iheanacho

Words By Stephen Tudor Image by Offside
January 11, 2018

It wasn’t that long ago when Manchester City fans would fiercely argue with their rival red clan over who was the better player: Kelechi Iheanacho or Marcus Rashford.

That might seem a rather redundant discussion now, with the Nigerian striker cast to the periphery of Leicester’s squad while Rashford remains England’s bright young hope ahead of this summer’s World Cup, but it’s worth remembering that on Boxing Day 2016, Iheanacho’s close range strike at Hull statistically made him the most lethal hit man in Premier League history. His twelfth goal in 38 appearances – many of which were from the bench and many of them as a game eked into added-on time – equated to a goal every 96 minutes and astonishingly derived from just 19 shots. Rashford couldn’t compete with that. Nobody could.

What united both youngsters was that they emerged onto the big stage due to injuries to established stars and staggered one and all with the immediacy of their impact. Each teenager was regarded well by those previously in the know but neither’s progress was accompanied by any whispers of potential greatness which made their amazing announcements all the more surprising. Indeed some insist even now that they weren’t close to being the best in their age group as they rose through the ranks. Huge credit to owed to both then for the manner in which they grabbed their opportunity.

What occurred to many Blues as the initial giddy shock turned to a more studied assessment of their home-grown talent was that when Rashford started games his impact didn’t deviate whereas when Iheanacho was picked from the off, he was often found wanting, drifting into anonymity for sustained periods. They would never publicly admit this of course, for fear of United fans jumping all over it, but the common consensus as Iheanacho left his teenage years behind him was that should he come on as a substitute a goal was virtually guaranteed. Should he play the full ninety he would invariably disappoint. There was no great concern at this incidentally. Some young players just needed time to level out their contribution.

But then Pep came and that concern grew, especially as his arrival was soon after accompanied by the signing of the Brazilian wonderkid Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras.

Granted there was a September winner at Old Trafford and the aforementioned tap-in v Hull, along with two Champions League goals against Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic, but Iheanacho was clearly struggling to elevate his overall performances to meet the demands set by Guardiola, a coach who infamously has little requirement for a pure poacher. His touch, that was always a little on the heavy side, now looked clumsy amidst the pinball precision while his movement, as simplistic as this sounds, just got him in the way. Jesus meanwhile, five months younger and fresh from winning the Campeonato Brasileiro, stole his thunder with twinkling feet and a winning smile.

So his move to Leicester City on August 3rd of last year made perfect sense for all concerned. For City £25m was a decent sum for a product of their academy while for £3m less than they paid for Islam Slimani the Foxes were getting a striker capable of firing the magical twenty goals a season on a regular basis. As for Iheanacho, disgruntled at not being given a fair crack of the whip in Manchester, this was a chance to establish himself as a top flight forward of merit.

That it has not worked out for him at the King Power is not hugely surprising because nothing can ever be taken for granted in football. That it has gone so spectacularly wrong however is little short of bewildering.

Recently appointed Leicester boss Claude Puel candidly said this week that his out-of-favour forward ‘needs to improve aspects of his play’. Having sought the opinion of Leicester supporters on Twitter as research for this write-up, it could be reasoned that those aspects are far-reaching. Jamie Thorpe questioned the player’s hunger before wondering aloud if Iheanacho’s strengths were best suited to his club’s M.O. The latter point is pertinent given that the now 21 year old thrives on chances that come his way whereas so much of Leicester’s success stems from their strikers creating those chances for themselves, usually in the form of lightning quick breaks. Iheanacho is not the paciest while his build-up play can leave a lot to be desired.

Neil Ransom meanwhile didn’t hesitate to go in two-footed; damning the player’s perceived laziness, poor touch, uninterested demeanour, and lack of a football brain. “Unlike a lot of our players he just doesn’t seem to have put the work in or have the right attitude,” Ransom concludes and indeed criticism of Iheanacho’s attitude is commonplace through the responses.

It is largely this absence of application that has led to a meagre 256 minutes of first team action and with no goals this time to mask his shortcomings it’s left him utterly exposed and high and dry.

It was always going to be an enormous ask to dislodge Jamie Vardy but after falling behind Shinji Okazaki and Slimani in the pecking order Iheanacho’s future in the Midlands already seems fated to be short-lived. This is as much a shame as it is unexpected.

When tweeting about the devout Christian (included here to at least partly explain the seriousness in which he carries himself on the pitch, a seriousness that might be misconstrued as moodiness when confidence and form is at a low) a row on my timeline jolted into me a reminder of how the cruelty of football works.

Paraphrasing is required but there was a City fan on there insisting that a United fan was a clown because the latter believed that Marcus Rashford was a superior talent to Gabriel Jesus.

We all move on at a rate of knots but at heart things stay exactly the same. It was ever thus.

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