Kelechi Iheanacho announced himself on the Premier League stage as an 18-year-old, coming on as a substitute against Crystal Palace and scoring a last-minute winner. The goal, an instinctive stab from close-range after stringent movement, became a trademark for the youngster. The portfolios of Ian Wright and Ruud Van Nistelrooy were being plagiarised and the dying art of poaching was suddenly moved to the front of the gallery.
While that type of goal may not pull on the heartstrings of Pep Guardiola, it remains as valuable as gold dust to teams who are looking to force their way up the table as opposed to instilling a philosophy and leaving a legacy. It is not to say that Craig Shakespeare does not aspire to do either of those things, but more that his view on how to do so will not be as absolute as Guardiola.
After discovering the asking price for former Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez, West Ham were unwilling to meet Manchester City’s £25m asking price for Iheanacho. A reasonable excuse, given Hernandez’s Premier League experience and his goalscoring record since leaving for Bayer Leverkusen, but will they regret not taking a punt on a man who could come to the aid of a fellow Premier League side?
In the current market, £25m is merely treading pennies in comparison to what is available to the majority of Premier League clubs and Iheanacho’s past, and future, provides enough evidence as to why Leicester have decided to invest in a 20-year-old on a journey from playing barefooted in the rocky streets of Nigeria to having his last name better known than Balboa.
Under Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, Iheanacho’s decisive finishing and Sergio Aguero’s untrustworthy hamstrings coupled together to form a formidable partnership. The Argentine would be unleashed upon opponents, with the presupposition that Iheanacho could provide a threat for the final 20 minutes.
And that he did.
2015/16 was a fruitful opening campaign in senior football for Iheanacho, bagging 14 goals in 35 appearances (the majority of which came from the bench). Guardiola’s highly-anticipated arrival, however, halted the progress of the then 19-year-old’s career. The Spaniard arrived in Manchester looking to replicate the success he had experienced at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. To do so, a change of tact was in order – one with no poachers allowed.
In a traditional team, each player will have a certain role. In a Pep Guardiola team, every man plays in every role. This meant that Iheanacho’s niche, yet effective, skill set was surplus to requirements. Despite serious doubts around Aguero’s future at the club, Iheanacho still failed to break into the starting line-up. The arrival of Gabriel Jesus knocked the Nigerian even further down the pecking order and all-but-forgotten by fans.
The chances that Iheanacho did get to showcase his abilities leaves no guessing as to why Leicester are keen to add him to their squad. In his time at City, Iheanacho has been directly involved in 29 goals in 2097 minutes – an average of one goal every 72 minutes. Only a handful of players around Europe can match that statistic.
But why will Iheanacho do well at Leicester specifically?
Assuming that Shakespeare will continue with the formation and tactics that served him so well in the latter stages of 2016/17, Iheanacho is likely to be the strike partner of Jamie Vardy, replacing Shinji Okazaki. Okazaki is known for doing more of the work in the build-up than finishing the move, and that is where Iheanacho provides an upgrade.
A season influenced by the training methods of Guardiola will have seen Iheanacho’s build-up play inevitably improve but his deadly close-range finishing ability means that Leicester will also have an additional goalscoring threat.
The Foxes’ counter-attacking style of play means that the majority of their shots come from within the 18-yard box. Of Iheanacho’s 21 career goals, 20 have been converted from inside the box – the exception being on the 18-yard line itself.
In contrast to Vardy being right-footed, 14 of Iheanacho’s goals have been scored using his left foot, providing a balance in the attacking line. The balance provides Leicester with yet another option whilst counter-attacking and makes it harder for the opposition to cope with players sprinting directly at them.
The downside to the deal, of course, is that City are unwilling to sell Iheanacho without having a buy-back clause in his contract. Hitherto, Leicester’s success will be City’s success. Foxes fans will hope that Iheanacho thrives at the King Power Stadium, but perhaps not too much.