February 25, 2021

Kelechi Iheanacho: Will Manu Garba be proved right?

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While the U-17 World Cup-winning coach believes the Leicester City striker can become a key player at the club, expectations have to be managed

Unquestionably, Kelechi Iheanacho had an encouraging 2019/20 season at Leicester City.

Just when it seemed like the former Manchester City striker was withering away, after stalling in Manchester and failing to be reinvigorated in Claude Puel’s last months in the East Midlands, the mini-renaissance under Brendan Rodgers last term revived expectations that were either disappearing or had evaporated.

Still, 19/20 wasn’t as perfect for the forward as many remember it. Following watching briefs in the opening two games at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and away at Chelsea, Iheanacho’s absence from the squad for subsequent matches was telling.

In the EFL Cup, he was snubbed against Newcastle United, suggesting that the Nigeria striker was nowhere near Brendan Rodgers’ plans. At the time, with the window across Europe still in progress, there were strong calls for frontman to seek a move before any transfer opportunities ended.

However, Iheanacho stayed, much to the surprise of many observers and Nigerians…and he’s reaped the rewards.

Despite Leicester’s wobble in the second part of the season, the West African’s performances and output in front of goal by measure of goals and assists and his underlying numbers were definitely encouraging.

Statistics provided by Fbref show that the ex-Man City prodigy hit more shots on target per 90 than anyone else in the Foxes squad, while also having a higher percentage of his shots on target than any of his teammates as well.

Similarly, only Premier League top scorer Jamie Vardy outdid his deputy for goals and assists per 90, as well as Expected Goals and Expected Assists per 90 among Foxes players in 19/20.

Iheanacho, significantly, outperformed the ageless English striker when penalties were excluded from both metrics, further strengthening the belief that the forward was near back to his best.

There was a notable improvement from his first season at Belvoir Drive, where he posted average stats closer to Shinji Okazaki in those metrics than to Vardy, despite curiously being in the top five at Leicester. Last season’s boost to battling the 2016 league winner was indicative of a promising year at the King Power Stadium.

Interestingly, Iheanacho’s progress last term wasn’t surprising to Manu Garba, the man who was in charge of Nigeria’s U-17 side that won the World Cup in 2013, with the former claiming the Golden Ball after scoring six times and registering a staggering seven assists.

For context, this was 50 percent of the Golden Eaglets’ 26 strikes in the tournament held in the United Arab Emirates seven years ago, so maybe that explains just why the 54-year-old manager still rates the 23-year-old highly.

“I’m still wondering how Kelechi didn’t emerge as one of the best in England,” he told The Athletic recently. “He might have fallen under bad influences from friends, coming from a poor background to an improved status. That can become a distraction when you are so young, but I have seen the old Iheanacho at Leicester.”

The experienced boss then went further by suggesting how the former prospect can reach his peak levels with the Foxes and perform even better than he did in his third season at the club.

“Iheanacho is an asset to any club if the manager understands him, helps him and works on his off-the-ball contribution,” Garba stated. “He will be useful coming behind the main striker because his final passes are inch-perfect and he can shoot from distance.

“He will be a good player for Leicester.”

With Iheanacho, the danger has always been heightened expectations. This is understandable owing to his teenage years with the Eaglets as well as in Manchester but that pressure has placed an undue burden on the forward to shatter a glass ceiling that was probably never going to be reached.

The lack of patience was evident in how critical Nigerians became with his performances after Pep Guardiola took charge of City, eventually leading to his departure in 2017, and in a below-par second season under Puel.

His 19/20 rebirth at the King Power has awakened those strong beliefs of old over the 23-year-old forward who had the world at his feet at only 16. Therein, though, lies the problem.

Maybe Iheanacho isn’t going to the protagonist at a major club as many expect, but rather a decent-to-good player capable of playing a part in the team’s overall success like he did in the preceding campaign.

Rodgers recently suggested that he expects Iheanacho to pick up the mantle when Vardy expectedly declines but the jury’s still out on whether he can truly be the main man at a top club or one with aspirations as high as Leicester’s.

Having already left egg on the face of critics with last season’s revival, the former prospect will now look to kick on in 2020/21 and in subsequent seasons to live up to Garba and Rodgers’ hopes and expectations about his potential.