I went into a bar in Victoria Island, Lagos Nigeria to have a drink on Sunday and fortunately for me, it coincided with the time of the premier league game between Leicester City and Everton. There were also a couple of people around and everyone was ready to enjoy the game with “Kelechi Iheanacho” and “Wilfred Ndidi”, the focal point of interest.
The line-ups were eventually shown and there was a sigh of disappointment, as yet again, Kelechi Iheanacho was left on the bench. People started asking questions – Where Iheanacho? This coach dey “mad” why him no play Iheanacho? Why is Iheanacho not starting at this club? Out of annoyance, someone even left the scene of the game for a more comfortable spot where he won’t watch the game.
This was a star that not just Nigerians, but the world had high hopes for, after some dazzling displays, first at the under-17 World Cup in 2013 with six goals and seven assists in just six games, he even won the award for CAF’s most promising talent, which made him attract interest from a host of big clubs all over the globe before eventually settling for Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola came to the club last year and assured Iheanacho of playing time, which he gave him although not as a starter, he was a reliable deputy to Sergio Aguero as Guardiola preferred him to Ivorian, Wilfred Bony. It looked like things were going to get better for Iheanacho as Aguero suffered numerous injuries but instead of relying on his amiable deputy, Guardiola insisted the club signed Brazilian sensation, Gabriel Jesus, signalling the end for the Nigerian at the Etihad. He scored 22 goals in 52 games in all competitions for them.
He then moved to Leicester City for about $30m over the summer in the hope of getting regular first-team football. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t got going as time and again, he’s found himself sparingly used. To make situations worse, Leicester City have had THREE COACHES in the period Iheanacho has been with the foxes.
First, Craig Shakespeare who signed him found it hard to break his Okazaki-Vardy striking pivot, Michael Appleton came on board when Shakespeare was sacked and Iheanacho was benched for the next premier league game with Okazaki and Vardy still preferred up front. They got Claude Puel and in his first game in charge last weekend, Iheanacho saw just the last five minutes despite the changes Puel rang to Leicester City’s typical formation.
Nigerians will also not forget that despite starting in the first two games of the World Cup qualifiers, Iheanacho has also been benched in the previous three qualifiers against Cameroon (2x) and Zambia, coming on as a substitute in all three games.
We need one of our best players playing regularly ahead of the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and with him being used sparingly right now in Leicester City. Will the situation change anytime soon? I really don’t think so and here is why?
I just feel Iheanacho’s best position is, unfortunately, fizzling out in the modern game of football. Iheanacho is an 8 ½ or 9 ½ as best described in some quarters. To put it into perspective, Iheanacho’s best position is as a support striker likened to an Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Muller, Roberto Firmino. But the difference between these guys and Iheanacho is, these guys still get productive when switched to the wing, unlike Kelechi Iheanacho. There is a dearth of Support Strikers in football right now because coaches can’t afford to go a man less in midfield, hence the dire need of attacking midfielders which have become the most in-demand position in football as they contribute in building up attacks, and help with an extra body in midfield.
The successful Real Madrid team that won the Champions League back to back didn’t even need an attacking midfielder but they thrived because there were enough bodies in midfield to run the game. Barcelona thrived during the mid 2000’s basically because of Messi yes, but Xavi and Iniesta ran the rule over that team, just like they ran the rule when Spain dominated world football between 2008 and 2014. Look at the best teams in the premier league right now, none of them plays as a support striker but they all have quality attacking midfielders. Even Jurgen Klopp that has a quality support striker in Roberto Firmino is not affording to play him with Daniel Sturridge.
Fact is, right now, it is almost impossible to usurp Jamie Vardy as the marksman. From Ahmed Musa to Leonardo Ulloa to Islam Slimani and even Shinji Okazaki who Leicester City have bought to provide competition for Vardy have all failed to do so but unlike others waiting to usurp Vardy, Okazaki took a different slide and re-modeled his game to be an extremely hardworking an aggressive AMF/SS hence the reason why coaches who have come in have deemed it fit to always play him. Another player who remodelled his game like Okazaki was Newcastle’s Ayoze Perez who also had to remodel his game to get regular playing time in England.
I’m just of the notion that Iheanacho should either remodel his game to be either a mesmerizing winger or a proper attacking and hardworking midfielder or jump the ship to Spain, Germany, Portugal or another European country. I doubt he’d be relied on to lead the line by any club in the premier league. The game is more physical and most clubs prefer tall/bulky strikers who can box up opposition defenders, except you are Suarez, Aguero, G.Jesus and a few of them. Clubs also hardly go after Support Strikers; they rather prefer attacking midfielders or even more central midfielders to control the game.
I am a big fan of Iheanacho and would continue to support our very own and wish him all the best. I hope he gets on the field regularly as it’ll be beneficial for Nigeria in the long run but on current form, with him sparingly used both for club and country, if things don’t change, he might even find himself behind Tammy Abraham in the reckoning for the Super Eagles top striking spot.