Aanu Adeoye, KweséESPN
The second act of Kelechi Iheanacho’s Manchester City career had a pre-determined path, or at least that’s what we all thought.
After an encouraging debut season that saw him score 14 goals in 35 appearances under Manuel Pellegrini, the overwhelming expectation was that a linkup with the incoming Pep Guardiola would raise his game to the next level, turning him from talented youngster to bona fide first team player at City.
With Guardiola famed for his work his youngsters from Barcelona to Munich, and Iheanacho genuinely one of the best young talents around, it seemed to be a match made in heaven; there’s nothing Guardiola’s constantly whirring brain loves more than a malleable youngster.
Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Joshua Kimmich and Juan Bernat all benefitted from Guardiola fine-tuning the outer edges of their undoubted abilities.
Instead, it has turned out to be a flat and rather disappointing sophomore season for the 20-year-old Nigerian. To say it has not gone according to plan would be a massive understatement; there are times when it feels Iheanacho has completely fallen off the radar at City, and it’s pertinent to ask how it has all come down to this.
The season started well enough for Iheanacho with a contract extension to 2021 in August followed by a goal in the Manchester derby that City won 2-1. With Sergio Aguero suspended for the derby Iheanacho was the natural choice to replace him, yet Guardiola damned him with faint praise in the aftermath of the game, saying the Nigerian was handed a start because he was “the only striker we had in that moment”.
He started and scored in the league game after the derby, a 4-0 win over Bournemouth. Since then the opportunities have been few and far between, a smattering of substitute appearances and just three starts, the last of which came on January 2.
From being a useful backup under Pellegrini, Iheanacho has seen his position further diminish with the winter arrival of Gabriel Jesus in England.
Never mind not getting starts or substitute cameos, Iheanacho has hardly made the match day squad since the Brazilian came into town: Iheanacho has been left out of the squad 10 times, failed to get off the bench five times and has played just a miserly 70 minutes across eight games.
In total he has played 28 times with seven goals in only nine starts. Numbers don’t lie, and the statistics paint a sorry picture of his limited involvement this season.
In January, when asked, Guardiola explained away Iheanacho’s lack of appearances by saying City hadn’t created “many chances for this kind of player”.
In many words the manager simply explained he didn’t value what his striker had to offer. The recurring theme of City’s season has been Guardiola demanding more from Aguero, the implication being goals are not enough to justify a place in his team. It’s a problem Zlatan Ibrahimovic also grappled with during his lone season at Barcelona. Guardiola wants his strikers to contribute to the build-up play and offer more than just their goalscoring abilities.
When Iheanacho came through the youth system in Nigeria, particularly during his coming of age party that was the 2013 u17 World Cup, he played as an attacking midfielder in the hole behind the striker, pulling the strings for his more advanced teammates to flourish.
Last season under Pellegrini he became a penalty area striker with the knack of being in the right place at the right time, in a similar mould to Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Iheanacho became more effective in his play, but perhaps more damagingly for his prospects this term under Guardiola, he was stripped of his other attacking qualities. If Aguero, genuine City legend and scorer of 31 goals this season gets flak from his manager for not doing more, it’s only natural that a 20-year-old still finding his feet sees his opportunities limited.
Yet Iheanacho possesses qualities that would be of use to a different manager with a different approach, and at 20 still he has a long way to go ahead of him in his career.
A departure of sorts surely awaits this summer, be it a loan or a permanent move. A loan would be of no benefit, as it’s difficult to see Guardiola change his opinion about the player with a year away if he remains unconvinced after spending a year and countless training sessions observing his characteristics.
Iheanacho will not be short of suitors when the window opens – a clinical finisher never is – and Champions League hopefuls Hoffenheim have already been credited with an interest.
City can expect to make a tidy profit for a player brought in for a pittance through their Academy, and while it would be disappointing for him to go out with a whimper considering the incredible start he had, a parting of the ways is definitely the best outcome for all parties.