In the language of the Igbo people of southern Nigeria, Iheanacho has a meaning – ‘what we are looking for’ or ‘that thing we seek’. Maybe that’s how Kelechi Iheanacho’s breakthrough feels for Manchester City and their fans. Not only does the 19-year-old freshen up an ageing squad but he’s become the back-up option Wilfried Bony was supposed to be.
Kelechi Iheanacho took his tally for the season into double figures with a brace in Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Stoke on Saturday. Adam Bate examines the youngster’s breakthrough season and why there’s so much more to come.
Two goals against Stoke took Iheanacho’s total to 11. Both were expertly taken and dispatched. For the first, he was savvy enough to check his run in order to find space and finish neatly. For the second, he burst away from three opponents before calmly rounding goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard. “Look how effortlessly he moves,” enthused Jamie Redknapp in the Sky Sports studio. “He’s a natural born finisher.” Even before his goals, Iheanacho had helped earn his side a penalty and was rewarded with the man-of-the-match award. It’s the first time he’s been preferred to a fit Bony in a Premier League starting line-up. It won’t be the last.
Iheanacho’s five Premier League goals – including the stoppage-time winner at Crystal Palace – have come in just 518 minutes at a strike rate only bettered by team-mate Sergio Aguero and Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge. In all competitions, his record is superior even to theirs. He’s found the net once every 81 minutes this season.
It’s a reward for Manuel Pellegrini’s faith. “He’s had a lot of belief from the manager, to be honest,” goalkeeper Joe Hart told Sky Sports after the game on Saturday. “He’s been brilliant, having turned up last pre-season somewhat unknown I think it’s fair to say.” Although he found the net in a friendly against AC Milan as long ago as that summer of 2014, Iheanacho’s impact last season was restricted by a serious injury. And yet, Pellegrini saw enough. He has repeatedly pointed out that the player’s promise was a key factor in the club’s decision not to replace either Stevan Jovetic or Edin Dzeko.
“I see Kelechi every day and know what he can do,” said Pellegrini recently. Intriguingly, it seems that what he can do is far more than what’s been seen so far. “He scores lots of goals but he is not just a penalty box player,” added Pellegrini after the performance against Stoke. “I am sure that his role in this team will be very important.” There’s a reason for the confidence. City had been tracking Iheanacho even before he starred at the 2013 Under-17 World Cup, but they could hardly miss him that autumn given that the final of that tournament took place in front of 20,000 people in Abu Dhabi. Iheanacho scored and promptly picked up the Golden Ball award for best player.
What was interesting about his efforts out in the Emirates during that FIFA Under 17 World Cup was that he operated in a deeper role, producing six assists as well as his six goals. He set up both in the quarter-final against Uruguay and the opener in the semi-final against Sweden. It wasn’t all about the finishing. FIFA’s technical report on the tournament described him as an “outstanding attacking midfielder, dangerous in front of goal [with] good technique and vision”. This was the talent that City bought, paying £350,000 to beat Porto to his services.
He’s a better player now, as you’d expect given his age – and his attitude. “I think I’m improving a lot,” Iheanacho told Sky Sports in his post-match interview. “But I really need to work harder in training and in games to show my qualities.”
Will he get another chance against Real Madrid on Tuesday? Aguero remains irreplaceable, of course, but the option is there. “If you are looking at midweek and the Champions League and who you’d bring on if things aren’t going your way, he’d probably go in ahead of Wilfried Bony,” added Redknapp. Iheanacho. He’s the man City have been looking for.
Source: Adam Bate, Sky Sports