The Nigeria international has struggled for game time this season under Pep Guardiola, and a new rival now threatens his future at the Etihad Stadium.
When Pep Guardiola rocked up to Manchester, there was a lot of excitement at the arrival of the ‘final piece of the puzzle’. The drive to cast Manchester City in the mould of his all-conquering Barcelona team had precipitated a revamp of the club’s youth setup and training facilities, as well as changes on the administrative end.
There was also a sense of expectation surrounding the development of youngster Kelechi Iheanacho, as it were the firstborn from the bowels of the “New Manchester City”. Having shone brightly, albeit fleetingly, in Manuel Pellegrini’s ill-fated final season in charge, it seemed at times as though he was auditioning for the incoming management, preening for the balding Catalan.
Half a season into Guardiola’s tenure, there is little to indicate he was, or indeed has been, impressed. Iheanacho has kept up his eye-catching scoring ratio, but his minutes have been a lot sparser than anyone might have imagined.
One might be tempted to view this as a consequence of the pressure that the former Bayern Munich manager is having to weather in England. His reputation preceded him, and an initial run of 10 straight wins in all competitions conditioned expectations. However, with the arrival of Brazil international Gabriel Jesus, and his immediate displacement of Iheanacho from the bench for the weekend’s draw against Tottenham Hotspur, the writing is on the wall for the 20-year-old: he is weighed in the scales, and has been found wanting.
Quite on what metric this evaluation has been done is hard to divine. There have been five Premier League starts and one in the Champions League, in spite of the fact that Sergio Aguero has been available or simply out of favour for a number of games. His tally of goals even with this dearth of opportunity stands at six goals, an eminently respectable return.
City legend Shaun Goater was unequivocal in his assessment two weeks ago, telling sports.bwin.com that it is clear Guardiola does not trust Iheanacho, in spite of his statements to the contrary. It seems an odd position to adopt over a player who is averaging a goal every 96 minutes, but there is an element of doublespeak, bordering on hypocrisy, to the handling of Iheanacho at the Etihad.
Of his five starts, only once has he been allowed to go the distance. Having scored one and set up another against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September, he was unceremoniously hauled off eight minutes into the second period. The rationale was that United’s change of shape necessitated a response, and oddly it was the man whose contributions had won them the game in the first half who was ballast, shed in the quest for balance.
A goal and assist also followed in the 4-0 win over Bournemouth, and Iheanacho went the full 90 as Eddie Howe’s side were subdued in a first-half blitz and never threatened a fightback. He had to wait another month for his next start, but with Everton an immovable object, he was sacrificed after 55 minutes.
He was hooked against both Leicester and Burnley, both times well before the hour mark. It would seem counterintuitive to withdraw statistically your most prolific striker at points in the game when it is necessary to build pressure, but this is precisely what Guardiola has done repeatedly.
The most telling rejection came at Camp Nou, as the 46-year-old decided Sergio Aguero was not a fit for the team’s strategy. Surely then we would see the club’s prodigy, a proven goal scorer and creator? Kevin De Bruyne played upfront, and the Nigeria international was left behind in Manchester.
Consider all of these, and it is hard to make a case that Iheanacho has got a fair crack of the whip. It is harder still to determine precisely what more he could have done to earn the trust that is so clearly lacking. Asked to make bricks without straw, his toil has been visited with scorn, and the arrival of Gabriel Jesus may very well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
With Aguero having inked a new deal till 2020, the prognosis for Iheanacho is bleak. The player’s father moved quickly to quash talk of a move away, but he stands at a critical juncture, and risks stagnation if his minutes continue to decline.
The coming of Jesus is not with mercy, and Iheanacho would do well to dread it, and seek succour elsewhere.