We are in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the most closely-contested Premier League campaigns of all-time. With the new television deal, managers and players alike shifted all across England this past summer and the money flowing right alongside them. While Citizens may be accustomed to this occurrence more so than other fanbases since the financial overhaul in the Eastlands years ago, what no one saw coming was a young talent to reinvigorate the heart of the City attack.
Sergio Aguero cannot be replaced. Statistically the most prolific striker in Premier League history, his style of play is something that inspires the ten men lined up behind him. What City fans have come to see year-in and year-out is the a revolving door of supplemental strikers. Eriksson, Hughes, Mancini, Pellgrini: all vastly different managerial styles. With new managers come new formations—or at least tweaked ones—but since Aguero’s arrival in 2011, he has truly spearheaded the City frontline. Whether Aguero’s absence occurred through injury or suspension, City have struggled to find a talented, consistent supporting striker to fill Aguero’s shoes. With the likes of Wilfried Bony, Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, and even James Milner attempting the daunting task at some point, the results ended up sporadic at best. It was beginning to become clearer that there was no way to fill Aguero’s shoes but rather hold his spot until his return. Enter Kelechi Iheanacho.
The Nigerian-born attacker burst onto the scene at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup with a performance that garnered the attention of clubs all across Europe. Lucky enough to attract the same admiration from the striker himself, City signed Iheanacho to an agreement where Nacho would sign with City on his 18th birthday in late 2014. Due to work permit snags, however, Iheanacho was unable to put on a City shirt until early 2015.
After gaining competitive experience with the U-19 and U-21 City squads, Iheanacho — along with other select EDS players — was included the team’s Australian preseason tour. Finishing a productive tour with a late goal against VfB Stuttgart in the final preseason match, then-manager Manuel Pellegrini had seen all he needed to include Iheanacho in City’s senior squad in August 2015. After going unused as a sub at the beginning of the season, Iheanacho first took part in a Premier League match on August 29, 2015 against Watford, coming on as a late replacement in a comfortable 2-0 win. While he didn’t get on the stat-sheet, Nacho’s chance would soon come during a visit to Selhurst Park.
In a match with enough frustrations to earn the “typical City” tag by the middle of the second-half, Iheanacho replaced City-flop Wilfried Bony. Just 54 seconds later, the Nigerian was alert enough to tap home a close-range rebound after Alex McCarthy spilled Samir Nasri's driven shot. After a mere eight minutes total on a Premier League pitch, it was appearing as if City had found their third-choice striker behind Aguero and former-Swan Wilfriend Bony.
Eventually ending the 2015-16 campaign with 8 goals in the Premier League — along with a hat-trick against Aston Villa in the FA Cup — it appeared as if Iheanacho would give Bony a run for the second-string striker position. This was all despite just playing 753 minutes in the league despite a debut at the end of August. To put that into perspective, Marcus Rashford finished the 2015 campaign having played 862 minutes, even though he debuted for the Red Devils in late February. Even still, people draw comparisons. Speaking to the rivalry, Iheanacho told the Daily "I hope people keep comparing us because if we can keep challenging each other in the coming years, it could be great for Manchester. I love a challenge, so when people compare me and Rashford it gives me more confidence and motivation. It also makes me work even harder." While Nacho was finding his form (and a blossoming rivalry) under the departing Manuel Pellegrini, it was yet to be seen how the Nigerian would progress under the incoming Pep Guardiola.
Fast-forward to the first Manchester Derby of the 2016 campaign and the young Nigerian found himself spearheading City’s attack as a result of the Sergio Aguero’s suspension. After assisting City’s first goal through a sublime flick-on header, Kelechi went on to register what would be the game-winning goal. Playing in a country where people had already deemed Marcus Rashford as the next big thing in the Premier League, Kelechi remained unphased and stole the show at Old Trafford. His story only continued to inspire from there, as he scored his first-ever Champions League goal four days later against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Iheanacho, who is now a member of Nigeria’s senior squad after his red-hot 2015 season, has bagged 18 goals from just 16 starts in all competitions – a tantalizing record - and has appeared as a sub on 31 occasions. He’s also managed to net four times in seven appearances for the Super Eagles, a stat that has not gone unnoticed in Nigeria. As his fan-base grows across the globe, we can only expect more goals from the 20 year old. With a history of scoring or creating a goal every 38 minutes against Crystal Palace, Iheanacho is sure to be looking forward to this weekend’s matchup.
In the Premier League, Iheanacho has managed only 821 minutes on the pitch since the beginning of 2015-16. In that time, he has scored nine goals, managing one every 91.22 minutes - a better record than every other player in the Premier League since 2015-16. But what makes Iheanacho so productive in such minimal time on the pitch? It depends on who you ask.
After Iheancho’s Manchester Derby performance, Guardiola stated, "The most important thing with Kelechi is his sense of the goal in the box. Last season and this year, [he played] not too many games but the average rate for goals is high. Guardiola continued, "he's a young player whose come through here, through the academy. He helps us a lot. It's not easy to go to Old Trafford and play in that moment but what happened with Sergio happened. He's a young player, he has a lot of things. He has a lot of space to improve." For a manager with the accolades Pep has accrued to speak so highly, it must be difficult for a youngster to remain grounded.
But Iheanacho is a different breed. "I'm not letting all the praise get to my head because I still have a lot to learn in this game," said Iheanacho. "It's been a very progressive period for me at the club, but playing alongside stars like Sergio, Yaya [Toure] and other great players provides a big chance to keep working hard. I'm definitely learning, quietly listening and watching others closely every day -- I know in doing that I will achieve bigger things in my career.” Sheikh Mansour's money has been spent on a number of elite talents since he took over the club in 2009, but it appears the money he has poured into youth development is finally paying its dividends with the emergence of Iheanacho. With a stellar sense of positioning and a left-foot that could be best-described as artistic (as evidenced in the screamer against Southampton above), the sky is the limit for the 20 year old. In FourFourTwo’s 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World that was published last month, the globally-respected football source named Kelechi Iheanacho at #14. The world is starting to take notice.
While Pep has praised Iheanacho for his sense of goal in the box, the Nigerian youngster’s distribution cannot be overlooked. He’s also quite capable of fulfilling the duties of an adaptive attacking midfielder, able to hold the ball up using a physique that belies his age. Iheanacho is a decent passer for a striker, averaging 78 percent pass accuracy thus far this season. However, it’s simply his positioning and nose for goal that has legends such as Gary Lineker (a former Barcelona and Tottenham striker who was also England’s record goal scorer for years) speaking his praises. “How to score goals: attack area you gamble on, you’ll have an easy chance. Perfect example from Iheanacho,” Lineker said on his Twitter account following Iheanacho’s late-equalizer in the home draw with Southampton in October. Whether a European legend or his own coach is acknowledging his talents, Iheanacho is ready for a bright future at the Etihad.
How to score goals: attack space and when ball goes in the area you gamble on you'll have an easy chance. Perfect example from Iheanacho.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) October 23, 2016
"Our manager has confidence in me and has been encouraging me. All I want to do right now is to keep learning under him and work hard for the club." We look forward to watching you grow, Kelechi.