COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Frustration. That’s probably what Claude Puel and, to a larger extent, Kelechi Iheanacho felt following the forward’s withdrawal against Southampton just after the hour mark in gameweek three last weekend.
At the time of the Nigeria international’s substitution, in the 67th minute, the Foxes had only just equalized through Demarai Grey 10 minutes earlier, and many would have expected the French coach to have kept Iheanacho on, given that the game was there for the taking.
Puel's side eventually won 2-1 thanks to Harry Maguire's late, late strike, however, the decision to bring on Marc Albrighton spoke volumes about the forward’s ineffectual display, and how Puel sees Iheanacho.
The dissatisfaction about the frontman’s performances, even at this early stage of the campaign, stems from the fact that he had a superb preseason, scoring four goals in three games – against Udinese, Valencia and Lille respectively.
The last of his goals, a brace against Les Dogues, saw the Foxes end their winless run in preparatory friendlies after three successive games without success.
At the blast of the final whistle at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Iheanacho will have had his gaze firmly fixed on the league opener against an ailing Manchester United at Old Trafford. Given the state of the Red Devils in preseason, with a lingering uncomfortable atmosphere that’d carried on from the previous campaign, the forward was predicted to hurt Jose Mourinho’s side on opening day.
However, his performance in the 2-1 loss was a stark contrast to the player who had terrorised defences during friendlies in the preceding weeks; his touch was heavy, his interplay in tight spaces nonexistent and he seemed incapable of taking advantage of the couple of chances that fell at his feet to stun the Manchester giants.
In all honesty, the single fact that the encounter was at Old Trafford made it an uphill task before a ball was kicked. Without an away win at the home of the Red Devils since Tony Cottee fired Leicester to a 1-0 win in January 1998, the East Midlands side have endured just over two decades of hurt since and were consequently fighting a losing battle before the season opener.
Nevertheless, and hindsight is a good thing, the defensive capitulation of Mourinho’s side in their 3-2 loss at Brighton & Hove Albion and Monday night’s 3-0 home loss to Tottenham might have had the Leicester lads thinking what might have been.
Puel’s side might feel they could’ve got a better result given how recent events have panned out, and maybe curse their luck for playing the Manchester giants before truly realizing just how deep their malaise runs.
The Foxes, and Iheanacho, weren’t helped on that day by Daniel Amartey’s irrational handball only seconds into the encounter. Paul Pogba sent the home side ahead, and it had the visitors playing catch-up, consequently ruining what Puel set out to achieve.
If the plan was to hit Mourinho’s side on the counter, that was quickly thrown out of the window after three minutes as the early goal saw the hosts retreat into their half and play the visitors at their own game.
It made it difficult for Iheanacho to have a telling impact as the ball didn’t arrive in the final third early enough for the forward to have a devastating impact. His side saw more of the ball but rarely did in very positive attacking situations, which had the attacker dropping deeper to have an impact.
A similar theme played out against the Saints as the frontman sought the ball outside the box as opposed to being a presence in goalscoring areas. That can be interpreted either as a player trying extremely hard to impact the game, or as one lacking confidence to carry out his primary duty, and then tries to overcompensate in other areas.
It was the first time since 2015 that Leicester had started a game without one of Jamie Vardy, who was suspended following straight red against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, and they struggled badly – especially in the first half.
In 67 minutes on the south coast, Iheanacho failed to register a single effort at goal of the Foxes’ four at the time, which further highlights his ineffectiveness.
Against United in gameweek one, his two blocked efforts from outside the box were all he could muster in 90 minutes. To put this stat in perspective, the introduced Vardy had two of Leicester’s 13 attempts, both from inside the box and scored with one. The visitors had three other efforts from inside the penalty area, with none involving the Nigerian.
With Vardy’s so-far interrupted campaign, one would have hoped Iheanacho would strive to make a much better impression, yet he’s failed.
It hasn’t helped that the quality of opposition faced has seen Puel focus on results as opposed to playing fluid football. It also doesn’t help that the next side in sight are Liverpool, a team brimming with confidence after their perfect start to the campaign.
The Reds have been pristine this year and are yet to concede a goal.
They’ve also shown they can win without particularly hitting the heights – as seen in their 2-0 win at Crystal Palace and 1-0 success last time out against Brighton – and Iheanacho might be in for yet another tough afternoon at the King Power Stadium.
It will be the final game of Vardy’s three-game suspension, and the Nigeria international will hope to pick up where he left off in the Foxes’ 4-0 League Cup win over Fleetwood Town – where he scored the third of the home side’s four – as the East Midlands side seek to be the first team to put a dent in Liverpool’s unblemished start.
Otherwise, the frontman risks ruing yet another missed opportunity to really force himself into Puel’s plans...and the Leicester reckoning.