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Iheanacho resurgence opens up new possibilities for Leicester in title race

23:34 GMT 09/12/2019
Kelechi Iheanacho James Maddison Aston Villa vs Leicester 2019-20
The 23-year-old has made himself useful again, and his understanding with poacher Jamie Vardy could see him remain in the starting lineup

Beyond the scoreline, the more significant aspect of Sunday's trouncing of Aston Villa for Leicester City was the change of shape by Brendan Rodgers.

On the one hand, it may have simply been dictated by the need for rotation. The Foxes were playing their third game in eight days, and are heading into a point in the season when the fixtures come at breakneck speed. In that light, it made sense to give a breather to some of the regulars. 

However, the specific identities of those rested suggests otherwise. Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez began the game on the bench; hardly the two players who have had to get through the heaviest workload.

Rather, it seems like the switch to a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield was more to do with the improved form and sharpness of Nigeria international Kelechi Iheanacho, and was designed to get him into the team in the role and position to which he is best suited.

As it turns out, it was a year to the day since the 23-year-old's last league start for Leicester – a 2-0 home defeat against Tottenham Hotspur during which he was yanked off just shy of the hour mark. Here, he was involved only for slightly longer, but his impact upon proceedings was a lot weightier.

Two appearances in a week have now yielded two goals and two assists, and there are even the beginnings of what appears a productive understanding between Iheanacho and Premier League top scorer Jamie Vardy, who has been the beneficiary of both assists.

It has been quite the return for the former Manchester City man, in more ways than one. While his renewed application in training had been noted and praised, it was widely understood that, with Vardy continuing his ruthless ways in front of goal, there was little hope of Iheanacho usurping him in the club's striker pecking order.

The fact that's the only position he could realistically expect to play in Leicester's 4-1-4-1 system further weakened his case, and kept him out of the reckoning.

Until Everton came along.

His effect on that game and its result may very well have planted a seed in the mind of Brendan Rodgers, and though he was not involved in the midweek victory over Watford, he was back in on Sunday to similar effect.

Whereas his introduction against Everton saw Leicester go to something of a back three in order to accommodate Iheanacho, against Aston Villa it was a back four, but with the wingers rested and the Nigerian able to play in a freer role dropping off the front or into wide areas.

There is enough to suggest this could be a system Rodgers relies on more and more as the season goes on, however.

To begin with, Perez and Barnes, for all that they have performed very well this season, have not exactly been consistent in terms of goalscoring: the Spaniard has scored four league goals this term, but three of them came in that quite remarkable blowout of 10-man Southampton back in October; Barnes has one to his name.

By leaving both out and playing Iheanacho, the Foxes might lose some width, but Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell are at this point two of the best attacking full-backs in the league, and showed against Villa that it need not be a significant handicap.

It would be a small trade-off in order to have a player in the side who can both score goals and link with the side’s main goalscorer: in a cumulative 92 minutes of Premier League action, Iheanacho has already assisted Vardy as many times as Barnes managed to all season.

There is also the fact that a front two makes Leicester a lot more difficult to defend against. In much the same way that Everton simply could not handle the Iheanacho-Vardy tandem, the sheer weight of numbers and movement could be the key to getting Leicester over the negativity that their lofty league position will inevitably foster in opponents as the season goes on.

Interestingly, there is a defensive benefit to persisting with this shape as well.

Earlier in the season, Rodgers seemed reluctant to name a midfield three of Wilfred Ndidi, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, perhaps fearing it was too open. This meant the England international was pushed out wide to the left in order to incorporate a more circumspect presence in the middle.

By playing a diamond, the former Liverpool boss effectively scratches that itch: Maddison gets to play centrally where he is best, at the tip of the diamond, and another central midfielder (on Sunday it was Dennis Praet) can be selected for greater solidity through the middle of the pitch.

It is worth remembering that few managers have used a diamond in midfield to the sort of devastating effect Rodgers did with his Liverpool side in 2013/14. Then, a young Raheem Sterling played at the top of the midfield, with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez upfront.

Maddison, Iheanacho and Vardy are perhaps not quite as quick as a trio, but they showed at Villa Park that they have the capacity to hurt teams. It would certainly make for the most unlikely story, but it is difficult not to be pleased for Iheanacho, in from the cold to give high-flying Leicester a different dimension.