Can Brendan Rodgers save Kelechi Iheanacho’s Leicester City career?

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Kelechi Iheanacho
While the Nigeria forward was omitted from Gernot Rohr’s latest Super Eagles squad, could a change of fortune be on the horizon?
Perhaps the most shocking element of Kelechi Iheanacho’s omission from the Super Eagles squad to face the Seychelles in this month’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier was the absence of any kind of complaint from Nigerian fans or media.

Typically, the decision to cut any one of the nation’s more high-profile stars prompts dissatisfaction from one strata or another of the Super Eagles’ faithful, yet on this occasion, the Kelechi apologists were silent.

Rohr isn’t a manager to rock the boat; he’s loyal to his tried and tested names—almost to a fault—and has demonstrated a general reticence to experimentation since taking the Nigeria job.

However, occasionally, his patience has waned, and a big cut has been made.

For example, Ikechukwu Ezenwa was notably relegated to the backup goalkeeper role after a series of unconvincing displays—despite his heroics against Cameroon in the World Cup qualifiers—and the untested novice Francis Uzoho was drafted in.

Ogenyi Onazi is another to have been cast aside when Rohr deemed that his performances had dropped.

Kelechi Iheanacho Nigeria 2018

The latest victim of the manager’s concealed ruthlessness is Iheanacho.

The expectation, when the striker left Manchester City in 2017, was that he would go on to prove Pep Guardiola wrong at the less rarefied environs of Leicester City.

Here, without such an idiosyncratic tactical approach, and perhaps without such a demanding manager, Iheanacho could begin to cultivate the pure goalscoring qualities that made him such a hotly anticipated talent as a youngster.

He never truly got the credit he deserved for his eye-catching introduction to life in the Premier League when, as a teenager almost fresh from the Taye Academy, he was blooded by Manuel Pellegrini.

Particularly impressive was Iheanacho’s accurate shooting, and while other elements of his game clearly needed work—an investment Guardiola wasn’t willing to undertake—he boasted perhaps the must valuable commodity of all: that goalscoring knack.

Iheanacho and Guardiola

He ended his first season in England with eight league goals, 14 across all competitions. The returns have been diminishing since.

Iheanacho, like other African forwards Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani, arguably suffered at Leicester due to the sustained presence of Jamie Vardy.

With the former England international leading the line—and typically so prolific—the rest have been left competing for scraps.

Attempts by both Rohr and Claude Puel to play the duo together rarely worked, while the arrival of James Maddison at Leicester limited any prospect for Iheanacho or Vardy to start alongside one another anyway.

While being axed by City—something that may not have happened had Pellegrini remained at the helm—and Vardy remaining at Leicester were out of Iheanacho’s control, the ‘third’ setback cannot be placed at anyone else’s door.

Joe Allen Kelechi Iheanacho Stoke City Leicester City

The 2018-19 season has represented, surely, the best chance of the young forward’s career to truly assert himself as a leading man in the Premier League.

First of all, there have been Vardy’s injury and suspension problems.

With the forward in and out of the team, the door was opened for Iheanacho to amass the kind of playing time that had previously been denied him.

Kelechi Iheanacho | 2018-19 stats

The second was Puel’s dual initiative—perhaps driven by the club’s officials—to place his faith in younger players, and to further modify the club’s playing style away from the counter-attacking approach that won them the title, but that they’ve struggled to step away from since.

Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Demarai Gray represent the club’s future, and in Vardy’s absence, Iheanacho joined them as part of a new-look Foxes forward unit.

The only problem was that he didn’t score…at least not enough.

Kelechi Iheanacho, Paul Pogba

To date, the attacker has found the net just once in the league so far this term, in the victory over Huddersfield Town in September.

His goalless run now stretches to 19 in the league, and 24 in all competitions.

The games came and went, and Iheanacho’s impotence in front of goal persisted.

While he averaged a goal every 94 minutes during the heady days of his 2015-16 season with the Sky Blues, that stat has dropped one goal in 895 minutes this term.

During the dying embers of Puel’s regime, Iheanacho had even fallen behind Gray—nominally a winger—as Leicester’s leading centre forward.

Claude Puel Leicester City 2018-19

The writing was on the wall for the former OGC Nice manager then, as it would likely have been for Iheanacho this summer, had there not been a change of leadership at the club.

It’s surely with one eye on ushering in the next generation that Leicester’s board turned to Celtic’s Brendan Rodgers as Puel’s replacement, with the Northern Irish coach appointed on February 26, two days after Puel was axed.

He may have burned his bridges in Scotland, but Rodgers returns to England with his stock boosted after a trophy-laden spell in Glasgow, and with a point to prove after being dismissed by Liverpool despite all he achieved on Anfield.

His signing represents a coup for Leicester, and Iheanacho has the potential to be one of several key beneficiaries in the current squad.

Throughout his career, Rodgers has prided himself on working with raw young talent and refining them into genuine match-winners.

Brendan Rodgers Leicester City 2019

Raheem Sterling is his most high-profile success story, but there have been plenty of others, including Moussa Sissoko, Odsonne Edouard, Filipe Benkovic, Daniel Sturridge and Olivier Ntcham.

Not everyone has worked out, of course—Jonjo Shelvey and Lazar Markovic are pertinent examples—but the former Chelsea youth coach clearly relishes refining rough diamonds and instilling his values into some of the game’s most exciting prospects.

He’s got plenty to work with at Leicester, and Iheanacho, still only 22, is certainly one of the talents who can benefit from the Rodgers touch.

While Guardiola, in principle, also ought to have been a positive influence on Iheanacho’s career, Rodgers has shown himself to be more pragmatic about the level and profile of player that he’s willing to invest in.

He’ll need to be at Leicester, where the club are unlikely to be willing to ship out too many of the young faces they’ve amassed this summer.

Iheanacho must demonstrate over the coming months that he can respond to Rodgers’ tutelage, but if he survives the inevitable summer reshuffle, we may look back at the Northern Irishman’s arrival as the turning point in his Leicester career.