When Ayoze Perez looked ready to be introduced for Leicester City in their hugely important game against Manchester United on Sunday, the casual observer would have predicted a change of shape rather than a like-for-like replacement by Brendan Rodgers.
Having started with a 3-5-2 against the Red Devils, the Foxes were the dominant side at the King Power Stadium in the opening half and it seemed like the Northern Irishman was looking to be more adventurous with his alteration.
Knowing full well Chelsea were 2-0 up in their encounter with Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge, the ex-Liverpool boss was aware his team needed to beat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to seal a top four berth. Surprisingly, Kelechi Iheanacho’s number went up and the Foxes lost the chance to pile even more pressure on the fatigued Red Devils from a position of strength.
Up until then, Leicester had been the better side and their Nigerian forward was arguably their most threatening attacking player. Even though he couldn’t put the home team in front, the former Manchester City striker was a threat majorly due to the intelligent positions he was taking up between the lines.
In fairness, the hosts weren’t particularly creating chance after chance in the first 45 minutes, still, Iheanacho was getting the ball in positions that could potentially hurt the visitors. Following Harry Maguire’s early ninth-minute yellow card, the West African forward stuck to that position to test the nerve of the Englishman, who wasn’t helped by Nemanja Matic who wasn’t at his dominant best, be it on the ball or in protecting the defence.
Unsurprisingly, Jamie Vardy’s strike partner was involved in the home side’s two best moments in the opening half: the first came in the 24th minute of the game from a counter-attack after James Justin cut out a Paul Pogba pass to Marcus Rashford. Iheanacho had already positioned himself between Pogba and Matic and upon receiving the ball after Justin’s interception, ran beyond the Serb and Frenchman, who oddly opted against fouling the Nigerian to stop the attack, before firing tamely into David de Gea’s arms.
Having driven forward with the ball, and with a backtracking United defence reluctant to close him down, Iheanacho took on the shot with his weaker right foot. Indeed, the better option was playing in Vardy, who’d peeled away into the left channel or Justin to his right. In the end, he did neither and the chance was lost.
The frontman did pass on Leicester’s next best opening, though. Approximately 10 minutes after the aforementioned attempt, the African forward, taking up an even more dangerous position just inside the visitors’ half beyond Matic and away from the United centre-backs, received the ball from Youri Tielemans, drove forward and held on long enough for support to arrive.
He returned the ball to the Belgian midfielder who rolled his effort just wide of the post with De Gea scrambling to get across.
Those two instances highlighted Iheanacho’s influence on Leicester’s attack, so it was beyond bizarre that Rodgers withdrew his side’s best forward and possibly best player for an hour at the King Power.
It’d likely have been disappointing for Iheanacho who often gets the chop early regardless of performance. Indeed, it’s been a recurring trend with the 23-year-old forward, especially in important games after the Premier League’s restart in June. Rodgers made the strange choice to withdraw the Nigerian in their 1-1 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium and also at half-time in their 4-1 defeat by Bournemouth.
The Nigeria international was undoubtedly Leicester’s best-attacking player against the Gunners, while he deserved far more than the ignominy of being replaced at the interval against the Cherries having played relatively well at the Vitality Stadium.
Rodgers’ team, despite the man advantage against Mikel Arteta’s side, looked a bit toothless in North London until Vardy finally levelled but Iheanacho’s showing before his withdrawal on the hour suggested they might have had a better chance of turning the game around had he stayed on longer.
It was apparent there was a reluctance to play the Imo-born striker for the entirety of games but whether this is due to an inability to maintain his level for 90 minutes or his manager having pre-planned substitutions is anyone’s guess.
What isn’t in question, however, is that Iheanacho’s withdrawal on Sunday gave the initiative away to the visitors who scored two goals from mistakes by the Foxes in their third.
Given United mustered only two shots in the second-half – Bruno Fernandes’ penalty and Jesse Lingard’s goal from a Kasper Schmeichel error – fans of the Foxes might wish their manager didn’t replace the team’s best player on the hour in a game they needed to win.
With the stakes so high and with fine margins in play, every decision needed to be spot on for the East Midlands’ side who missed out on Champions League qualification following the defeat.
Iheanacho has since been linked with a move to Newcastle United but, unless Leicester force him out of the club, is expected to fancy his chances of playing European football for the first time since joining from Pep Guardiola’s outfit in 2017.
After a season that promised so much, the Foxes now have to make do with competing in the Europa League in 2020/21 after finishing fifth in the Premier League. This could have been different had Rodgers kept Iheanacho on in Sunday’s decisive clash and also been braver in going for all three points against a flagging United side.