COMMENT By Solace Chukwu
As Marcus Rashford’s first-half strike, nine minutes from the start, seemed set to decide proceedings at the weekend, Leicester City threw on forward Kelechi Iheanacho nine minutes from the end of their clash with Manchester United.
It was not a flattering contrast for the Nigeria international, who in that brief window, contrived to actively impede his side’s search for a deserved equalizer. It brought home just how different things are now from three years ago.
That was a time when it seemed, not only fashionable, but proper to compare both players.
A year apart in age, they both debuted in the Premier League in the same 2015/2016 season, having come up through the youth system at Manchester’s rival clubs, and did so to rave reviews.
Beyond the city rivalry, the perception of their clubs added fuel to the comparison: while Manchester United have forged a reputation for blooding youth, Manchester City were (and still are) viewed as somewhat soulless, interested only in acquiring established stars at significant financial cost.
As such, Iheanacho was something of a first fruit, the nascent shoot of the seed planted in a grand design to transplant some form of identity at City: Txiki Beguiristain arrived, along with Ferran Soriano; both had been part of the top brass at Barcelona, and that was the template City were eager to follow.
Their very own ‘La Masia’ would produce young talent schooled in a particular way of playing, and those graduates would, in time, form the nucleus of the club.
Things did not quite go to plan, however.
Both have gone on to become established Premier League footballers, and both have featured at a World Cup, but that is as far as the similarities go.
While Rashford has become a lynchpin at Manchester United in the intervening period, Iheanacho has failed to make the grade at City, been sold to Leicester, and is now very much on the fringes of the first-team squad.
So where did it all go wrong?
There is the idea that, however much promise he seemed to display early on, Manchester City was the wrong club for him to begin with.
Following a breakout performance at the under-17 World Cup in 2013, there was no shortage of suitors for him; he could have gone to a league more renowned for its faith in youth, like Ligue 1 or the Eredivise.
Less than an hour's work today for @67Kelechi, but a goal and an assist. May not have Rashford's dynamism and pace, but so efficient.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) September 10, 2016
This line of reasoning somewhat misses the point, which is that, as far as development goes, City did about as good a job as was possible.
There was some consternation at his conversion to an out-and-out centre-forward, but his best quality was always his technique in striking the ball, and his limited pace made it impossible to persist with him in the wide role he had initially fulfilled.
If not that, then certainly it was his subsequent decision to join Leicester City that was flawed, surely?
The Foxes, a season removed from a historic Premier League title, were in the grip of an identity crisis, caught between the quick, direct football that had won them the title and the need to evolve.
Well, that may have been true when he joined, but it isn’t now.
That Iheanacho vs Rashford conversation from a few years back looked silly then, and looks downright blasphemous now. There is a deep lethargy, a diffidence to the Nigerian's game that only he can fix. It's not a lack of confidence, but of focus.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) February 3, 2019
Manager Claude Puel has publicly and manifestly sought to transition away from the title-winning template of Claudio Ranieri, espousing a more patient, possession-based style than the club was used to.
This has, reportedly, caused a great deal of friction with certain members of the squad, not least Jamie Vardy, the club’s talismanic striker, who in December admitted to Sky Sports that the new style of play did not suit him.
So while there were concerns when Iheanacho moved, Leicester are now playing a style which, in theory, is a better fit and in which he ought to be thriving. And yet, this has not happened: already this season, he has played more minutes than he did all of last season combined, and still he finds himself unable to nail down a starting place.
So, if the answer is not to be found in examining external factors, might it not be worth it looking at the player himself?
After all, the simplest answer is often the correct one; perhaps there is a reluctance to look in this direction because it is easier to accept that the odds have been stacked against him through no fault of his, or even that, at worst, he is a victim of his poor, but innocent choices.
It is a lot harder to confront the less palatable reality: that, were Kelechi Iheanacho to retire this instant, the story of his career as a professional footballer would be one defined by unfulfilled potential...and that this perception would be entirely his own fault.
Even worse is that there is no outward sign of rebelling, no defiance, no steely determination to alter his lot. Instead, there is a palpable air of insouciance, an absence of virility that seems to suggest a loss of focus and discipline.
Usually in a slump, there is a confidence that, in the presence of effort, a reversal of fortune is inevitable.
That is not the case with Iheanacho, and until he can find the honest effort required to work his way back, there may be no escape from the obscurity that threatens to envelop a once promising player.