The Okazaki upgrade: How could Leicester line up with Iheanacho?

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The Foxes finally have their man, but how will the former Manchester City forward fit in at the King Power Stadium?

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Strike partnerships are increasingly rare, which is a bit of a shame, considering that now, more than ever in history, there are so many different types of forward. Then again, football's tactical evolution over the last two decades has been more about the exploitation of space than changing player profiles – as transcendent and revolutionary a player as Lionel Messi is, for example, it was in seeking the most effective way to exploit the space between defence and midfield that his genius reached full sparkle.

En route to becoming unlikely champions last year, Leicester City presented a peculiar challenge, fielding Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki together upfront. For a counter-attacking side that wasn't keen on the ball, it was bold, but they made it work. To begin with, as on all great partnerships, the dissimilarities provided just enough scuffing for proper adhesion.

Vardy pulled one way, Okazaki pulled the other; it was simple, it was effective.

Okazaki stats | 2015-16

It's worth noting, though, that following that triumph, Leicester seemed to identify the Japanese half of their double-act as upgradable. In that is perhaps the best indicator of what role new signing Kelechi Iheanacho will be expected to fulfil.

Kelechi Iheanacho

Of the starting 11 that won the title, N'Golo Kante, who defected to Chelsea, was the only departure. The one position in which the Foxes consistently sought to strengthen was that of support striker: first, Ahmed Musa arrived from CSKA Moscow, and then the club forked out a record fee for Islam Slimani from Sporting.

Instructively, Musa started the opening game last season, a 2-1 loss to Hull City, and while the Nigeria international actually played quite well on the day, the flawed nature of the partnership was apparent. Both players prefer to play on the shoulder of the defence, springing in behind, and Vardy is the club’s most important player.

For his part, Slimani proved more overtly productive, but lacked the technical chops to connect the midfield to Vardy in the fashion that Okazaki had done. With neither nor Musa proving fit for purpose, Okazaki was brought back in, a return which, combined with Craig Shakespeare taking up the reins, steadied the ship and secured safety quite handily.

HD Shinji Okazaki Leicester Atletico Madrid Champions League

Iheanacho’s fee lags slightly behind what Sporting exacted for Slimani, top scorer in the Portuguese top flight the previous season, but £25 million is a huge outlay nonetheless, considering that the player only started four Premier League games last season. It brings Leicester’s spending for an Okazaki upgrade to £70 million.

 

Interestingly, the newest fox struggles somewhat with the things the Japan international excels at: work rate without the ball and physicality on it. Iheanacho is naturally daintier, almost seeming to totter with the ball at his feet at times, and is not a very intuitive presser. He will not win the ball in the air, get in defenders’ faces or chase lost causes.

Iheanacho stats | 2016-17

What he can offer Leicester though, is, among other things, great movement without the ball. Sniffing out space, arriving at just the right time and carrying out his actions with stealth (here he trumps Slimani), and economical use of the ball on quick breaks (here he betters Musa).

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Ahmed Musa

In possession as well, Iheanacho’s vision and passing range also stand out, and this would be a great improvement on Okazaki (his game geared more toward disruption than creation), who really did not combine often enough with Vardy in open play. Danny Drinkwater’s raking balls in behind served as the major supply mechanism, but there is now more of a mid-range option if need be.

It is in playing just off the striker, sliding passes through the defence and also surging into the box to finish (for context, Okazaki directly contributed to seven goals in Leicester’s title-winning season) that Iheanacho excels. It has cost a pretty penny, and a roundabout search, but the Foxes may have finally struck gold.

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