When Kelechi Iheanacho was replaced after an anonymous showing at Crystal Palace in late December, he probably never imagined he’d be signing an extension to the five-year deal he initially penned in 2017.
However, just three months later, the Nigeria forward will now stay at Leicester City till 2023 at least. Having been weeks away from being in the precarious position of being one year shy of leaving on a free transfer, the tide turned for the ex-Manchester City attacker and he’s expected to play the 2021/22 campaign at the King Power Stadium.
“I can’t express how I’m feeling. I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m overwhelmed! It’s a great moment and I’m happy that Leicester City gave me a new contract,” the attacker said after signing on for another year.
“It’s been a great time here. It’s not been easy, but there’s a lot of people here that are good people, great people to work with. They are nice people, and they make me feel comfortable and welcome since I came in.
🚨 Podcast Alert 🎬 #Afcon2021Q : 🐿️ 🇧🇯 🆚 🇳🇬 🦅— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) March 26, 2021
Kelechi Iheanacho's last 🔟 games for Leicester City ⚡
🗣️: Can Iheanacho translate his Leicester City form to Nigeria and help them qualify for Afcon?
🎤: @EddyDove & @AfricanFtbl pic.twitter.com/TD75jTJu52
“It’s been really great being here. It’s like a family. I’m happy being here and hopefully I can stay here many more years.
While some observers will find it immensely convenient that the West African’s form picked up when it did, it’s hard to argue with a striker whose scoring rate per 90 is among the best in the division. Before Saturday’s defeat by old side Manchester City, Iheanacho ranked top for goals per 90 (taking into account players who’d played 720 minutes or more and, per Fbref, currently sits third for players who’ve averaged eight games played.
Given that there had been rumours that the 24-year-old was going to be one of the few in the Leicester side considered for a sale this summer, the turnaround in recent weeks has been unexpected.
His recent form has earned him a lifeline at the King Power but, at the risk of being fussy about the details, the length of the extension indicates the club aren’t particularly committed to the Iheanacho path for the long term.
The mere fact that his strengths shine through when utilised in a particular system already complicates the situation for the Super Eagle, whose current goalscoring run was arguably stumbled on due to absences to key attacking players in Brendan Rodgers’ team, rather than by design.
It remains to be seen how the Northern Irishman makes things work after James Maddison — who conspicuously replaced Iheanacho with 18 minutes to play against Man City — and Harvey Barnes return to full fitness after their layoffs.
The club are still reportedly in the market for a number nine capable of leading the line on his own in the absence of Jamie Vardy and, given the ex-City attacker’s incapability in fulfilling that role, the Foxes’ logic in handing the Nigeria star an extra year only is understandable.
Rodgers complimented the attacker enthusiastically before facing his old side at the weekend, a day after having the honour of being the fourth Nigerian to be named Player of the Month in the Premier League, especially highlighting the in-form frontman’s character and attitude since he took charge.
“I know when I came here that there were probably times when there were grumbles if [Iheanacho] was playing but he has very quickly won over people,” the Leicester boss told Sky Sports. “That is just through hard work, resilience and talent. What you are seeing is a young player at the top of his game.
“I cannot remember him missing a day of training since I have been here. He helps our centre-backs to become better at their jobs because he is really aggressive with them.
“That has not always been enough to see him start but he is a player who has a great attitude. He is very much a team player. Some guys, especially strikers, they can maybe just think of themselves and be individualistic. Soloists. He is very much a team player.”
The Leicester boss may be saying the right things about the striker who’s forced himself into the reckoning at the King Power. Now it’ll be up to Iheanacho to stay there especially as the club may still retain reservations about his long-term future at the club.