Manchester City’s signing of Gabriel Jesus was one meant to strike fear into Sergio Aguero. The Brazilian golden boy was brought in to compete with his new Argentine club-mate and lessen the pressure put on him by those at the club. And while it did just that, up until Jesus suffered a season-ending injury in February, it may have ultimately ended fellow forward Kelechi Iheanacho’s long-term future at the club.
So much was promised from the Nigeria international. Around the same time as Marcus Rashford’s transition from development squad hopeful to Manchester United and England matchwinner in 2015, Iheanacho kept speed with his cross-city striking counterpart and more than held his own in the comparisons which naturally followed.
The future was supposed to be Iheanacho versus Rashford — blue versus red. But while the latter has since gone on to establish himself as an indispensable part of Jose Mourinho’s first-team squad at Old Trafford, across Manchester, the former’s career has nosedived.
Despite being directly involved in a goal every 74.9 minutes across all competitions for City since 2015-16 — 21 goals and seven assists — Iheanacho has been starved of first-team football by Pep Guardiola. Iheanacho managed just five Premier League starts last season under the Catalan, despite a spurt of goals in the first part of the campaign.
Through no fault of his own, his career has stagnated horribly and an Etihad exit now looks inevitable.
Guardiola has made Iheanacho available for transfer, with West Ham and Leicester pondering a move. The Hammers, also believed to be in for Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud, are cautious of the buy-back clause City are demanding, however, with Southampton holding an outside chance of landing the forward.
On the face of it, West Ham’s madhouse of misfits may not appear an attractive proposition to Iheanacho - especially if reports of Giroud and former United and Real Madrid forward Javier Hernandez arriving ahead of the new season were to transpire.
The London club would have to fork out a substantial fee for the City graduate, however, which could push Slaven Bilic into building his attack around the pace of Iheanacho — an opportunity which could allow the Nigerian to thrive. Iheanacho’s speed and willingness to chase lost causes would lend itself to Bilic’s counter-attacking style of play, with several options available to work off of him.
The position Iheanacho finds himself at City is not necessarily a negative one. Still only 20, with his athleticism, international experience and one of the most clinical set of goalscoring statistics in the English top-flight, Iheanacho won’t find himself short of potential suitors even if a move to the London Stadium does not occur.
City’s addition of a buy-back clause may look an astute one down the line, though in truth it would take something spectacular for them to claw him back — the Etihad bigwigs are understandably keen to recoup as much money for Iheanacho as possible to conduct business elsewhere in the squad.
In short, Iheanacho’s style does not suit Guardiola’s blueprint. And, like Aguero earlier in the season, he has come to realise that more than goals are expected from the former Barcelona boss’ frontmen.
“You need to do more. You need to help the team do more,” Iheanacho revealed of Guardiola’s demands of him earlier in the season. “You need to press high, help your team-mates back and covering. And of course score goals.
“We have lots of quality players so you need to keep up. Everyone is doing great and bringing their best. You need to be on the same level, be at your best and help win the things that we need.”
Iheanacho, quite simply, cannot offer what others can defensively — he failed to register a single tackle or interception during his limited game time last season. That’s not a slight on the Nigerian, it’s simply not in his make-up.
"Kelechi is a young player who is clever in the box, he is strong, fast and has a sense of goal,” Guardiola said of Iheanacho when questioned on his lack of playing time. "Like I said before, at the end of the season we will talk about Kelechi and individual players."
The time to speak about Iheanacho is now, ahead of the most significant decision of his short career to date.
Guardiola and his City staff will sit comfortably knowing Aguero and Jesus will come together to lead the attack next season. For Iheanacho, though, it must be the right move. It must be under the correct manager, and it must be an appropriate style of football. Whoever Iheanacho opts for, it must be now.