Alongside Jamie Vardy’s recent resurgence, the Nigerian could play a similar or greater role in the Foxes’ Premier League run-in
If Leicester City eventually end in the Champions League spots, Kelechi Iheanacho will likely play a vital role in making it happen.
Those are words that were somewhat inconceivable at the start of the season, especially after Brendan Rodgers left him out totally against Sheffield United in August. At the time, the former Manchester City frontman hadn’t played a minute of action and was expected to be third choice in attack behind the ageless Jamie Vardy and newly signed Ayoze Perez.
Having failed to make a Premier League appearance until December, his influence in their current position in the table has been significant. The 23-year-old may not be as prolific as Vardy, who’s the league’s top scorer with 21 strikes, but he’s come up trumps for the 2016 league champions too.
A devastating 23-minute cameo against Everton saw the Foxes turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 success (he assisted Vardy and scored a late, late winner), while he was involved in two goals seven days later at Aston Villa.
Also, there was an important FA Cup winner against Brentford in January, while the important League Cup equalizer vs Villa at Villa Park was, unfortunately, rendered unimportant as Trezeguet found a late winner in second-half stoppage time.
However, Iheanacho’s influence since the resumption has been vital to the Foxes hanging on to their European spot.
The former City protege has scored arguably their two most important goals post-restart, halving the deficit at Everton and scoring the opening strike in a tight game vs Crystal Palace at the weekend. While he knew very little about the strike against Carlo Ancelotti’s men, the goal gave Rodgers’ side the much-needed push to try and find an equalizer, which never came.
Against the Eagles on Saturday, the Nigerian forward opened the scoring four minutes after half-time connecting to a perfect low cross from Youri Tielemans. After seeing the hosts struggle to make inroads into dangerous areas in a largely frustrating first-half, Iheanacho’s strike opened up the game and allowed Rodgers’ men to pick Roy Hodgson’s side apart.
Leicester created four big chances after the interval (including the ex-City man’s goal) to just one in the first 45 minutes which showed how freely they played after edging in front. Interestingly, Rodgers’ troops ceded possession to the London outfit, too, which allowed them to catch the visitors on the break, which ultimately led to Vardy’s second of the afternoon, his 101st Prem strike.
Having seen his team have the lion’s share of possession in preceding games with little success in creating opportunities, the Nigerian’s early second-half strike allowed the East Midlanders to approach the rest of the game differently.
Possession stats against Watford, Brighton & Hove Albion and Everton read 69, 66 and 66 percent respectively but they created a miserly two big chances in 270 minutes.
Against Palace, they fashioned a staggering five [big chances] over 90 minutes, with four coming when they sat deeper and broke at speed. This may have been impossible had their back-up forward not scored so early after half-time to settle the nerves as the Foxes appeared primed for yet another poor result.
It put a positive spin on their situation going into Tuesday night’s game against a resurgent Arsenal side at the Emirates Stadium, and the Northern Irish manager put faith in Iheanacho alongside the durable Vardy as he matched Mikel Arteta’s 3-4-3 formation.
Leicester’s fifth-highest scorer was the away side’s most promising attacker against the Gunners, proving to be a threat with his movement and predatory instinct. This was evident in the 12th-minute when a well-worked corner on the left eventually found its way to Iheanacho who held his run and was found by Marc Albrighton’s cut-back but was thwarted by Emiliano Martinez’s right boot.
He would have brought the Foxes level 10 minutes after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened the scoring in a move similar to the opener against Palace, with Vardy finding him at the far post with a precise cross. While the 2013 U-17 World Cup winner scored, a foul on Saed Kolasinac in the build-up meant the strike was chalked off.
In fairness, Iheanacho’s influence faded as the match wore on but he carried a greater threat than his strike partner until his withdrawal on the hour. Still, the Englishman couldn’t get into the game despite Rodgers’ changes and the Foxes didn’t look like finding the leveller they longed for.
Eddie Nketiah’s sending off in the 75th-minute, four minutes after coming on, made things interesting in the final minutes, and Vardy eventually found the equalizer with six minutes of normal time remaining.
As odd as it sounds, the Foxes carried little threat after the striker's withdrawal which left their top scorer isolated in the middle, a bugbear for Rodgers since the restart in June.
Despite having the majority of the ball in the final half-hour, they created little and missed another goalscoring threat. This underlines the West African’s importance in the team, despite not being the first-choice striker.
Interestingly, a dive into the side’s statistics present interesting facts: according to FBref, excluding penalties, Iheanacho averages 0.94 goals and assists per 90 minutes, the highest average in the side and significantly superior to Vardy’s 0.73 G+A per 90.
Also, he beats the Englishman’s non-penalty Expected Goals plus Expected Assists per 90 minutes (0.74 to 0.57), which highlights how effective he has been this season to score five times and set up three goals, despite averaging 49 minutes per game.
While Vardy may be the division’s top scorer, his struggles since the turn of the year, recent goals aside, mean Rodgers could harness the usefulness of Iheanacho in the final third as Leicester seek to keep the in-form chasing pack at bay and retain their top four place with four games to play.