There was an awkward moment in a post-match interview given after the 3-0 win at the KC Stadium on Boxing Day that seemed to capture the Kelechi Iheanacho’s 2016/2017 campaign in a 10 second clip. Accepting the Man of the Match award after controlling the game from the heart of midfield, Yaya Touré smiled and said ‘I’ll give this to my boy’. Beneath him, eyes wide and pointing upwards, Iheanacho looked delighted to accept the gift but was left hanging as Touré shrugged him off, chuckling ‘not you, my boy!’
The 20-year-old striker has been left in the dark a few times this season. Yaya’s display in the win over Hull was excellent but it was Iheanacho who ultimately changed the complexion of the game, giving his side a focal point up front. Kevin De Bruyne was the brains behind Iheanacho’s tap in that put City 2-0 up but his movement inside the box is special and he knows more than most where the back of the net is.
Yet the Nigerian forward is still struggling to get a game. You’d never expect an individual as excruciatingly polite as himself to take comfort in the demise of a teammate, but when Sergio Agüero stamped his studs into the thigh of David Luiz at the start of December Kelechi could have been forgiven for rubbing his hands together ahead of a run in the first team. Instead, Iheanacho was left to suffer the stinging cold of the bench as Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling interchanged as false 9’s ahead of him in games against Leicester, Watford, Arsenal and Hull. Even for a character like Iheanacho, who may tell you he’s honoured just to share the same training pitch as these players, nothing burns like the cold.
Having served his suspension, Agüero strolled back into the team as City suffered a 1-0 loss at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. The Argentine’s return to action was uneventful as he suffered from a lack of service, but it took 87 minutes for the only other natural forward in the match day squad to be sent onto the pitch when the team were in need of a goal. Guardiola’s decision not to bring on the youngster suggested he is not entirely convinced by him.
It was therefore a slight surprise to see Kelechi named in the starting line up against Burnley on Monday. Having just returned from suspension, Agüero may have been one of the few members in the squad unlikely to be suffering the aches and pains from a cluttered winter schedule, but it was Iheanacho who was given the nod ahead of him up front. This was a big vote of confidence from Guardiola but one that the forward could unfortunately not repay as he struggled to impose himself on the game. And things got worse for the 20-year-old when Agüero came on as a half time substitute to propel City to victory with an exceptional finish from a tight angle.
Guardiola obviously sees something in the lad. He was chosen to lead the line in that massive game at Old Trafford and Pep insisted in November that he “deserves to play”. But what the manager also revealed that day is that “sometimes in the big teams that [being left out of the team] happens”.
A striker with the Premier League’s best goal ratio for any player with 10 or more shouldn’t be in this position, but at this club where the stakes are high, first team football is never a guarantee. And with the arrival of Brazilian superstar Gabriel Jesus imminent, it’s likely that his playing time will decrease before it increases. If Agüero’s starting place is in question, Iheanacho’s certainly is, and it’s worth asking whether he’ll even be considered for the match day squad in future games this season should Agüero maintain his fine form. For a player who is averaging a goal every 96 minutes, that’s a strange question to ask.
While Iheanacho is a young player with plenty of time to improve his game, he already has an established style. He’s lethal in the box, but also able to create from deeper positions. He has time to develop, but there are plenty of teams in Europe that would be delighted to accept the current package and put it straight into their starting line ups.
That’s why Iheanacho and his agent have a tough choice to make this month. As humble as he may be, Iheanacho has to acknowledge that he will be even further down the pecking order when Jesus arrives and that first team opportunities will be slim. And with Sterling, Sané, Nolito and De Bruyne all able to operate as front men, City may be in a position to loan him out.
Although results were by no means definitive, 51% of 237 voters in a poll I ran on Twitter yesterday said they would be behind the idea of sending Kelechi out on loan this month, even if they didn’t want to see the fan favourite leave. But if this really is a viable option for the club, they must also take into account Agüero’s susceptibility to injury and the need to give new-boy Jesus time.
Nevertheless, a player of Iheanacho’s ability, with his record, holds a certain amount of power and while a permanent move away from the club would be beneficial neither for City nor the player, a temporary move could benefit both parties. Kelechi needs regular game time and a confidence boost for him to keep developing.
On the cold of the bench, he isn’t going to improve, but starting every week, the Nigerian is at least a 15-goal-a-season striker with the talent to help a lot of goal-shy teams in this division. If Iheanacho is made available for a loan move this month, there’ll be plenty of takers. Perhaps it’s time for him to be a little bit more selfish.