With Sergio Agüero suspended for four games, the duty to lead the frontline once again falls to his deputy Kelechi Iheanacho. The Nigerian was given words of encouragement from the senior striker and Pep Guardiola gave him a runout in the dead-rubber Celtic match to shake off any ring-rust. The manager knows what many are in denial about: this is Kelechi’s last, best chance to stake a claim for a role in his long-term plan.
At first glance, that will appear to be an overly dramatic statement, well-suited to the silly season of newspaper headlines currently doing the rounds. Add to it how he’s universally loved by City fans – perhaps since he solidified his fan-favourite status in last season’s FA Cup tie with Aston Villa – and any constructive criticism is dismissed with anger.
Based on pure stats, the adoration and unwavering support seems justified. Three goals and three assists in nine Premier League appearances and two strikes from two Champions League games doesn’t tell the whole story. His contributions have made impacts – a goal and an assist in the league at Old Trafford the most eye-catching – but his overall play has left much to be desired.
It may seem snide to pick holes when a youngster is in the formative years of his career, transitioning from youth player to first teamer. But we know from recent activity at the club – the ruthless ejection of Joe Hart, for example – that Pep Guardiola takes emotion out of all decision-making processes. Kelechi was retained as the back-up striker when Wilfried Bony was sent out on loan.
Admittedly, a back up to Sergio Agüero does mean fleeting appearances but it comes with the proviso that when required, the Argentine’s boots can be adequately filled. This hasn’t happened, he’s offered little hint he’s improving as a footballer, becoming a specialist impact man instead.
Agüero himself has been made to up his game, offer more overall play. Pep’s public comments about this earlier in the season were a clear marker to all his players. For his strikers, it meant even they couldn’t avoid full immersion into the new system. Goals are not enough to ensure a place in Pep’s masterplan.
Arguably, Iheanacho’s most complete performance was in the 4-0 win against Bournemouth. But his goal aside, he barely got a mention as all eyes were on a magnificent Kevin De Bruyne performance and the confirmation Raheem Sterling was a player reborn.
Kelechi does have a bit of grace. In many ways, his age affords him time, he is a pet-project of Pep’s. However, progress needs to be visible. Months have passed under Guardiola’s tutelage and while all City fans still happily sing the Nigerian’s name, the nagging feeling he might not make the grade increases.
This suggestion will anger many but those offended should take a minute to consider how the fans have inadvertently acknowledged Kelechi hasn’t taken the bull by the horns.
It’s the time of year millions celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus and the growing excitement about our own junior of the same name tells its own story. A great weight of hope and expectation have been placed on the shoulders of a young man very few had heard of a year ago. Even when he was scouted in the Olympics by City fans, his performance whetted the appetite as “one for the future.”
The team’s dip in form, coinciding with Kelechi Iheanacho’s failure to emerge as a better-formed player, means suddenly, he is being talked about as our saviour.
Had things panned out with Kelechi’s development in the manner Pep hoped, Gabriel Jesus would be expected to recuperate after an extra-long season. The fact he’s needed shows the current contingency plan has failed.
Of course, it may be that Guardiola has already braced himself for a shortfall in quality so has other plans on standby. Nolito was signed with the tagline of being able to double-up as a striker. The reality of this has been somewhat different. A tablespoon can stir a cup of tea but it’s not a teaspoon. He’s proven to be clinical but his inclusions always come with an eye on midfield duties.
It’s plausible the next four games will see a conversion to Kun’s role but unlikely it would be before Kelechi has a crack at asserting his suitability for the job.
Should Nolito find himself playing as a stand in for both strikers, it opens up another possibility: we don’t play with any recognised strikers. It’s a formation Pep’s applied before and there’s certainly enough midfield talent that can rotate and open teams up, allowing players with an eye for goal to get forward.
Which brings us to the option that would have looked like fairy-tale stuff less than a month ago: Yaya leading the line. He’s looking lean and motivated. Already he’s reopened his scoring account and could quite easily run into the gaps players like De Bruyne and Silva create.
It’s also conceivable that four games from now Kelechi Iheanacho will have more than doubled his tally for the season and talk of his development will be conveniently shelved. But unless his osmosis into a Pep type player becomes apparent, nobody will be able to confidently say he’s coming along well, and this season’s back-up man will be next year’s fringe player.