The Nigerian youngster remains a key part in Pep Guardiola’s plans at the Etihad and his prospects just got brighter
By: Sammie Frimpong
It’s been a summer during which African footballers — at least in the context of the English Premier League — have been in high demand. The signings of Andre Ayew, Isaac Success and Ahmed Musa by West Ham United, Watford and champions Leicester City respectively, broke those clubs’ records, while the African mark for a transfer fee has been breached twice — first by Manchester United for Ivorian centre-back Eric Bailly (£30m), then by Liverpool in prising forward Sadio Mane from Southampton (£34m). Then there is Yannick Bolasie, who moved to Everton from the capital last week for a sum which could potentially also rattle the £30m bar and become the highest the Merseysiders have ever paid for a footballer.
While all those prices quoted may be impressive, and the men rated thus correspondingly valuable, the potential acquisition of the summer is one who never even had to switch clubs and who may only have cost his employers, Manchester City, a slight pay-raise.
Iheanacho finished 2015/16 — his first full season at the Etihad Stadium — with 14 goals in all competitions, eight of which came in the league. The latter statistic placed him only second in City’s scoring charts, behind Argentine Sergio Aguero’s league-topping 24 strikes, and although it wasn’t exciting that he started only seven of the 26 league games he featured in, that paucity of opportunities only polished Iheanacho’s numbers — albeit ironically — as he ended the term with the best goals-per-minute ratio of any player, averaging a goal every 93.9 minutes. It wasn’t the most active campaign he may have wished for but, for a start to life in England, it was far from disappointing.
Still, the ensuing summer wasn’t without uncertainty for Iheanacho, with the advent of Pep Guardiola in place of the departing Manuel Pellegrini raising questions over what his role would be — or whether he’d have any role at all. You see, when a top manager takes charge of a top club and ready-made stars are required to reach lofty goals, young talent already at the club are usually often choked out of chances. Fortunately for Iheanacho, though, there are few bigger believers in youth than Guardiola, with the Catalan’s claim to fame hinging on his work at the helm of Barcelona’s youth teams and youthful senior side.
But, perhaps in a bid to impress the new man with more than just his favourable age, Iheanacho put in extra work in pre-season, even giving up his part in Nigeria’s plans for the Rio Olympics in a bid to please Guardiola some more.
And he has indeed succeeded, having been rewarded with a new, improved two-year deal which he signed on Thursday. Given that some of City’s more regular performers and older squad figures are at serious risk of being sacrificed for the progress of Guardiola’s new project, Iheanacho surviving that ruthless cull and going further to secure an extended future at the club is testament to the faith reposed in the 19-year-old.
“Kelechi is a natural goal-scorer,” Guardiola stated afterwards. “I knew about him before, but I’ve been really impressed with him since I arrived.
“I like his personality, his attitude, his ability: we hope to help him reach the highest level and to realise his full potential.”
It’s not like all those compliments would get into the Nigerian starlet’s head, however, if his own honest remarks are anything to go by.
“I just need to keep working hard and express my feelings on the pitch, and work really well and do great things for the team,” the 2013 Fifa U-17 World Cup winner told City’s official website.
It’s quite telling that none of the major signings Guardiola has made this summer is a striker (both forwards — Nolito and Leroy Sane — are at their most potent on the wings), ensuring Iheanacho only has Aguero and Wilfried Bony for competition at present.
Never mind Iheanacho only enjoyed just 10 minutes of Guardiola’s Premier League debut against Sunderland last weekend. With this fresh deal, life at City holds so much promise for Iheanacho — and ‘Promise’, quite literally, is his middle name.