At the age of 21, Kelechi Iheanacho has played in excess of 50 Premier League matches, has eight Champions League appearances under his belt, has garnered a £25 million transfer fee and is hopeful of leading the line for his country at this summer’s World Cup.
Why, then, has his only club start since late October come at Glanford Park, the home of Scunthorpe United, in a competition that primarily consists of clubs from England’s third and fourth tiers?
Eyebrows were raised when Leicester City opted to play six genuine first-team players in their recent Checkatrade Trophy victory in north Lincolnshire, no more so than when it was revealed that the Foxes’s primary summer signing would be starting up front.
Though Claude Puel was obviously keen for the Nigeria international to get some football having not appeared for the 2015-16 champions since November 18, Leicester fans have unsurprisingly been asking just why he has not been given more of an opportunity.
“He is a good player and if he improves he will find his place in the squad,” Puel said at the end of November. “We have a lot of players in this position. It is good competition between them and we will need all these players with good qualities and attitude.”
Since making those comments, Iheanacho has played precisely zero minutes in the Premier League, and was even left out of the squad altogether for the recent win against Tottenham.
Puel will rightly point to his side’s results in that period — three victories and a draw — but if Iheanacho cannot force his way in during the busy festive schedule, starting with Wednesday’s clash at Southampton, the question of whether he even have a future at the King Power Stadium must be asked.
A foot injury picked up in pre-season coupled with the good early season form of Shinji Okazaki alongside Jamie Vardy meant opportunities were hard to come by for Iheanacho in the immediate aftermath of his departure from Manchester City. The only hope he had was then-manager Craig Shakespeare’s insistence on playing two strikers as he looked to recapture the magic of the title-winning campaign of two seasons ago.
With Shakespeare now gone, though, Puel has reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system in a bid to allow Riyad Mahrez more freedom as well as bring Demarai Gray into the starting XI – and has picked up immediate results. It is no coincidence Iheanacho — who once upon a time boasted the best minutes-per-goal record of any player to have netted on at least 10 occasions in the Premier League — made his last league start in Shakespeare’s final game in charge.
So how does Iheanacho work himself into Puel’s plans? In just over six months’ time, he will be hoping to be starting his first World Cup match against Croatia ahead of facing down Lionel Messi and Argentina later in the group stage. Odion Ighalo has recently usurped him as the Super Eagles’s first-choice striker, and it would be foolhardy for them to believe they can realistically rely on a player who has barely kicked a ball in anger in the months leading into the tournament?
One area where Iheanacho can improve is his adaptability. He was regularly compared to Marcus Rashford when both players were coming through the ranks on either side of the Manchester divide, and it is noticeable how Rashford has been able to maintain a regular place within the United line-up despite the arrivals of Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Undoubtedly a different kind of player from the England forward, Iheanacho can still pick up some lessons in terms of how open Rashford is to attempting to further his game in unfamiliar roles while also learning from the likes of Vardy and Okazaki back at Leicester, particularly when it comes to work-rate.
Puel has commented that the youngster is unable to play out wide, but with Mahrez likely to be the subject of yet more transfer speculation in January, a push from Iheanacho to prove he can help fill the void — either as a winger or a No.10 — might see him earn his chance.
The only other option would be me to move on in the upcoming January transfer window. West Ham were interested in his services during the summer while the likes of Newcastle and West Brom are desperately looking for a genuine goalscorer to help lift themselves away from trouble.
“Time will tell. The window is not open, we will see,” Puel said in the aftermath of Saturday’s win over Newcastle. With the likes of Islam Slimani, Leonardo Ulloa and Ahmed Musa also vying for a place in attack, it seems inevitable at least one will be moved on before the start of February.
What is for certain is that after 17 Premier League matches without a goal and having not played 90 minutes in the league since September 2016, Iheanacho needs to change something. Whether that is his own game or the club he plays for is up for debate, but one of the brightest young strikers in the English game simply cannot spend the remainder of the campaign playing in the Checkatrade Trophy.