Leicester City‘s summer signing of Kelechi Iheanacho, brought in for £25million from Manchester City, was about more than the Foxes bringing in a high-potential young striker; it carried a certain symbolism.
Until that point, the East Midlands club had found unforeseen success through carefully scouring the transfer market for hidden gems, picking up rough diamonds like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté for a relative pittance, before transforming them into title winners and standout stars.
Then, following their miraculous Premier League triumph in 2015, they started spending big to bring in well-established thoroughbreds of the continental game, such as Algerian striker Islam Slimani, a prolific scorer with Sporting Lisbon in Portugal, and Ahmed Musa, who’d impressed in the Champions League with CSKA Moscow. These acquisitions were much less successful.
But Iheanacho’s purchase seemed to point to a new market strategy, a third approach which was a halfway house between the previous competing methods of looking for pearls and buying gold bullion.
Once again, the Foxes had spent big, but this time it was on a player widely regarded as one of the most promising in the Premier League. An international striker who, at 20 years of age, had 21 goals to his name for one of the best sides in the country.
Iheanacho’s signing was a real coup for Leicester, and, seemingly, a sign of their ambition: they would be foolish to contemplate another title challenge, but they would certainly not accept another season of turmoil and inconsistency like the one that had just passed.
With good reason, fas began to salivate at the thought of a pacy an lethal frontline comprised of Jamie Vardy, Maherez, and the clinical and intelligent Nigerian newcomer.
Indeed, City manager Pep Guardiola, thought to be a great believer in giving youth a chance, was roundly criticised for allowing such a talented young star to slip through his grasp – although the Citizens reportedly insisted on retaining a buyback option in the striker.
However, until yesterday, just half a year into his King Power Stadium stay, Iheanacho was a forgotten man. With just 256 Premier League minutes to his name, from two starts and seven substitute appearances, he has yet to find the net in the league for his new club, stuck firmly behind Vardy and industrious Japanese forward Shinji Okazaki in the pecking order.
In early December, he faced the ultimate ignominy of lining up for the club’s under-23 side in the Checkatrade Trophy away to Scunthorpe United, but he finally found the net for the Foxes’ senior side yesterday, becoming the first player to benefit from a goal that would have been disallowed without VAR in their 2-0 FA Cup win over Fleetwood Town.
Injuries have played their part in Iheanacho’s struggle to fit in at Leicester, checking any possible progress early on and leaving him playing catch-up since. But his stock has fallen dramatically, and a move away might be the best thing for his short-term prospects.
Capped 13 times for Nigeria, with an impressive eight goals on the international stage, Iheanacho will be hoping to participate in his first World Cup next year in Russia. Drawn alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland in Group D, few expect the Super Eagles to soar into the knockout stages, but the Leicester striker will be desperate to pit himself against such elite opposition.
As things stand, though, even if selected, he will do so severely lacking match sharpness. The prolific touch the 21-year-old showed in Manchester appears to have been left behind at the Etihad, and there is little hope of him being given the requisite game time to rediscover his peak level of performance any time soon.
For the good of the player and the club’s investment, the best course of action would be for the Foxes to allow Iheanacho to leave in January. If they still have faith that he is the high-potential striker they signed, a loan move would represent a chance for the player to show his worth, both to new Foxes boss Claude Puel and Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr.
If Puel and the powers that be are of the belief that Iheanacho has no future at the King Power, then they should cut ties in the new year and allow the young man to rebuild elsewhere.
That, though, in addition to causing significant financial loss for the club, would be hasty and dismissive of the process that identified the youngster as worthy of a £25million outlay just six months ago. Iheanacho might just be one diamond Leicester will need someone else to polish before they see the best of him.