Promising teenager? Check. Bursting onto the Manchester scene? Check. Portrayed as a trailblazer for a club’s development of youth? Check. A fresh alternative to a struggling, experienced forward? Check, check and check.
Marcus Rashford has been a revelation for Manchester United this season. The 18-year-old made his debut for the club in mid-February, and yet has emerged as one of their key players during the race for Champions League qualification, and the quest for a first trophy at Old Trafford since 2013. The academy product has provided the perfect antidote for those tiring of Wayne Rooney’s presence in the first team.
While the red side of Manchester laud their most promising son, the blue half are presiding over a talent just as precocious, just as positive, but nowhere near as renowned. Not that Manchester City or Kelechi Iheanacho will mind.
On Saturday, the Nigerian scored the tenth and 11th goals of his first season in professional football against Stoke. A member of City’s first-team squad since the start of the season, the forward has taken his chances when they have been offered to him. Rashford’s rise has been sudden, but Iheanacho’s has been a slow burner. It makes his progression no less impressive.
10 – Kelechi Iheanacho has had a hand in 10 goals (six goals, four assists) in nine competitive starts for Man City in 2015-16. Update.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 23, 2016
(Within minutes, ten became 11.)
“I see him working every day so I know what he can do during the game,” said Manuel Pellegrini in January, after watching Iheanacho score his maiden hat-trick in the FA Cup against Aston Villa. “Maybe I received some criticism for why we didn’t replace Dzeko and Jovetic at the beginning of the season and I answered that we have Kelechi.”
What Pellegrini failed to mention was that City also had Wilfried Bony, and they had prospects of winning trophies. Fielding an untested teenager would simply not do. Even amid his considerable struggles since joining the club two winters ago, Bony has started eight more league games than his understudy. Iheanacho has now scored more goals than the Ivorian.
It is easy to see why Pellegrini has been reluctant to use the 19-year-old extensively. Iheanacho only joined City’s youth structure in 2014 at 17, never having played professionally before. He made his first-team debut as an 18-year-old in August. Among a team of expensively assembled superstars, the Nigerian could be forgiven for not standing out.
Yet it is not only Pellegrini who has overlooked and underestimated Iheanacho’s maturity and skill. The striker was named in a list of Young Player of the Year award alternative nominees on this site earlier this month. His inclusion went unnoticed; Rashford’s exclusion drew ire and consternation. Support for the United striker to be named in England’s Euro 2016 squad earns traction by the week. Iheanacho continues to go under the radar outside of the Etihad.
It is not difficult to understand why. Rashford is young, English and exciting, emerging at a club with a proud history of developing players. His rise is relatable. Iheanacho does not have that benefit. But the City striker has scored 11 goals in all competitions to Rashford’s seven, which translates to five against four in the Premier League. Rashford has played just 13 games to Iheanacho’s 30, but the United forward has featured for 1,003 minutes; perennial substitute Iheanacho has played 107 minutes fewer. One is the league’s future star, the other rarely registers when mentioning young prospects.
While lacking the requisite trust in his youngster at times, Pellegrini has provided the platform for Iheanacho to grow. The Nigerian has grasped the opportunity time and time again. Hopefully incoming manager Pep Guardiola can continue the cycle. If so, City have a player on their hands who is capable of rivaling Manchester’s other rising star. Thankfully, there is room for the both of them.