Were Premier League footballers judged solely on their output in the FA Cup, there would be no better player than Kelechi Iheanacho. No-one has scored more goals in the competition since the Nigerian’s first appearance in January 2016.
Two strikes against Fleetwood in the third round were followed by two strikes against Peterborough in the fourth as Leicester continued their quietly impressive progress under the quietly impressive Claude Puel. The Foxes have now conceded just one goal in six matches, but further up the pitch, their £25million summer purchase is finally showing signs of development.
Michael Owen was insistent in his view that Iheanacho “should have passed” after Christopher Forrester’s misplaced pass fell into the Nigerian’s path ten minutes in. Thirty yards out, Iheanacho turned, sprinted, ignored the unmarked Harvey Barnes and curled a wonderful effort into the far corner.
“I stand by that,” said Owen, watching a replay of Iheanacho considering his options and choosing the right one. In truth, he could have headed down either path and Leicester would likely have arrived at the same destination, but a former striker chastising a current one for shooting – and scoring – when the opportunity presented itself seemed perverse.
Five months after his departure from Manchester City, the majority would say that Iheanacho made the wrong choice to leave – or at least chose the wrong club to join. His seven starts this season have come under three different managers, as Leicester lurched from Craig Shakespeare and his favourites to Michael Appleton’s briefest of spells in charge. Puel is the only one to have given Iheanacho the tough love he needed.
“I think Kelechi is a young player and he needs to improve aspects of his play,” the manager said earlier this month. “Also it is difficult because he is a player behind Jamie Vardy and it means he doesn’t get many opportunities.”
It was out of the Etihad frying pan and into the King Power fire for Iheanacho. He left Manchester City as playing opportunities were restricted behind Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, but has found himself in an even more difficult position behind Jamie Vardy. The England international is so omnipotent that Leicester have based their entire style around him. Iheanacho’s challenge is to either slot into that system or force Leicester to rethink their entrenched ideals.
Not that the Foxes should be blamed. Chelsea have discovered this season that signing a prolific striker who had previously not regularly led the lines comes with its difficulties. Just as Iheanacho has never been the main striker at any point in his career, nor was Alvaro Morata before this campaign. The Spaniard’s recent struggles, as with Iheanacho’s, are to be expected.
A League One side Peterborough may be, but Iheanacho was in fine form on Saturday. He struck up a sweet partnership with debutant Fousseni Diabate, who matched his two goals. And while this seems a clear case of the apprentice learning from the master, with Diabate arriving from Ligue 2, it is important to remember that Iheanacho is 12 months younger.
It would be easy for a player in Iheanacho’s position to throw his toys out of the pram, to waste the few opportunities he is granted out of childish spite. He would be forgiven for feeling harshly treated. Yet handed another start against lower-league opposition, the Nigerian treated this as if it was a Premier League match. There was no lack of commitment, no sign of rust. This was professionalism over petulance.
The next step for the 21-year-old is to earn regular chances in the Premier League. Iheanacho has played just 56 minutes of league football since Puel’s October appointment, even with Vardy scoring just three goals in his last 13 games. With displays such as this, he is chipping away at that glass ceiling.