“I’ve got players with no ego, they really want to work and enjoy working,” said Brendan Rodgers in conversation with Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports. In front of them was an illustration of Leicester’s tactics with 11 very familiar names on the pitch. Kelechi Iheanacho’s name was missing because of course Kelechi Iheanacho’s name was missing; it had been a year since he had started a Premier League game.
The one question mark against Leicester’s status as Champions League contenders was a perceived lack of strength in depth. Eleven players had started at least 11 of their first 14 Premier League games (for context, Liverpool have nine and Manchester City six players who would fit that criteria) and the lazy assumption was that any injuries could derail their season. Rodgers was clearly reluctant to look outside an extremely well-drilled starting XI, so Dennis Praet, Demerai Gray and others have been restricted to bit-part roles.
Below that tier of fringe player was Iheanacho, who could only dream of playing a bit-part role. A week later, it still seems astonishing that his 28-minute match-winning cameo from the bench against Everton was his first Premier League appearance of the season. To wait that long, to be that marginalised and yet still have that kind of impact is a testimony to both player and manager. Of course, it helps if you are on an extraordinary winning run, but learning and listening and running hard all week is never easy when the weekend brings only personal disappointment.
“I was so pleased for him because there’s him and a number of other guys that don’t feature so much and sometimes they’re not even on the bench,” said Rodgers last week. “But that’s a result of how hard he works and he stays focused. He’s very much there for the team.”
Despite that impact, midweek and Watford took him back to the bench, with Rodgers offering no hint that he was preparing to pair Iheanacho with Jamie Vardy in the Premier League for the first time since October 2018. Leicester fans had long written off that partnership but at Villa they were nothing short of magnificent, with Iheanacho showing pace, aggression, accuracy and a lightness of touch that we had long forgotten.
Leicester’s opener sparked talk of Vardy chasing his own goalscoring record and the Aston Villa mistake of allowing the hamstrung Tyrone Mings to play on, but Iheanacho’s pin-point through ball deserves not to be discarded as a footnote. It was the 21st minute and that was already his fourth key pass of the game. Astonishingly, when he left the pitch after 63 minutes, he had not misplaced a single pass.
Kelechi Iheanacho vs Aston Villa
100% pass accuracy
4 key passes
2 dribbles won
2 tackles won
Incredible performance. 🔵🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/sMPFpIWxgk
— FootballTalentScout – Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) December 8, 2019
The fact that he scored again was a lovely bonus – and not just because four goals in four appearances this season is a neat statistic – but it was his intelligence that would have most impressed Rodgers. He played exactly like the rest of this Leicester side, as if he had been involved all along; he was purposeful, incisive and devastatingly effective.
One of the biggest doubts about this Leicester side has been removed; the Foxes do have another goalscoring striker in their ranks. And that goalscoring striker is bereft of ego but blessed with talent and knowledge about how this extraordinary team works. As Leicester look at a 14-point gap to fifth-placed Manchester United, they have added another reason to believe that Europe is beckoning again.