Flashback to the summer of 2016 and Kelechi Iheanacho was recognised as one of the few elite attacking prospects. Comparisons with Manchester United’s Rashford plagued social media as all signs pointed to the young Nigerian prospering in Manchester. Then came the arrival of Gabriel Jesus in January 2017. By August of the same year, Kelechi had signed a £25 million deal with Leicester City. Since arriving he has only received a combined total of 1651 minutes in the Premier League and, despite still being young at 22 years of age, it seems something needs to change for Iheanacho.
This is something of direct contrast to the career path of Jamie Vardy. The Leicester Hero’s well-documented rags-to-riches career is on the wind-down. Having just turned 32, is it time the East Midlands club start to plan for the days without their talisman. Is Kelechi still their future, or should they cut their losses on him and look elsewhere?
Kelechi over the years:
Iheanacho’s numbers while at City were monstrous. In just over 1,200 minutes over 2 seasons, he averaged an xG/90 of 0.72 (Understat.com). Even after taking into account the obvious boost from playing with all the creative players on the City books, that is some magical production.
He was creating too, with a 0.25 xA/90 and 1.7 Key Passes/90, the kid seemed to have it all. Not many strikers posted these sorts of underlying numbers in Europe’s top five leagues. Virtually no one who did was doing it at such a young age.
Leicester move and a fall from grace:
The move to the East Midlands struck most as sensible. Guardiola’s side had bought Gabriel Jesus in January. Behind Jesus and Aguero in the pecking order, minutes were going to be hard to come by for the Nigerian.
Playing some games as an Attacking Midfielder, Kelechi flourished in a role more involved in the build-up. Again highlighting as an all-around attacking machine, his creative numbers skyrocketed while his shot numbers maintained a consistency.
Then came this season. Despite playing more minutes in the Premier League than he did the entire previous season, his shot numbers have dropped significantly. Instead of being the high-volume attacker we had seen previous, Kelechi is only taking 1.5 shots/90 this season. A drop of almost two shots a game when compared to his previous average of around 3.5 per 90.
The drop in shots quantity has coincided with a downward shift in shot quality. His xG/Shot has taken a hit from 0.18 in 17/18 to 0.14 this season. As we can see from his shot map, he is taking fewer shots overall and more from outside the box.
Interestingly, while Iheanacho’s numbers have changed significantly for the worse this season, Vardy is quite the opposite. The Englishman’s underlying attacking numbers were steadily dropping season by season after the magical 2015/16 season. This year, however, Vardy seems to have had a resurgence.
As we can see above, his Non-Penalty Expected Goals per 90 (NPxG/90) was slowly regressing towards mediocrity before suddenly shooting back up to 0.43 this year. For someone who has just turned 32, these numbers are nothing short of incredible.
Perhaps we can figure out this resurgence by taking a look at Leicester as a whole. It is possible that the team is set up to ensure Vardy is on the end of their high-quality chances. With players like Gray and Maddison taking a litany of low-quality shots, it is important to Leicester that they can balance it with a high-quality shooter such as Vardy.
While it is obvious that Vardy cannot keep up this level for seasons to come, he seems to be the perfect fit for this Leicester team right now. Comparing their numbers this season, there is no question about it, Vardy is shooting more and more efficiently than Iheanacho in Puel’s set up. Thus, it would be crazy to make drop Vardy for a younger model.
However, Vardy’s age must be taken into account and this will be a problem the Foxes will have to look into this summer. Is Kelechi the answer? Probably not. Even though he has been consistently putting up some elite attacking numbers prior to this season, it is possible that this was impacted by coming on late in games and playing with elite creative players at Manchester City. This isn’t to say Iheanacho is a bad striker, but so far the move has not worked out for him.