On Sunday 14th March 2021, Super Eagles and Leicester City Football Club star striker, Kelechi Iheanacho delivered his first career English Premier League hat trick against bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United Football Club. This feat marks a bright spot in what has been an inconsistent career since debuting at the 2013 FIFA Under-17 World Cup where he won the Golden Ball and Silver boot awards after netting six goals and seven assists which helped the Nigerian team win their fourth title.
His outstanding performance at the competition saw him emerge as one of the most in-demand talents in the world, drawing attention from some of the best teams in Europe including Arsenal, Sporting CP, and Porto before being eventually signing for Manchester City. In the same year, he was honored as CAF’s Most Promising Talent of the Year. Joining the Manchester City team in January 2015, he played and scored in pre-season games against AC Milan and Sporting Kansas City. However, delays in getting paperwork for his work permit posed the first setback to his run as this meant he couldn’t play until February 2015. Fatigue had set in due to the lack of activity during that window period. Barely thirteen minutes after debuting for the club’s under-19 team in a UEFA Youth League game against the German team, Schalke 04, he picked up an injury. On his return from injury, he scored in the FA Youth Cup final against Chelsea, a match they ended up losing 5-2 on aggregate. A week later, his lone goal helped Manchester City beat Porto in the final of the 2014-2015 Premier League International Cup. He joined City’s team in their pre-season tour to Australia where he helped City beat Roma in the 2015 International Champions Cup. His impressive run during the pre-season tour would earn him a call-up to the first team.
He netted his first competitive goal and first career hat-trick against Aston Villa on January 30, 2016 matchday in the fourth round of the FA Cup. He made an instant impact in his debut season netting 14 goals in 35 appearances under Manuel Pellegrini before Josep Guardiola took over the team’s management. The overwhelming expectation was that a link-up with Guardiola would ensure he stays on a growth path based upon Guardiola’s reputation of nurturing young talents to attain their full potential. He had done it at Barcelona and Bayern Munich; with Joshua Kimmich, Thiago Alcantara, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, and several others. Instead, the then-20-year old suffered a disappointing sophomore season. He started with a contract extension to 2021 in August 2016, then followed that with City’s winning goal against Manchester United in a 2-1 Manchester derby. He joined an elite rank of players to have scored 10 Premier League goals before the age of 20 — including Wayne Rooney, Romelu Lukaku, and Ryan Griggs. Talking of his selection for the game, Guardiola remarked, that he only made it to the game because Aguero was suspended. The winter arrival of Gabriel Jesus saw his role diminish in the squad. He was only able to record 70 minutes of game time across eight games. Further describing his lack of game time, Guardiola explained that the club hadn’t created “many chances for this kind of player”. You could tell an exit was imminent.
In search of a player to compliment Vardy upfront, Leicester secured Iheanacho’s signature for a reported £25 million transfer fee on a five-year contract on 3rd August, 2017. He debuted in Leicester City’s 4-3 loss to Arsenal. His debut goal came against Leeds United on 24th October, 2017, more than two months after his first appearance. In January 2018, he became the first player in English football to be awarded a goal due to VAR. His start to life at Leicester City was rough having played 403 minutes of game time prior to the earlier mentioned VAR-awarded goal, which was also his second goal with the team.
His time in Leicester has been a rather quiet one plagued with inconsistencies. For a player who was brought in to compliment Vardy’s effort and maybe eventually replace him, he’s otherwise been an average backup. He’s so far spent a greater part of his time at the club making cameo appearances and playing in cup games, an unbefitting way to get his morale and confidence up.
He’s recently found his consistency and form on the pitch. Starting the game against Sheffield United which earned him his first Premier League hat-trick marks only the third instance of his starting more than three consecutive league games since his 2015 debut for Manchester City, a run that is below par for talent who promised as much as he did. Since the start of the new year, he’s had somewhat of a breezy run including a contender for goal of the year against Burnley, a goal for Brighton which put him at par with Jamie Vardy for non-penalty goals this season.
Over the last two seasons, he’s had an upward slope in productivity averaging a goal or assist every 100 minutes of game time, compared to Vardy who has 116 minutes per goal involvement. Being a versatile player has allowed Brendan Rodgers several options in deploying him. His improvement in recent times puts him on a path to achieving his potential. With just over a year left on his contract, it’s left to see what the player’s next move will be. Will he get handed a new contract? Will he take the exit door? Or will he secure his place as a consistent first-team player?