When Leicester City lost James Maddison and Harvey Barnes to injuries in successive Premier League matches at the end of February, fans must’ve felt a scary wave of deja vu. Like last year, the Foxes have been riding high for the majority of the current campaign, and enter the final stretch of the season well positioned to nab one of the four Champions League places. Also like last year, injuries to key players could threaten to recreate the late-season collapse that saw the club gag up its CL spot by winning only two of the nine matches during Project Restart. If Leicester is to avoid that fate and solidify the top-four spot it has fought so hard to earn, the team will need to rely on its attacking depth to pick up Maddison’s and Barnes’s slack. Luckily, the much-maligned Kelechi Iheanacho looks ready to deliver.
It was Iheanacho who starred in this weekend’s romp over a still-woebegone Sheffield United. The 24-year-old striker scored three of Leicester’s goals in the 5–0 victory, which marked a couple firsts in the Nigerian international’s career: his first league hat trick, and his first time scoring in three consecutive matches. His first was a simple tap-in on the end of some smart positioning, the second an impressive first-time, weak-foot blast to cap a fast break, and the third a pretty a rifle shot from deep. Each one of them was the kind of goal Leicester believed it was acquiring in heaps when the club signed the promising but unproven Iheanacho for £25 million from Manchester City four years ago. After a relatively disappointing stint as a Fox thus far, Iheanacho is finally making good on that faith, and at the best possible time.
Since Maddison reaggravated his hip injury in a Feb. 21 match against Aston Villa, Iheanacho has started all four of Leicester’s league games. In those four matches, Iheanacho has scored five goals. Those strikes have been instrumental in securing two wins, a draw, and a loss in that span. That isn’t the strongest record, but for a hobbled team with a fearsome ideal starting XI and a shaky bench, in the last leg of an incredibly tight race for a spot in the top four, every point is huge, and no point is guaranteed.
That those four most recent starts make for half of his total league starts this season, and the five goals in that stretch good for all but one of his league goals, shows Iheanacho’s lowly position on the roster. Prior to the last month, Iheanacho was neither a starter nor a particularly frequent rotation option. He was what he has been for most of his career: an intermittently seen late-game attacking sub, and a cup player. For a player who broke onto the scene at Man City as a teenager putting up impressive stats in spot appearances, which earned him a big-money move to Leicester and a chance to translate those flashes of brilliance into sustained performances, that relatively lowly return has been something of a let-down.
As is so often the case, Iheanacho’s reputation is in large part a matter of perception. It didn’t help that early in his career Iheanacho was made a party in a media- and fan-driven comparison contest between himself and another Manchester-based forward prospect on the come-up, Marcus Rashford. Whether Iheanacho or Rashford was the better player then and would be the better player in the future, and whether Iheanacho’s superior rate stats (during his two seasons in City’s first team, the striker scored only 12 goals but at an eye-popping pace of 0.83 goals per 90 minutes) or Rashford’s superior eye-test grades were the stronger predictors of each player’s ability and potential, were questions circling both players for years. When Rashford’s star kept rising at United while Iheanacho’s fell precipitously at Leicester, the former became known as a cautionary tale about the dangerous of relying too much on numbers.
In Iheanacho’s defense, his rate statistics have remained pretty solid at Leicester. In four league seasons, he’s averaged 0.39 goals per 90, and 0.23 assists per 90. While it’s wise to take impressive-looking rate stats from a forward who amasses most of his playing time in late-game sub appearances, when defenses tend to be tired and attacks tend to be frantic, those numbers, combined with his age and Leicester’s fantastic campaigns over the past couple years, do indicate that Iheanacho remains a valuable contributor to a very good team, and still has some upside to become something more if things break right. Unburdened from the next-big-thing expectations, and the role of Goofus to Rashford’s Gallant, a young striker chipping in with decent performances over the years while having something of a breakout at 24 years old would make Iheanacho a player to watch rather than one to scoff at.
For the next few weeks, Iheanacho will maintain his regular presence in Leicester’s starting lineups, at least until one or both of Maddison and Barnes are back healthy. In those starts, he will have more opportunities to prove himself, to establish a bigger role at Leicester and a better reputation on the Premier League scene. You can see in his emotional reaction to scoring his third goal, and his postgame interview above, how much it means to him to finally have these chances to shine. Just how far he takes those chances, and what that will do for Leicester’s season, is now up to him.