Pep Guardiola has a reputation for finding good young players and turning them into stars, which was one of the reasons Manchester City sought him out so badly. The Sky Blues have had plenty of highly rated academy talent fail to get a chance in the first team since becoming an economic powerhouse, but Kelechi Iheanacho began to break that trend under Manuel Pellegrini two seasons ago.
The 20-year-old Nigerian scored a stoppage time winner against Crystal Palace in his second professional appearance after coming on just a couple minutes prior. From there, his reputation only grew. He scored a hat trick in an FA Cup victory over Aston Villa and a pair of goals each in back-to-back starts near the season’s end, including a brilliant goal against Southampton.
His inclusion in the City first team caught the eye of then-Nigerian head coach Sunday Oliseh, who gave Iheanacho his senior international debut in November 2015 – a World Cup qualifier against Swaziland. He scored his first international goal in May 2016 against Mali and then scored in the next three games for the Super Eagles.
The left-footed forward finished his first professional season with 14 goals and five assists despite starting only 11 of his 35 appearances. As City’s third-leading scorer that season, the Nigerian scored eight premier league goals from only 12 shots on target and seemed primed to become a star under Guardiola.
Iheanacho started the 2016/17 season well, scoring three and assisting two in a three game span as Sergio Aguero struggled to control his temper. The 20-year-old was in the squad for each of the first 21 league games, but the purchase of Gabriel Jesus pushed him out of the team. Guardiola prefers to play with only one striker and Jesus’ arrival was rumored to be pushing out the world-class Aguero, so Iheanacho really never had a chance to stay.
He made the league squad only seven more times in the final 17 games and his only club goal of 2017 came in the 5-1 defeat of Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup replay and he finished last season with seven goals from 29 appearances. The Nigerian scored in Thursday’s 3-0 friendly victory over Togo, bringing his national team total to six goals in nine appearances, showing that he can continue to score despite not getting a club chance.
With Aguero set to stay and Jesus’ reputation getting bigger by the minute, the Nigerian is now the odd-man out and his move to West Ham looks set to be completed. He is two years away from gaining his English citizenship so any move he makes will be within the Premier League. City are likely to include a buy-back clause if they sell their first youth player to be consistently around the first team since Dedryck Boyata, but that doesn’t remove the disappointment in his potential sale.
City fans have been craving the arrival in the first team of a player from their academy for years. The youth team has made back-to-back FA Youth Cup final appearances, and the desire to see a graduate from that team make the grade and give fans a player of Steven Gerrard-esque loyalty is huge. They want a player they’ve watched grow. Kelechi Iheanacho was supposed to become an established Premier League star under Guardiola, instead he has been cast aside for another import. No City fan would happily give up Gabriel Jesus, though, and so the Nigerian falls victim to Pep’s one-striker system.
But it certainly isn’t because of a lack of talent.