Two of Leicester City’s greatest goalscorers were at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Jamie Vardy was leading the line, but taking his recent record to just one goal in 16 games. Gary Lineker was in the temporary, oversized, outside studios that are a product of strange times, occasionally eschewing impartiality to enjoy Leicester’s progress to a first FA Cup semi-final since 1982, when he was the second-division side’s top scorer.
Fast-forward the best part of four decades and each could savour the exploits of one who, a few weeks ago, felt a reason why City’s reliance on Vardy was so great. Kelechi Iheanacho appeared a £25 million misfit, a rare misstep as Leicester’s prowess in the transfer market has brought them James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, James Justin, Wesley Fofana, Caglar Soyuncu, Jonny Evans, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi. Evidence of astute recruitment is everywhere to be found; except, some might have said, among Vardy’s deputies.
Now Iheanacho might have done a rare double: he is both the Premier League and the FA Cup’s player of March. If he has compensated brilliantly for the absences of Maddison and Harvey Barnes, he also feels an indication that strikers can score in spurts. Brendan Rodgers argued that he has lacked confidence at times; now seven goals in four games have provided plenty of it.
He has also lacked opportunity as the permanent Plan B. Iheanacho ranks among the purest of predators in the modern game, a relatively one-dimensional forward who specialises in the game’s most important task. It was no surprise that Pep Guardiola, that devotee of total football, sold him.
Iheanacho may not be the furthest thing from a false nine among Premier League forwards – that mantle probably still rests with Andy Carroll – but he could figure on the shortlist. He has a certain appeal to the nostalgic.
The clinical finisher can compensate with goals for his deficiencies in other departments. Iheanacho has scored from 22% of his Premier League shots this season; he found the net with 28% of them in his breakthrough year of 2015-16. He averaged a goal every 94 minutes then, one every 121 now. In between, he finished 2018-19 without a goal in his last 29 games in all competitions, but he was a serial substitute, racking up appearances while confined to cameos.
It is a sign of the times. One-striker systems mean the second forward can be the squad player who is nevertheless charged with being the match-winner. When the first forward is the phenomenon that is Vardy, the situation is still tougher. Understudying the oldest Golden Boot winner in Premier League history may have felt football’s version of Waiting for Godot, planning for a tomorrow that never came as the question of the succession was put back by Vardy’s ageless antics.
Iheanacho is on fire 🔥#EmiratesFACup @LCFC pic.twitter.com/uNX0fc48n0March 21, 2021
Leicester’s excellence in acquiring Maddison and developing him and Barnes further counted against Iheanacho. Then recent injuries brought a rethink, a switch to 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 that brings that strangest of sights these days: a strike partnership. It has been a genuine alliance, too: Vardy set up the first two of Iheanacho’s hat-trick against Sheffield United.
It is, though, a very different duo to Vardy’s most famous double act. Go back to their title-winning season and his sidekick was a non-scoring workhorse. Iheanacho feels the anti-Okazaki, scoring as many goals in his last three league games as the Japanese did in the 2015-16 campaign.
Successful as Rodgers’ systemic switch is, it still feels a temporary gambit, one that might be jettisoned when Barnes, in particular, is available again. Maybe March’s player of the month will be back on the bench in April.
But maybe Iheanacho’s flurry of goals will have shored up Leicester’s Champions League challenge or lead to FA Cup glory; perhaps there is something lasting to come from a golden spell. And as they face the biggest issue in remodelling the squad, Iheanacho has started to feel solution more than problem, a player who could partner Vardy but also alternate with him in a job-share, lending a different type of potency.
If so, the least he has done is to buy Leicester time. If he was signed four years ago as the veteran’s eventual replacement, Vardy has resisted being pensioned off. But if his current drought is the first, belated evidence of decline, Iheanacho may be ensuring it does not cost Leicester this season. The poacher can feel a throwback to Lineker’s day but he could play a part in a very modern success story.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.