James Iles looks at the impact of Manchester City's breakout star Kelechi Iheancho.
Manchester City have been able to keep their flawless start to the season going, thanks to a last minute winner from Iheanacho against Crystal Palace at the weekend.
This prompted the press and football fans from all over the country to ask… Who is Kelechi Iheanacho?
Well Kelechi is an 18-year-old Nigerian striker who joined City after an impressive showing in the 2013 U-17 World Cup. He helped Nigeria win the tournament, scoring 6 goals along the way and winning the golden ball award for himself.
He was signed up to the Manchester City ‘Elite Development Squad’ (EDS) in December 2013 on a pre-contract agreement and linked up with the squad before the 2014 season. Kelechi was called up to the first team for the 2015/16 pre-season tour after an impressive season with the EDS, even though he missed a lot of games through work permit issues and injuries.
He looked sharp and made the most of his game time during the tour while the likes of Aguero were away playing in various international tournaments. He particularly shone in the game against Roma, scoring one and setting up new team mate Raheem Sterling for another. The game finished 2-2 but City won on penalties.
But the title of this article isn’t ‘Who is Kelechi?’ so it’s about time that I got to the point.
There has been a lot said about the youth set up at Manchester City over the last couple of seasons, both sides of the story have been covered by the press.
On one side there is the new £200 million Etihad Campus, which was unveiled last year and is a truly incredible set up to help young players progress their game. It consists of accommodation for the players, a ‘mini’ stadium with a 7,000 fan capacity as well as 16 pitches and that is just for starters.
On the other side there is the club’s phenomenal spending power and the pressure to deliver results and trophies now. This is what I believe is going to stop the likes of Kelechi really shining at City, and also affects other top Premier League clubs.
As the old adage goes, ‘You are only as good as your last game’.
Football is not a patient game to say the least, in fact it is becoming less and less of a game and more a business. One of the current contenders to get the sack is none other than Jose Mourinho who won the Premier League and Capital One Cup just last year.
City have shown signs of the pressure as well in the past, when they sacked manager Roberto Mancini a year to the day of him winning them the league title. Many pundits and fans were surprised to see that Pellegrini was given a new contract after failing to pick up any silverware last season, but City stuck by their man and it has certainly paid off so far. The same faith has certainly not been shown when it comes to the young players battling to break into the first team.
On August 5th following the pre-season International Champions Cup tournament, Manchester City hosted the ‘City Live’ event. This was a chance for the fans to come and see the players before the new season. They also used the evening to present awards to the players for the previous season.
During the evening City made an announcement which got a lot of their fans very excited, three youth/EDS players were officially promoted to the first team for the 2015/16 season.
This came as a shock to a lot of City fans, who since the club’s takeover in 2008, have been used to seeing the ranks filled with players coming in from clubs all over the world and not from within.
The three players who made the cut were Jason Denayer, Marcos Lopes and of course Kelechi Iheanacho.
So surely City have a firm plan in place and are starting to drip feed the youngsters in to help balance out the transfer fees attached to the likes of De Bruyne and Sterling?
Well that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact Kelechi was the only one of those 3 players in the squad yesterday and is actually the only one of those three who is still at the club this season. So what happened to the other two?
The name Denayer will ring a bell with those north of the border as the young Belgian centre back spent last season on loan at Celtic. He helped them win the Scottish Premiership title with 29 appearances and even chipped in with five goals.
To top off a great season he was voted PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year. Now this was a player to really get the City fans hopes up, a young confident centre-back who can play alongside his compatriot Vincent Kompany in the heart of the defence. What more could you ask for?
Especially as Demichelis isn’t getting any younger (or faster) and Mangala certainly didn’t look settled last season. But then a fortnight after Denayer joined the first team, Nicolas Otamendi from Valencia arrived with a £32 million price tag.
This seemed to slam the door in Denayer’s face and he is now spending the season on loan at Galatasaray. At least his trip to Turkey is only temporary however, Unlike Mr Lopes.
On the 28th August, just 3 weeks after being unveiled as a first team player, Marcos Lopes was unveiled once again, this time as a Monaco player. The Portugal under-21 midfielder, Rony Lopes (as he likes to be called) signed a permanent deal with the club after spending last season on loan in Ligue 1 at Lille.
Lopes was a player who really excited the City fans but his position and playing style is very similar to Raheem Sterling. Now with a £49 million price tag it would seem Sterling simply has to play. So there was no room for Rony who had been with the Club since he was 16.
Now when you look at City’s incredible start to the season, can you really see this approach changing anytime soon?
I mean why would they mess with a winning system? The only thing that will give these young players a chance to break into the squad, is outside influences, i.e. if they can’t sign the player they want or if one of the current crop is injured.
This is what we saw at the weekend. After Aguero’s knock saw him limp off in the first half and Bony failed to make the breakthrough Kelechi was given a window of opportunity. Well I would say it’s more a letterbox of opportunity as he came on with one minute of normal time to play. However he was sharp and he took his chance well and he was able to find the net and grab the points for City.
The City faithful were ecstatic for him and flooded social media with congratulations, as did his teammates who were missing on the day.
He is clearly a very popular figure at City, I was at the Watford game at the Etihad where he came on for his debut two weeks ago with a few minutes left of the match and he was greeting by a huge cheer from the fans all round the stadium.
Now the question is will he get a proper run in the team if Aguero is out for a while? We can only wait and see. What is already very clear is that he is the exception to the rule when it comes to youth players at Manchester City.
Now there were some other young players on the bench against Palace yesterday. 18 year old winger, Patrick Roberts who was brought in over the summer from Fulham, and the young Spanish mid-fielder Manu Garcia also took a seat with the subs.
However they didn’t get a chance to stretch their legs even with Silva and Sterling being out injured, Aguero going off early and Navas having a shocker on the right wing. City also signed another 18-year-old Enes Unal over the summer, however he has gone straight out on a 2 year loan to Genk.
This is still an improvement on the number of young players who have got near the first team in recent years. The names John Guidetti, Reece Wabara, Vladimir Weiss and Denis Suarez might sound familiar to some of you, as they all showed a lot of potential and spent a good few seasons out on loan at various clubs, before eventually making permanent moves away from City without having a crack in the first team.
I am always pleased to see young players given a chance and taking it. Congratulations to Kelechi. It would be good to see him get some decent game time this season so we can see what he can really do. However if City are hit with any more injuries and are in need to of goals I suspect they would turn to the transfer market in January rather than looking to the youth.
Modern football waits for no man...or boy.