10 Things You Need to Know About Manchester City Prodigy Kelechi Iheanacho
Various African players have stolen the headlines this summer. Immediately after the last season ended, it was Samuel Eto’o, who was released. Then, as the World Cup rolled around, it was Rais M’Bolhi and Vincent Enyeama (for good reasons), and Alex Song and Benoit Assou-Ekotto (for bad), who attracted our interest.
Latterly, transfer deals concerning players such as Yacine Brahimi, Serge Aurier and Ideye Brown have captured the imagination.
Few, however, would have expected that Nigerian youngster Kelechi Iheanacho would be courting such attention.
The attacker is only 17, yet his performances for Manchester City have earned him extensive praise and have generated a great deal of excitement about the “next big thing” to emerge from African football.
In this feature, Bleacher Report present 10 things you need to know about the Nigerian starlet.
Africa’s Pre-Eminent Youngster?
At the CAF Awards ceremony at the end of every calendar year, the federation celebrate the player of the year, the coach of the year and, among other awards, the Most Promising Talent of the Year award.
This honour is not a bad gauge of the next big thing in the African game.
Those players who haven’t gone on to the pinnacle of the continent (Clifford Mulenga, Dominic Adiyiah and Souleymane Coulibaly…yet) are far outweighed by those past winners who have gone on to great things.
John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou have both become Champions League winners, while the likes of Mido, Taye Taiwo, Obafemi Martins and Mohamed Salah have gone on to play for major European clubs.
Kwadwo Asamoah, who won the award in 2010, is among the continent’s finest players today.
Where will Kelechi Iheanacho, who currently holds the title, sit within this collection of African stars?
Meet a Goalscorer
Iheanacho has already demonstrated his goalscoring ability in his brief showings to date with Manchester City.
However, he also showed how efficient he can be, particularly at the 2013 U-17 World Cup—this tournament will, naturally, be an important reference point for the player in this article and moving forward.
He was rewarded with the Adidas Silver Boot award, as the competition’s second-highest goalscorer (behind Sweden’s Valmir Berisha), a result of scoring six goals and making seven assists for his teammates.
As noted by FIFA.com, “he had a direct hand in exactly half of the 26 goals the Golden Eaglets scored in the UAE.”
More Than Just a Finisher
During the 2013 U-17 World Cup, Iheanacho demonstrated that he was about more than just goals. This is a forward who loves finding the net, but who can also contribute in the build-up play as well.
Against Mexico, for example, he was the architect of one of the Super Eaglets’ goals, bursting away on the counter-attack, carrying the ball before laying it off to Taiwo Awoniyi. His compatriot then played in Musa Yahaya, who managed to force Erick Aguirre into scoring an own goal.
The Footsteps of Giants
Like his idol, the Manchester City attacker is lankly and somewhat ungainly, but he somehow manages to marry grace and poise to forge a lethal offensive force. Speaking to FIFA.com, the youngster said:
He is the true hero of football in our country. Back home, he’s like a father, like a brother. He’s like everything to me. He always gives us advice. He comes to train with us, to make sure we’re happy and moving in the right direction. He helps us to understand what football is really about, and what it takes to make it in the game. Talking with him and being with him is just a great honour.
Both players were instrumental in winning the U-17 World Cup—Kanu in 1993 and Iheanacho exactly 20 years later. Could the youngster go on to become a figure as iconic within Nigeria as his hero?
A Boy for the Big Occasion
How often does a tournament’s star player fail to deliver in a competition final? It arguably happened at the World Cup this summer, when Lionel Messi—Argentina’s inspiration for so long—delivered a muted performance in the final.
Iheanacho didn’t fall for this curse at the U-17 World Cup against Mexico.
Despite being the tournament’s star man, scoring five in the run to the final, he was influential once again in the showpiece occasion.
As mentioned earlier, he played a part in Nigeria’s opener, but also managed to get his name on the scoresheet with the team’s second goal.
He demonstrated a poacher’s instinct when he made it 2-0, as reported on FIFA.com:
Captain Muhammed unleashed a wicked swirling shot that Mexican keeper Gudino simply couldn’t hang on to. He spilled a rebound directly to the feet of the most dangerous man on the pitch, and Iheanacho made no mistake dispatching his sixth goal of the tournament.
Similarly, he demonstrated his composure and maturity against Liverpool in a recent pre-season defeat with City. During the shootout he was the only Citizens player to convert his spot-kick.
A Manager’s Man
To date, Iheanacho has enjoyed excellent relationships (and high praise) from both his national team manager, Manu Garba, and his club coach Manuel Pellegrini.
Speaking to FIFA.com after the U-17 World Cup Final, Iheanacho was clear that Garba’s work with the Nigeria youth team had allowed him to flourish:
The coach gives us the freedom to be ourselves, which is the reason why we look so comfortable out there. ... He’s the boss and if we’re smart we’ll listen to what he says, because he knows what he’s talking about.
Similarly, however, the manager too has had high praise for his player, demonstrating a mutual appreciation. Garba, who has now been promoted to managing the U-20 side, hasn’t held back with words of commendation for his young charge, arguing that he could go on to play for any team in the world.
He already has the technique to flourish at the highest level and the only thing the more established players at City could have over him is experience.
At his age, his finishing around the box puts him in a class of his own. He usually scores five goals during our training sessions.
Once you give him the space and allow him to control the ball around the goal area, he can convert three of the five chances he gets. He is that good.
His recent performance for his club will give him even more confidence to step up his game.
Latterly, however, it has been Pellegrini, Iheanacho’s manager at Manchester City, who has been dishing out the praise, even though he has been clear that he is not necessarily a player for the present.
Kelechi is just 17 years old and he’s a very important player for us in the future. He demonstrated today what he can do in the future. It depends on the way he takes this profession, but I think he’s a good talent.
We’ve not decided yet (what the plan is for him) because it’s not easy. He’s just 17 and sometimes that’s the problem. We’ll see what he will do in the future.
But he’s a very important player for the future for the club.
The Nigerian Dragon
Despite only being 17, Iheanacho has already developed a trademark celebration—he’s certainly had enough opportunity to practice it over the last few years.
Kelechi Iheanacho raced to the corner flag, the entire Nigerian team chasing after him. He raised and pumped his arms, extending his fingers to the heavens. His knees followed along in rhythm. He was conducting the crowd, a massive throng of fellow Nigerians, and they mimicked his movements. A whole stand at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain was doing this strange dance, in raptures over the Golden Eaglets’ first goal of the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
As he explained later on, the youngster was imitating the famous taunt of Daniel Bryan, his favourite wrestler.
“I watch him on TV and I love the way he whips up the crowd this way, so I decided to copy it,” he said, as reported by FIFA.com, “The fans seemed to like it, too.”
In the end, the celebration even caught on with the Mexico fans at the culmination of the U-17 World Cup Final. As reported by FIFA.com, “Even a few of the Mexican fans were mumbling 'yes, yes, yes' when the final whistle went on Nigeria’s glorious campaign here in UAE.”
So too was Iheanacho’s hero Nwankwo Kanu, as caught on the stadium video screens.
Adidas Golden Ball Winner—2013 U-17 FIFA WC
There is no doubt that Nigeria’s success in the U-17 World Cup was a team effort. As described by FIFA.com, the side were “individually brilliant and collectively formidable.”
Nonetheless, a significant portion of that “individual brilliance” came from Kelechi Iheanacho, who stood out among his talented teammates.
The attacking midfielder won the Golden Ball, following in the footsteps of World Cup winners Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas, as well as Landon Donovan, in picking up the prestigious award.
Could Iheanacho follow in the footsteps of these stars?
Style of Play
Already in this piece I’ve considered Iheanacho’s creative ability as well as his finely tuned goal-poaching prowess. However, how can we flesh out the rest of the player’s skill set? What does he look like when in action?
Conveniently, Paul Handler of the Manchester Evening News has written a succinct summary of what the youngster has demonstrated during his performances with the Citizens during the club’s pre-season tour of the States.
He was a livewire up front against Sporting KC in City's first tour match and looks quick and mobile, pulling the home defenders all over the place.
He certainly doesn't lack confidence, firing off a couple of powerful first half shots from his left-foot.
The crowning moment was the goal though.
He timed his run onto Navas' cross to perfection and guided his shot expertly inside the post, using the pace of his momentum and the cross to create the power rather than lashing at the ball.
Summarising, however, and crucially, the player manages to have both many of the “trappings” of talented young forwards as well as, pertinently, an end product.
Praise from Yaya
While Yaya Toure has generated a lot of negative headlines this summer, and a lot of weird ones, his praise for Iheanacho was positive publicity for Nigeria, Africa and Manchester City.
The Ivorian powerhouse has clearly been impressed by the 17-year-old. Speaking to the official Manchester City website, as reported by Kick Off Nigeria, the former Barcelona man doused his teammate with effusive praise.
"Kelechi is an exciting player,” he began, “I love the way he plays and I feel that he will have a good career at the club and go on to become one of the players of the future."
While Iheanacho is unlikely to feature for the first team this coming season, praise from someone like Toure will go down well among fans and the club’s hierarchy. It can surely only do wonders as well for the youngster’s confidence—not that he necessarily needs it.