The arrival of Gabriel Jesus at Manchester City looks to have completed the transformation of Pep Guardiola’s attack. In recent times City have boasted an array of individual attacking talent, but the challenge for Guardiola was to get the players at his disposal marching to his beat and functioning as a team.
Jesus’ transfer was relatively low key, and when it was announced back in August 2016 that he would be joining in the January transfer window few eyelids were batted. But despite this lack of fanfare Guardiola knew he was getting a player who’d helped his side in Brazil, Palmeiras, win the league in style, and one whose value rose immediately when he made his debut for the national team in September — just a month after he’d agreed to join the Manchester club.
The rise of Jesus has led to uncertainty surrounding the future of star striker Sergio Aguero.
One of the best strikers to ever grace the English league, Aguero has been limited to appearances from the bench in his last two games while the new Brazilian looks to be a guaranteed starter. Even when Aguero enters the fray, it’s often another player who makes way as Jesus shows his versatility by shifting across the left.
If Jesus’ introduction to the side has been bad news for Aguero, then it has been even more damaging to the first team chances of City’s Nigerian goal machine, Kelechi Iheanacho.
Iheanacho’s goal record at City gives him an average of 0.9 goals every 90-minutes, and he has a contribution to goals is 1.3 per 90. He’s basically guaranteeing a goal, or at least an assist every game.
The 20-year old scored the second most league goals for the club in the 2015/16 season, and his record in these sporadic appearances seemed to warrant a bigger part this season.
But Guardiola doesn’t fancy him. Iheanacho has played just 468 minutes of league football in the 2016/17 campaign so far, still managing to score four goals and make three assists in this time. He’s only once played the full 90-minutes in a Premier League game.
The most telling snub came when Aguero was out of the side due to suspension, and Iheanacho still couldn’t get a regular start. He made the starting lineup in the first game of the Argentinian’s suspension as his side lost 4-2 at Leicester City, but was then dropped as Guardiola chose to use either Nolito or Raheem Sterling in the central attacking role.
This was a big blow for Iheanacho, and was a sign that the manager doesn’t trust him. Whether this is just a short term measure while the player hones his skills and adapts to the Spaniard’s system remains to be seen, but the signs aren’t good.
In the four games since Jesus arrived at the club, Iheanacho hasn’t even made the matchday squad. While the young Brazilian has been proving indispensable to City’s revitalised forward line which also includes Sterling and the impressive Leroy Sane, Iheanacho has been outcast.
Iheanacho's plight is similar to that of Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool. While the England striker is by far the more senior and higher profile player of the two, his treatment at Liverpool has been similar.
In December and January Liverpool were missing a number of attacking players with Philippe Coutinho out through injury, and Sadio Mane at the African Cup of Nations. Add to this the fact that Roberto Firmino was running on empty and you might have expected Sturridge to start games more often that not. But throughout November, December, and January, Sturridge started just one league game still, however, managing to score two goals in a measly 172 minutes of Premier League football in those months.
Both offer goals, but in systems where goals come from a player’s hard work, pressing, adaptability, and determination in defence as well as attack, the pair have been demoted to the fringes. This isn’t to say Sturridge and Iheanacho don’t work hard — it’s possible that they do as much running as any other player — but what Klopp and Guardiola look for are players who can swap positions, harry opponents, and contribute in other areas.
Both players stand at over 6ft, and haven’t got the natural doggedness of team-mates like Jesus or Firmino. Maybe it’s just their style, build, and gait which their respective managers aren’t keen on, rather than their application, and there’s not much they can do about that.
This suggests that the future of these players lies elsewhere, but their managers are unlikely to admit this while they’re still at the club, just in case they need to call on them for one reason or another.
If goals are still a valued currency then both should fetch reasonably high sums in the next transfer window. The destination of Iheanacho in particular will be interesting as it could turn out to be the move which defines his career. At his age he needs to be starting games and playing regularly in order to improve and also to become a big part of the Nigerian set-up.
It could even be the case that Guardiola chooses to sign yet another forward in the summer as back-up to Jesus and allows both Iheanacho and Aguero to leave the club.
Letting the Argentinian go would be a massive call, but the Spaniard oversaw a similar cull in his early days managing the Barcelona first team, axing players who didn’t fit his system regardless of the size of their name or history in the game.
28-year-old Aguero will remain at the top of the game should he leave and go on to perform well at whichever club he joins, but young Iheanacho’s future is more uncertain. He’ll have to choose his next club carefully if he’s to go on to fulfil his considerable potential.