One of Everton’s many problem areas last season was in the centre forward position, the club searching fruitlessly for a viable alternate to the oft-unavailable Dominic Calvert-Lewin. A variety of different types of players were tried in the role: wingers Anthony Gordon and Demarai Gray, the veteran Salomon Rondon, £10m new signing Neal Maupay and the inexperienced at top level Ellis Simms and Tom Cannon; but none were adequate replacements.
When Calvert-Lewin was available, the Blues were a different side. Although the tall striker only netted twice in 17 league appearances (15 starts), his hold-up play, aerial presence and intelligent running gave the team a shape and identity that they sorely lacked in his absence. It is clear that the club cannot continue to put itself in this vulnerable position: that of relying on the 26-year old to avoid the injury problems that have blighted two successive campaigns.
The Toffees have been linked with many potential targets already this summer and one of those that has been of interest recently is Leicester City man Kelechi Iheanacho.
Brought into the Manchester City academy as a 17-year old, the Nigerian quickly broke into the first team, showing great promise in scoring 14 goals in all competitions, from 35 appearances, with only eleven starts during the 2015-16 season. Surprisingly, despite an effective start to the following campaign, in which he contributed towards nine goals before the turn of the year, Iheanacho would see little of the pitch thereafter, culminating in him departing to Leicester City for a reported fee of of £25m during the summer.
A Halting New Beginning
The forward got off to a slow start at his new club, appearing mostly from the bench and then dropping out of the team entirely midseason, before finding his feet late on in the campaign and ending up with three league goals from 21 outings (seven starts) - an unimpressive tally for an expensive acquisition. Things got worse the following season, with the Nigerian again failing to command a regular starting role and netting just one league goal.
The 2019-20 campaign was a little better for Iheanacho, but he was still showing little sign of delivering on early potential, though goals in both legs of the EFL Cup Semi-Finals against Aston Villa were highlights.
Turning the Corner
The next season began in much the same fashion, with the striker used (and effective) in Leicester’s Europa League run - and in the domestic cup competitions - but a peripheral figure in the Premier League, until a rash of injuries forced manager Brendan Rodgers’ hand. Paired mostly in a two-man attack alongside Jamie Vardy, Iheanacho went on an astonishing run, scoring eleven league goals in as many matches, in addition to firing another four in FA Cup wins over top-flight opposition.
Bafflingly, the forward would begin the next campaign back on the bench, as Rodgers returned to his favoured lone-striker formation. This carried on into last term, with the Nigerian managing just a single league start until February. Reinstated, Iheanacho scored twice and provided three assists in back-to-back wins over Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. During a campaign that would see the Foxes relegated, the now 26-year old ended up with five goals and five assists across 28 league appearances, with just eleven starts, but would be recognised as the club’s Player of the Season.
Going off last season, the underlying p90 (per 90 minutes) data on him is quite impressive in some areas, but less so in others.
In what is arguably the most important criteria for a striker - namely putting the ball in the back of the onion bag - Iheanacho is active, getting off 3.03 shots per 90 (in the 76th percentile amongst centre forwards in the top five leagues and continental competitions) and generates a non-penalty xG (Expected Goals) per 90 of 0.50 (88th percentile). Other metrics rank him a little more modestly: 59th and 104th from 305 examined strikers in the respective categories. His accuracy leaves something to be desired however, as he ranks in the 27nd percentile for shots on target and in the 31st for goals per shot, so clinical he is not.
In possession, Iheanacho is quite involved, taking most of his 37.05 touches per 90 (77th percentile) in the attacking third, though he does not penetrate the penalty area overmuch (42nd). He carries the ball progressively well enough (80th), but can be let down by loose control and perhaps a lack of aggression; in terms of miscontrol he is in the 23rd percentile and in being dispossessed, the 2nd, which is quite terrible. In the offensive duels metric he ranks 293rd of 305, which equates to him losing the ball a lot in attacking areas of the pitch.
The Foxes striker gets involved in his teams build-up, showing good movement and understanding of the game, in attempting 25.24 passes per 90 (71st percentile) and uses the ball decently, with a 74.7% pass accuracy (77th), though his range is limited (26th in long balls). He does have an an ability to put a teammate in for a chance on goal though, as demonstrated by him making 1.76 key passes (leading to a shot) per 90 (94th) and an xAG (Expected Assisted Goal) statistic of 0.32 (98th).
Defensively, he is moderate, with a 46.94% duel success rate, which ranks him at 267 from 305 forwards playing 1,000 or more minutes last season. He will compete, particularly in the final third (79th percentile) and puts in a decent amount of blocks (62nd), but in combined tackles and interceptions he sits in the 23rd percentile. Aerially, he is unimpressive considering his height (listed at 6’1), winning between 25% and 32.6% of aerial duels, depending on what dataset is used.
So what would Iheanacho bring to the table at Everton?
Firstly, he is primarily a genuine centre forward, who has played as a single striker plenty of times. However, he is also adaptable, able to play as part of a two-man attack, or as a supporting forward; occasionally he has been deployed on either flank, although Sean Dyche does not really utilise wide players in this way, but more as conventional old-school wingers, which the Leicester man is not. So, in theory he could be used alongside DCL (when available), or in behind in a 4-4-1-1 system, or a variant thereof.
Iheanacho is not the clinical finisher he would appear, given his high goals per minute stats, but a high-volume player who will put up good numbers given enough playing time and reasonable service. Even if he is not scoring himself, his relatively generous play and well-developed attacking instincts will ensure that he will create opportunities for teammates. His relative lack of aerial prowess is a concern, given how Dyche likes his strikers to play; as a lone front man, he will struggle to compete for crosses.
The Blues boss really dislikes his players losing possession and in this the left-footed Iheanacho scores highly in one regard (his short and intermediate passing), but poorly in another (losing ground duels when running with the ball). In the modern game, coughing up the ball is perceived negatively by almost all managers, which may partially explain why the Nigerian international failed to nail down a starting berth at Leicester.
Now 26, if Iheanacho’s propensity to lose the ball under pressure could be coached out of him, it is likely it would have by now. Whether this is seen as an deal-breaker by Dyche is tough to assess, but for the right fee (perhaps around the £10-12m mark) Iheanacho offers some genuine attributes, though likely in a supporting striker role, rather than as a like-for-like replacement for Calvert-Lewin.