Guest Post

A Man City perspective on Kelechi Iheanacho and Pablo Zabaleta

by on at 10:08pm

By Anthony Chapman (@Anthony_Chapman) of City Watch – http://www.mcfcwatch.com

I’ve always felt that City and West Ham have a slight, but tangible, unspoken bond of comradery in a world of intense football tribalism. I’m not sure where it spouts from or why; perhaps it has something to do with the fact we’re both sourced from a less cosmopolitan distant background than our closest rivals, or the maybe in the past we’ve both recognised that we both have ‘proper’ fans, fans who have stayed with our clubs through extreme highs and deep lows. It was only just over a year ago I celebrated Winston Reid’s winner against United in the Boleyn’s swan song as if I was West Ham born and bred. This summer, West Ham have already recruited one of City’s most loved players ever, and seem to be in the market for an upcoming star of ours. In this piece, I’ll try to detail what you can expect from West Ham player Pablo Zabaleta, and West Ham target Kelechi Iheanacho. One of the worst things about football is that it makes us realise nothing can last forever. In our case, it’s the love story that City and Pablo Zabaleta have shared for the past 9 years. Signed in the summer of 2008, just days before the money came in, Zabaleta was a fairly unremarkable signing from Espanyol at first glance. He cost just over 6m, and it’s fair to say this seemingly decent buy now must be regarded as one of the greatest signings of City’s new era. Mark Hughes said upon his arrival that Pablo was ‘a winner’, and of course, with his integral role in City’s success, this is only truer now than it was then. This winning mentality would be invaluable to a side like West Ham who are hoping to break into a European space soon. His never say die, leave it all on the pitch attitude is second to none. For instance, he’s not the type to force a move in the middle of the season after committing to the club only months before..

Though this desire to fight and win is one thing, mentality is only one side of what’s needed to be a successful player. I saw some West Ham fans on the announcement of Zabaleta wonder about his age, and certainly at 32 he’s not getting any younger. I’m not sure how long he will stay on after his 2 year deal, if at all. His lack of mobility in Pep Guardiola’s very demanding system will have been one of the reasons why he was allowed to move on, as City look for more athletic targets at full back, though right now we’re rumoured to be after Dani Alves, two years’ Zabaleta’s senior. It is true that at some times last season, Zabaleta looked slightly beleaguered and not as sharp as he had in years gone by. However, that is not a concession Pablo’s legs have gone, nor is it an admittance he has nothing to offer at the top level anymore. In November, Zabaleta rolled back the years and, no exaggeration, pocketed Neymar. Pablo is a brilliant player, especially in big games. For West Ham who aren’t in any European competitions this year, I have no doubts that this reduced playing time will mean he is sharp in the games he does play, and his fire will make him stand out in the big London derbies, and that he’ll be a massive influence off the pitch for younger players. I’ve seen West Ham fans complain for years that the club has needed a proper right back, and I really believe that the capture of Zabaleta is just what the club needed, and that you will all love him. If you had any doubts of how much he means to us and how much we value him, look back on his final goodbye speech at the Etihad. Pablo is a player delivered straight from of the ‘good old days’, who will repeatedly spill blood to win. Pablo is a winner. Zaza. Calleri. Valencia. Jelavic. Emenike. Maiga. It’s fair to say that recent strikers have not exactly been bountiful for West Ham. Andy Carroll seemed like a great hope when he signed all those years ago but he’s spent most of his West Ham career on the medical table, despite scoring undoubtedly the goal of last season with that stunning overhead against Sam Allardyce’s Palace- I bet that felt good. Now it’s rumoured West Ham are after City’s Nigerian Kelechi Iheanacho. He arrived on the scene at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, announcing himself to the Premier League with the biggest of bangs with a last minute winner at Selhurst Park. He would end the 2015/16 season with 8 league goals in 26 games, but as most of those appearances came from the bench, the goals look more impressive when we put them into the context of actual playing time: Kelechi scored a league goal every 94 minutes. This season though has been harder for Iheanacho. Much was made of Agüero’s potential reaction to Gabriel Jesus’s arrival, but what was ignored was the obvious loser in this situation- Kelechi. Pep’s system in any case focuses more on attacking midfielders than out and out forwards, and although Kelechi got a few starts just before Christmas whilst Aguero’s future was most in doubt, he only managed to make 5 starts in the league this season. This is not what a young star needs, and why Kelechi will move on to a team who play him regularly this summer. His finishing is excellent, but I think his best asset is his intelligence on the pitch in terms of positioning. Most of his goals have been tap ins, from his first goal against Palace to his only goal in the Champions League to date against Gladbach last September. Kelechi is not an all-round striker who will be able to weave moves together, but he is extremely effective at goal getting. When he plays, he usually scores. For a team like West Ham, whose top scorer in the league was Michael Antonio on 9, a goal scorer is a priority. I could really see Kelechi getting 10-15 goals if he is played week in, week out. To add to this he’s only 20 years old, and definitely has shown that he can improve- there’s a reason City are rumoured to be after a buyback clause in any potential deal, as we all watch Chelsea try to keep a fee for Romelu Lukaku as close to 60m as possible. Pablo Zabaleta and Kelechi Iheanacho are two players at different points in their careers. For Zabaleta, he will aim to show the world that he most certainly is not ‘done’, and I really believe that he will prove to be one of the best pick-ups of the window, and I look forward to seeing how he does. On the other hand, Kelechi Iheanacho is destined to go far for a long time yet, but the only question is how far. We’ve seen some young players who have been hotly tipped to succeed just fade away, and the next few seasons in Kelechi’s career will be crucial. Whoever signs him must nurture him properly, playing him as often as possible, and if they do, they will reap the rewards. I don’t see him going down in West Ham’s list of forward failures.

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