Claude Puel shuffled his pack for Leicester City’s away clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, offering to send out something of a new-look Foxes XI imbued with youth.
The selection was surely a response to the East Midlanders’ miserable recent run, in which they’d taken just one point from their last four Premier League bouts.
Puel opted to bench talisman Jamie Vardy, while captain Wes Morgan was also among the substitutes.
Danny Simpson, another of the title-winning team of 2016, was also on the bench and, with Marc Albrighton out for the rest of the season with a hamstring injury, Kasper Schmeichel was the only survivor of that great team to start against Spurs.
Midfield anchorman Wilfred Ndidi was originally among the substitutes, but with Nampalys Mendy injured during the warm-up, was promoted to the first team.
Kelechi Iheanacho was the other beneficiary of the Franco-Senegalese midfielder’s injury, taking Ndidi’s spot on the bench when his compatriot was promoted to the first team.
It was a bold and exciting team selection by Puel—if risky.
Starlets Harvey Barnes and James Maddison were given key roles in midfield alongside new man Youri Tielemans—a January recruit from AS Monaco.
Rachid Ghezzal, another Monaco old boy, was given only his seventh start of the season, with Demarai Gray completing the attacking unit.
The decision—to play the winger as something of a false nine—was an ambitious step by the French coach, and it didn’t truly come off.
While Vardy came off the bench to miss a penalty and then net his eighth goal of the season, Gray has only three goals all term.
It already equals his best ever tally in the Prem, and while a talented wideman, the former Birmingham City man has never been a major threat in front of goal.
“I would like to develop other options than Jamie,” Puel explained to Sky Sports. “We need other responses, not to give all the time and pressure on Jamie.
“I think Demarai had good attributes to play in this position and can is comfortable with the ball,” he added. “It would be a good opportunity for him and for us.”
Even though Puel opted to place his faith in youth, and even though he opted to make the bold move to axe Vardy, it was telling that he plumped for Gray rather than Iheanacho.
The Nigeria international’s miserable campaign with the Foxes perhaps reached a nadir on Sunday.
Not only was he overlooked for Gray, but he originally didn’t even make the matchday squad…only reprieved by Mendy’s injury.
The forward did get onto the pitch, with 18 minutes to play and Leicester trailing 2-0, but he was unable to influence proceedings.
The visitors did pull one back—through Vardy—but Son Heung-Min’s late winner secured a 3-1 triumph for Spurs.
Iheanacho was largely ineffective, making just 15 touches—incidentally, only six fewer than Gray—and taking one shot, which failed to trouble Hugo Lloris.
He took his tally to 16 league games without a goal. 20 goalless games for Leicester City, and 21 overall if we include a barren 69-minute showing in Nigeria’s 1-1 draw away at South Africa in November.
It’s the worst run of the 22-year-old’s career, and his failings this term come in stark contrast to his early successes at Manchester City.
While Iheanacho averaged one goal per 94 minutes during his maiden season in England, he’s scored just once in 871 league minutes this term.
Far from finding his feet at the King Power Stadium after being deemed surplus to requirements by Pep Guardiola, Iheanacho is slipping further and further from view.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
Perhaps the West African will have optimistically expected that as Vardy’s reign as the Foxes’ leading man began to come to an end, he would have grown in prominence.
Certainly, the former England international’s time as an untouchable with Leicester has come to an end, with Puel forced to defend his relationship with Vardy ahead of the Spurs game.
“I have a good relationship with him,” the Frenchman began, as per Football London. “We know Jamie and after he has lost, he is never happy and that is normal for a player.”
Yet rumours of tension between the two men—and of Vardy’s discontent at the club’s changing style—suggest that the former Fleetwood Town man might not be with Leicester for too much longer.
However, as Vardy’s prominence dims, Iheanacho is looking less likely than ever to be the man to replace him.
Puel has revealed that a new striker could be at the top of his summer shopping list—if he remains at the club—with Iheanacho no longer being considered as the future of the club’s strikeforce.
With even Gray now stepping ahead of him in Puel’s pecking order, Iheanacho appears to have no place in the Frenchman’s new-look Foxes.
The writing—now surely more than ever—is on the wall for the Super Eagle.