Manchester United needed to make some smart moves during this past January transfer window. They were struggling under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, slipping further and further down the league table as the weeks went on.
Injuries hadn’t helped, as Paul Pogba had effectively missed the entire season, while Marcus Rashford was being ruled out for the foreseeable future.
The Red Devils made their marquee signing of the winter with a few weeks to go, finally bringing in Bruno Fernandes from Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon. That deal was lauded by the media, but their next one was much more controversial.
On transfer deadline day, United signed 30-year-old striker Odion Ighalo on loan from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua of the Chinese Super League. Many doubted the acquisition at first, but those doubters have since been proven wrong, as Ighalo has made his case to stay at Old Trafford beyond this season.
As mentioned earlier, Ighalo’s arrival was judged by plenty of critics and supporters.
Signing an older forward who had spent his last few years in the Chinese league was far from the most impressive move to make. It had been years since he was lighting up the Premier League with Watford, and no one really knew what he had gotten up to. Sure, he was scoring goals in China, but that’s not the toughest league on the planet.
Social media went wild, with rival fans quick to poke fun at United. They had just missed out on Norwegian phenom Erling Braut Haaland, and had to instead settle for a 30-year-old past his prime. The most embarrassing thing was that the Red Devils couldn’t even do a proper transfer, as they had to sign the forward on loan.
It showed how cheap management had become. They did sign Fernandes, but that was it. The club have limited themselves to one or two major signings per window, which isn’t enough to rebuild a squad that needs plenty of work.
A solid start
However, against the odds, Ighalo was able to make an instant impact at Old Trafford.
Coming off the bench in his few games, the Nigerian quickly added a new dynamic up front. As the most natural striker at the club, Ighalo played as a traditional centre forward. He kept things simple, staying on the shoulders of the last defender and staying alert for loose balls in the area.
The goals would soon follow, as Ighalo got his first for United on his first start. In the 2nd leg of their Europa League Round of 32 matchup against Club Brugge, the Nigerian put the tie to bed with a tap-in in the 34th minute. Some thought it was lucky, but he knew where to be at the right time.
Then came a different competition, as Ighalo got the nod when the Red Devils took on Derby County in the FA Cup. He grabbed a brace on the afternoon, with the first coming at the half-hour mark when he shrugged off a number of defenders before poking home from close range. His second came in typical fashion, as his initial shot was blocked, but he reacted quickly to volley past the keeper.
Ighalo also found the back of the net in United’s most recent game against LASK, and even provided an assist as well. His goal was quite spectacular, as the striker juggled the ball a bit before rifling a shot off the underside of the crossbar and in to give the Red Devils the lead. Ighalo then found Daniel James on the counter, who flew forward before slotting past the keeper.
Sure, Ighalo isn’t lighting the world up, but he’s getting the job done, which is all United can ask of him at this stage.
Mentoring the future
He won’t be able to consistently deliver on the field for much longer, but Ighalo will certainly be able to help out off the field.
You don’t get to play as long as he has at such a high level without learning a thing or two along the way. Ighalo has so much experience at this stage of his career, and he can pass down some of that knowledge to the younger strikers at United.
Anthony Martial has become the Red Devils go-to centre forward this season after spending a number of years on the left-wing. He’s done well, but some still don’t know if he’s the man to lead the club up top going into the future.
The Frenchman tends to drift out of games at times, either dropping in too deep or staying too far wide. Under Ighalo’s guidance, he could develop those killer instincts in front of goal that separate the good strikers from the elite ones.
Then there’s Marcus Rashford. At 22 years of age, he’s now at the point where he needs to become a consistent threat in the final third. The Englishman was having his best campaign to date before suffering a back injury, and fans will hope he can fully recover and be back to his best when next season comes around.
Rashford can strike the ball from distance, but he sometimes struggles when it comes to finishing chances closer to goal. He isn’t quite clinical enough just yet, with his decision making letting him down, smashing the ball when he just needs to place it and vice versa.
Ighalo, on the other hand, is lethal from close range, and knows how to find the back of the net time and time again. If Rashford can get his conversion rate closer to Ighalo’s, then the rest of the Premier League is in serious danger.
The most important piece of the puzzle is Mason Greenwood. It’s hard to believe he’s only 18 considering how well he’s done in his rookie year with the first team, but there’s still loads of room for improvement. Getting to watch and learn from Ighalo on a daily basis will help him immensely, which will only accelerate his already rapid growth.
There’s also no risk in extending Ighalo’s stay. He won’t cost the club much in terms of a transfer fee, and he doesn’t demand the highest weekly wage either. The Nigerian is also a massive fan of the Red Devils, so he’ll just be happy to do whatever he can, not bothered about how much playing time he gets.
Ighalo has made the most of his opportunity on loan this season, and United would be making a mistake by not keeping him on board when the summer comes around, both in the short term and the long term.