It’s no secret that Manchester United have struggled in front of goal this season. After the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez were sanctioned without replacements being brought into the team, it was only a matter of time before United hit the market for a forward. Mario Mandzukić and Erling Haaland were two players most heavily linked to the Reds, however both deals fell through for various reasons. As the clock ticked towards midnight on the January transfer window it looked like there wouldn’t be an arrival after all, but at the 11th hour United got a deal over the line for the most unlikely subject: Shanghai Shenhua’s Odion Ighalo.
While most fans are familiar with Ighalo from his spell at Watford from 2014 to 2017, the 30-year-old’s three year hiatus in China has fans scrambling to learn about the first Nigerian to play for the club. Ahead of his debut against Chelsea, I caught up with Watford vice-captain Adrian Mariappa who spent time with Ighalo at Vicarage Road to help fans gain first-hand insights on United’s new target man.
Ben Lorry: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me this afternoon!
Adrian Mariappa: No problem at all, glad I can help!
BL: Great, let’s jump right in. In his first interview with MUTV, Ighalo described himself as a fast, strong, and skillful center forward, all qualities of a top number nine. How would you describe Ighalo as a player, and how can Man United get the best out of him?
AM: Yeah I’d probably agree with what he’s said about himself there. He’s definitely a striker who knows where the goal is, and obviously he enjoys scoring goals. I know from training with him for just over half a season that he was very tough to play against, so he’s definitely got all the qualities of a good forward.
BL: Are there any underrated aspects of his game that people sometimes overlook?
AM: He’s probably more skillful than people realize. His first season in the Premier League I think he was chopping every defender in sight, and once he’d get in the box he’s clinical. He’s very good at finding half a yard of space to get a shot off and when he does it hits the target more often than not, so he’s definitely one you need to watch out for as a defender.
BL: Yeah he loves that little scoop move!
AM: He certainly does!
BL: So at Watford he thrived in a partnership with Troy Deeney. How do you think he will compliment United’s current crop of forwards?
AM: Obviously it will be different for him playing with the likes of Rashford and Martial. He and Troy complimented each other very well and it took teams a lot of time to work out how to deal with them. To be fair, he’s going into a side where they’ve got a lot of top forwards so it’ll be a case of him adjusting to that style of play. He’s a good player and willing to learn so it’ll be interesting to see how he does.
BL: Absolutely, he definitely offers something different to what United currently have. With that said, what do you think he will bring to United?
AM: Only time will tell, but he’s a striker that will score goals. It’ll be a tough job in itself to get in the side with their group of top, foreign players, but knowing him he’ll be training hard to get in there and really show what he’s about.
BL: Cool. Now, Ighalo was already there when you rejoined Watford from Palace. What was your first impression of him and how did he help you settle in with the squad?
AM: He’s an incredibly humble person and a really nice guy; very well respected in the group. He’s someone who achieved a lot in a short space of time, who just wanted to play and score goals. He was a refreshing character around the place and someone I enjoyed working with.
BL: From what I’ve read it seems like everyone agrees that he’s an incredibly humble and charitable person who should be a great addition to the United dressing room. Moving on, most fans assume that the best players in the world all work their tails off in training, yet many stars like Eden Hazard always seem to turn it on come match day despite putting in very little effort on the training ground. What is Ighalo’s approach to training and recovery, and how does he view that process?
AM: He trains hard. He loves scoring goals even in training and wouldn’t surprise you with the odd worldie here and there. Even the times he was out of the side he still trained well which is a good quality to have. There’s a reason why he’s still in good condition scoring goals wherever he’s playing and you can see on social media he works incredibly hard on and off the football pitch.
BL: It sounds like he truly leads by example, but what type of role does he tend to play in the dressing room? In other words, is he a vocal presence or more of a quiet observer?
AM: When he needs to say something, he’ll say something. Like I said he was well respected so everyone would listen to what he had to say and he earned that right by how well he had done for the team. But around the place he’s always smiling. He’s not the type to be loud with regard to banter, but he’s a good hearted person and has good energy.
BL: All good things. Thanks to his past successes in the Premier League, Ighalo is a household name for Man United supporters. After reading interviews on his transfer, though, it seems he goes by “Jude” to his friends and family. Which name did he prefer at Watford, and do you know the story behind that?
AM: (chuckles) Um, I mean, everyone just called him ‘Iggy’ when I was at Watford!
BL: Makes sense! He’s played against Man United multiple times with Watford in his career, and now he’ll be lining up for them. Has he ever spoken to you about United and growing up as a fan?
AM: No, we didn’t have that conversation. It’s not uncommon, though. We’re not too far in age difference and growing up Man United were definitely the dominant team, and as a kid especially in another country you’re only seeing the broadcasts of games from teams at the top, so it doesn’t surprise me that he grew up as a fan of United.
BL: We’ve touched on his mentality a bit, but Man United can be a different beast and they’re in a turbulent period at the moment. How does Ighalo respond to adversity on the field, be it going down a goal or after a defeat?
AM: He’s got all the tools to deal with it well. In the space of time I knew him he was all about the team, encouraging the boys and picking us up. Whether we went behind or lost a game, he always wanted the best for the team. I’m sure he’s got the character to handle whatever’s thrown at him and make the most of the opportunity he has
BL: Alright, last one from me! You travel to Old Trafford in a few weeks. As a defender and former teammate, what will it be like for you to line up against him?
AM: Going to Old Trafford is always a tough game. We’ll set up our game plan to go there and try to get a result but we know Iggy probably more than most and we’ve played against all their forwards numerous times so it’ll just be a case of being extra aware of his tricks and chops that he used very well for Watford. If he’s playing, I’m sure whoever is playing for us will be looking forward to the challenge!
BL: Great! Adrian, thank you so much for your time. Enjoy the rest of your break and good luck this season!
AM: Much appreciated, all the best!