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The Curious Case of Odion Ighalo

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How did we get here? What now?

Manchester United put itself into a totally avoidable situation this past January when it made a last-minute loan move for Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo. Prior to the nighttime extraction of the Shanghai Shenhua forward on Jan. 31, United were linked with several other options, including former academy player Josh King, but, frankly, the striker cupboard was bare for teams in need of the most sought-after position in world football. Who could have foreseen this difficulty in a January transfer window?

How did we get here?

The prize of the winter was Erling Håland after the Norwegian striker lit up the UEFA Champions League group stage for RB Salzburg. I had previously written about United’s need to go after Håland early in the fall, and everyone else with eyeballs knew that the 19-year-old was not destined to spend another semester at the Austrian club. United found itself linked with Håland in the lead up to the winter window, as is custom for the club that tends to be linked with every player. It even appeared that United were in negotiations to sign the player who once played under Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Molde, but the alleged deal would soon be reported as off, and United admitted that Håland’s involvement with Mino Raiola nixed any possibility of a deal. This, of course, left United still sporting its bare-bones list of players up top while Håland signed with German giants Borussia Dortmund. Soon, Marcus Rashford would go down with a months-long injury and Håland would begin to set Bundesliga defenses ablaze.

Borussia Dortmund v 1. FC Koeln - Bundesliga Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Bongarts/Getty Images

The confluence of bad optics for Manchester United this winter was a self-inflicted wound. It was clear as the 2018-19 season wound down that Romelu Lukaku would not be a United player long after the conclusion of the campaign. Sure enough, United would sell the Belgian forward to Inter Milan while not replacing him with any other players, and the summer 2019 window closed with Solskjær forced to say that the trio of Rashford, Anthony Martial, and 18-year-old(!) Mason Greenwood could carry the load of four competitions. Solskjær knew that was a lie, we knew it was a lie, and, of course, the trio have all missed portions of the season because of injury, with Rashford’s casualty proving most costly.

For a club claiming that it is sticking to a plan to rebuild Manchester United, it seems like it is reacting more than thinking forward (puns). Say what you will about Lukaku’s performance for United and his fit in Solskjær’s system (I know you will in the comments below), he was at least an accomplished forward — please refer to his half-season at Inter Milan so far. It was good for United to recoup almost all their money back that they paid Everton for Lukaku, but not at the cost of setting up its young core of forwards for failure. For clarity, I will repeat again, it was best for United and Lukaku to part ways, however, United was not in a position to let go of Lukaku if they did not have a replacement ready to sign.

Now, the 2020 Premier League winter break has concluded. Rashford is likely to miss the majority of what remains of the 2019-20 campaign, and, frankly, he should sit out the rest of the season if he plans on playing for England in the Euros this summer. For our sakes, I hope Rashford gets all the R&R he needs so that he can hit the ground running at the start of the 2020-21 season — as it will be critical for his continued development into one of the best forwards in the world and for the rebuild because the team will need results next year.

Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - FA Cup Third Round: Replay Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

More pressing than worrying about the rehabilitation of Rashford is looking to the remaining three months of the season and the front line that will, in part, be led by Ighalo.

Ighalo’s signing is curious if only because he was a name that really came out of nowhere roughly a week before deadline day. The aforementioned King seemed like a real thing on the morning of deadline day, but, by the time I had written about it, the deal was off and United were back to scrambling. Islam Slimani — on loan at Monaco from Leicester City — was the name that cropped up alongside Ighalo’s, but United were looking for a temporary loan deal, and you have to assume Slimani was more than okay playing the next three months in southern France and not northern England.

So, as detailed in ESPN, the call was made to Ighalo’s agent, Atta Aneke in the afternoon (almost the middle of the night in China). Ighalo was quickly informed by Aneke of United’s interest, and the striker went to work to wake up the right people in Shanghai to get the transfer over the line. However, the Shanghai sporting director was already discussing Ighalo’s possible transfer to Tottenham Hotspur close to the stroke of midnight.

Aneke is quoted in the same ESPN article saying that Ighalo was rather content with his career in China, and needed the right offer to get him out of Shanghai. Ighalo — a self-proclaimed lifelong Manchester United fan — jumped into action to push all negotiations United’s way because it was the move. The clubs came to an agreement that saw Ighalo take a pay cut to play for his favorite club on a short-term loan until the end of the season, and United had another forward on the roster before another catastrophe could strike.

FBL-AFR-2019-MATCH42-NGA-CMR Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

What does this all mean?

Firstly, Solskjær was clear over the summer that he would bring in players that wanted to play for United and jettison those that did not. Ighalo has been adamant in interviews that United is the club that he always wanted to play for, and pictures have surfaced, since his transfer, of him wearing a United shirt when he was younger. Now, Ighalo has the chance that he’s dreamed of for years, and you would like to think that — with only four months before the loan is terminated — he will want to go all out to earn some level of cult-legend status.

Another enticing point of the loan move is that it is a relatively low-cost and low-risk move for United. With Ighalo taking a pay cut and only playing through the end of the season, his presence should not disrupt the dressing room in a way that Alexis Sánchez’s January 2018 move did. Ultimately, Ighalo’s inclusion in the squad will not significantly disrupt The Plan that United claims to have in place. Almost as quick as he arrived, he’ll be gone, and the club can get back to building team Brexit.

Speaking of The Plan, this is also the perfect time to insert the required paragraph about Woodward’s ineptitude and how a proper director of football needs to be appointed to see out the the vision currently being sold by the board and Solskjær. As outlined in the history lesson, United failed to have a solution for a problem they were causing themselves, and, by doing so, put other players that fit in the long-term plans at risk of significant injury because there were not enough bodies to carry the load of four competitions over a nine-month season.

Manchester City v Manchester United - Carabao Cup: Semi Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Waiting until the last day in January, especially for United, gave ammo to the pundits looking for another reason to chastise the Reds for their self-inflicted desperation. Outside of Håland, the most high-profile forward to move this past winter was Krzysztof Piatek, who switched from AC Milan to Hertha Berlin. After Piatek, the big names swirling around the clubs in need of a forward were Ighalo, Slimani, King, Fernando Llorente and Olivier Giroud — not exactly a list of future Ballon d’Or winners or even short-term double-digit goal scorers. However, this didn’t stop comments like, “How could a club the size of Man United, sign a player like Ighalo?” Even more frustrating, it would be mentioned in the same breath that other forward-needy teams, “didn’t have any options in the transfer market to bring on board.”

So, what’s the deal? Should we chastise United for bringing in an emergency transfer? Or should we pity the rest of the teams that did not make an effort because of slim pickings? I can promise you, The Busby Babe staff bandwidth would have melted the SBNation servers if Ighalo was signed to a deal longer than 12-18 months; but that did not happen. Therefore, let’s not overreact in either direction over Ighalo’s signing. He is an experienced player playing in a position of need, but he has not played in the Premier League in over three years, so, frankly, his impact is difficult to predict. Given that, dismissive critiques tinged with contempt are obnoxious and premature.

What’s possible over the next couple of months?

In the minutes that Ighalo is on the pitch for United — either significant or insignificant — you can expect a strong center forward that makes clever runs and will shoot every chance he has in the box. TBB’s own Ben Lorry discussed Ighalo with the forward’s former Watford teammate, Adrian Mariappa. Mariappa was effusive when discussing the impact Ighalo can make on the pitch.

“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.

“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.”

Watford v Norwich City - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Backing up Mariappa’s assertions is YouTube’s Statman Dave. The United superfan and go-to stat guy outlined Ighalo’s strength against defenders and his ability to make intelligent runs. If Ighalo fits the bill, he will quickly become best friends with other newcomer, Bruno Fernandes. Furthermore, Ighalo taking over responsibilities in the center of the attack will allow Martial to return to the left side. Martial began the season wanting to play centrally, but, in recent weeks, the Frenchman has found himself playing wider to the left to take advantage of his ability to cut inside from the wing. Ighalo’s strength in hold up play could reopen opportunities for Martial to create chances with one-two passing similar to how he likes to combine with Rashford.

Another possibility during Ighalo’s tenure at United is the Nigerian could play the role of mentor to Greenwood. Like when Ibrahimović was in the dressing room to provide wisdom to a 19-year-old Rashford, Ighalo’s 15 years of first team football and playing the role of fox-in-the-box will prove valuable to the recent first-team graduate. Since Martial and Rashford are more converted wingers than true center forwards, Greenwood has not yet had a veteran presence to learn behind — especially since he was mostly featuring for the academy when Lukaku was still playing meaningful minutes for United.

Mariappa detailed Ighalo’s leadership style in the same interview, and based on his comments, Ighalo’s temperament should mesh with Solskjær’s on and off the pitch.

“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.”

Another positive voice in the dressing room could prove dividends after the hellacious first two-thirds of the season. Following the exit of the club’s captain, Ashley Young, and relative newcomer Harry Maguire taking on the armband, United should benefit from Ighalo’s inclusion.

Ultimately, the possible benefits of Ighalo’s signing are in plain sight. Granted, he can also fall short of these lofty possibilities. No matter what the outcome, this is the current reality for Manchester United.

In closing, be excited about Ighalo if you want. Be indifferent about Ighalo if you want. But, I urge you, the pitchfork-wielding mob, do not hoist up Ighalo as the poster child for the board’s mistakes. He wants to be here, unlike a lot of others. So, rally around Ighalo, let him fulfill and enjoy his dream of playing for United — if only for a moment — and, maybe, he might just deliver a miracle or two in the Theatre of Dreams.