On-loan striker Ighalo has four goals in eight appearances for Man Utd
Thursday 26 March 2020 06:06, UK
From the butt of Deadline Day jokes to banging in the goals, Odion Ighalo has silenced the critics and shown Manchester United exactly what they have been missing. Following reports Ighalo's loan move could be extended, Jack Wilkinson makes the case for the Nigerian's long-term stay at Old Trafford.
When Ighalo joined Manchester United on the final day of the January transfer window social media was awash with disparaging comments, aimed at both the club and their latest recruit. A sign of the times, perhaps, but on this occasion, there appeared to be reason behind the unrest.
Bruno Fernandes' big-money arrival in Manchester the previous day elevated expectations to such a level that the signing of a striker - offloaded by Watford in 2017 - from the Chinese Super League left an understandable sense of anti-climax.
Critics jumped at the chance to highlight the perceived desperation behind another questionable piece of transfer business after United had, not for the first time, failed to move swiftly and decisively in the transfer market to secure more notable targets.
But as the jokes circulated on Twitter, Ighalo quietly went about fulfilling his boyhood dream to play for Manchester United - and in the space of six short weeks, there was only one person laughing.
Ighalo's impact has been both instant and impressive.
Before a ball had even been kicked, the 30-year-old's infectious application drew admiration from his team-mates and manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who knew at the very least he'd made a valuable addition to his squad.
"The best thing about him is his personality," the United boss remarked. And when the time eventually came for Ighalo on the pitch, he proved he had the aptitude to match his first-class attitude.
Just as he looked to have really settled into his groove, the coronavirus outbreak limited Ighalo to just eight United appearances, but in that handful of games he more than left his mark.
Premier League minutes - and, for that matter, goals - have proven tough to come by for Ighalo, but the half-an-hour he has got under his belt has proven to be eventful.
Having nearly marked his top-flight debut for United with a goal, seconds after coming on in their 2-0 victory at Chelsea on February 17, Ighalo's superb hold-up play and back heel laid the foundation for the attack which led to Scott McTominay's strike in the Manchester derby.
But it is in the cup competitions where Ighalo has really come to the fore.
The striker has scored four goals in three starts, the latest of which came in emphatic fashion as he rifled United into the lead against LASK in the last 16 of the Europa League, hours before football was suspended. It was a strike that left Solskjaer purring.
"He had three touches before his fourth was the finish," the United boss said. "All those touches were high quality, but he had to make them to create space for himself. The strike is on the half-volley, great timing, no one would have saved that one so anyone would have been proud of that finish.
"Odion knows his job and what his role in the team is, and he's very good with his back to goal, a great link player. He's got the whole lot really."
All great strikers are judged first and foremost on their goal return, but Ighalo brings so much more to the table - Ighalo brings something different.
In his 31 minutes of Premier League football for United, the Nigerian has not only demonstrated he knows his role in Solskjaer's squad but shown how much he relishes it, offering a presence, a focal point up top that occupies opposition defenders and brings others into play.
It's something United have yearned for since Romelu Lukaku's departure, and you could even argue has not been fully addressed since Zlatan Ibrahimovic's time at Old Trafford.
What's more, Ighalo's selfless leading of the line could crucially unshackle Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford from duties at the spearhead of the attack the pair have seldom been able to fulfil with a level of consistency Solskjaer is searching for.
In his short Premier League career with the club, Ighalo averages nine more touches in the opposition box across 90 minutes than United's two main striking options, figures which of course are caveated by the fact he's played a mere 30 top-flight minutes, but credible figures, nonetheless.
Be it by chance, panic or desperation, United have a striker in their ranks that has the proven attributes to meet their attacking needs. More importantly, unlike a host of more illustrious players signed before him, Ighalo is relishing every minute of his unlikely Old Trafford journey.
Nothing is guaranteed in football but to let such an enthusiastic recruit slip through their fingers would appear to be unwise, let alone unfair on a player who is fulfilling his dream.
Thankfully for Ighalo, it would appear Solskjaer has no intention of letting him go. Sky Sports News understands his loan will be extended beyond its current May 31 expiry to June 30 in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but the United boss has hinted at prolonging his stay into next season.
"Odion has done really well since he came in and he's enjoying himself. He will improve and get better," Solskjaer said. "He has qualities we saw in him and qualities we needed, and we will still need those qualities for next season, so let's see what we will do."
With Shanghai Shenhua keen to reacquire his services, United need to secure his future fast, because who knows what Ighalo could go on to achieve if he continues on the same trajectory.
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Sky Sports News reporter James Cooper:
There's no doubting Ighalo has made an excellent impression on Manchester United since joining in the last moments of the January transfer window.
After a bright start that has seen him hit four goals in his last five appearances, United are certainly looking at the options available to them and aren't ruling out extending his time at Old Trafford.
For those who questioned bringing in a 30-year-old playing in China, what many couldn't have appreciated is Ighalo's desire, his love of Manchester United, and his adeptness at finding the back of the net.
His two goals against Derby, while not against top-line defenders, demonstrated his ability to convert opportunities that, perhaps, his fellow strikers at the club would have spurned.
Solskjaer wants his primary hitmen, Rashford and Martial, to get themselves into positions and situations to score even more goals. He wants to hone their instincts and anticipation in and around the six-yard box.
Ighalo does these things naturally and while he might not be as feted as the likes of Henrik Larsson or Ibrahimovic, like them, he's delivered the goods so far and proved to be a shrewd bit of business.