When Manchester United signed Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo on the last day of the January transfer window, critics not only condemned the club for the signing but mocked the player. However, with just two months in the club, he is fast turning to fans favourite
Manchester United made perhaps the most unexpected signing of the January transfer window when Odion Ighalo arrived on loan from Shanghai Shenhua. The Nigerian international striker, who scored 39 goals in 99 matches for Watford between 2014 and 2017, was recruited to strengthen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s attacking options which, in Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Daniel James and Jesse Lingard already represented a significant strength.
If he was expected to remain peripheral, he has already made a promising start, and to the extent that suggestions are already growing that his loan move could be made permanent. “Odion has done really well when he’s come in and he’s enjoying himself,” United manager said.
“He will improve and get better, but he has qualities that we saw in him that we needed and we’ll still need those qualities for next season so let’s see what we do. He is very good back to goal; you can play up to him. He is a great link player.”
On the occasions he has played, Ighalo has featured as the central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. In United’s highest-profile fixtures Solskjaer favours a 5-3-2 while out of possession and a 3-4-1-2 with it, and the striker has therefore then played fewer minutes.
When featuring as their lone striker Ighalo receives possession to feet and makes runs in behind. When the ball is in central areas or half-spaces, and there is pressure on his in-possession teammates, he attempts to position himself for passes into his feet; if there is no pressure on the ball carrier, he will instead offer movements in behind.
He offers intelligent movements away from defenders. When possession advances beyond midfield he takes a diagonal step away from it before pulling on to the blindside of the furthest central defender when two are positioned closely together, or the nearest one when there is a significant space between them.
When teammates play possession into central areas, Ighalo makes short, sharp movements in an attempt to deceive defenders who prefer to simultaneously monitor both the attacker and the ball. If he is behind possession he will then prioritise moving into the penalty area at a late stage, to position himself for rebounds or cutbacks, as was demonstrated when he scored his second goal against Derby County in the FA Cup.
If one of Ighalo’s strengths is his ability to protect possession and then bring others into play, he does so by backing into opponents to control long, direct passes, instead of pursuing flick-ons. He is deceptively strong and, once the ball is under control, able to hold off defenders, often by using his arm to keep his opponents at the necessary distance before locating a teammate to link with.
It is those qualities that make him so suitable in the latter stages of fixtures when Solskjaer’s priority is to protect a lead. He retains possession in advanced territory, drawing fouls, and effectively undermining an opponent’s attempts to build an attacking threat, as was demonstrated in United’s recent, impressive victories over Chelsea, and Manchester City.
When his team is without possession Ighalo is capable of offering a significant amount of energy, often through pressuring opposing goalkeepers and defenders and in the recovery runs he makes, or when pursuing the ball after losses of possession. If that encourages intensity from his teammates and can lead to mistakes from opponents, he regardless needs to show a greater awareness of the spaces he vacates.
Ighalo arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Bruno Fernandes, who has made an even more impressive start to his time at the club and has swiftly developed a fine understanding with his new teammates. The Portuguese has largely operated as a central attacking midfielder, often with two attackers – most commonly Martial and James – ahead of him and attempting to run in behind. Ighalo’s movements towards the ball invite Fernandes to advance into the spaces he vacates, offering United a further dimension that their attacks had previously lacked.
Though recruited to offer their squad greater depth, his performances so far suggest he could remain valuable to Solskjaer. When Rashford is again fit he is expected to play less, but he remains capable of deputising for Martial in United’s 4-2-3-1, when Rashford plays towards the left and James remains on the right. In both United’s 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-1-2 Ighalo offers Solskjaer a different option to that he has lacked, largely since Romelu Lukaku’s departure to Inter Milan. If a higher-profile attacker is recruited in the coming months Ighalo is unlikely to be signed permanently, but he has regardless proved he remains capable of performing in the Premier League.