There are players whose roles and positions seem to be crunchers. Either due to their dynamism or lack of required skill sets. Odion Ighalo falls in neither of these categories. As a player, especially these days, what he offers are clear as daylight.
The Nigerian is a penalty box striker who thrives with his runs behind the backline where he can get on passes from teammates. With individual successes in the Premier League with Watford, in China with Changchun Yatai and with the Super Eagles of Nigeria at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), Ighalo’s abilities are well known to people who have watched him all through his career.
But when Manchester United signed him on loan on deadline day, fans of the Premier League giants were not enthusiastic. In truth, United are currently far from the dizzy heights of the Alex Ferguson years and fans didn’t believe that a 30-year-old striker who plays in China was going to spark the revival the club needed. That assessment is still spot on. To make peace with the signing, Manchester United fans have had to take Ighalo as a stop-gap signing that he was meant to be.
But eight games in, three starts and four goals, Ighalo has performed above expectations at Manchester United. He hasn’t been great but the pessimism that greeted his signing has given way for admiration.
Three starts, four goals
The 30-year-old has had to be eased into action especially in the Premier League where he is yet to start a game.
It’s in the FA Cup and Europa League that the Nigerian striker has shone, scoring a goal against Club Brugge, a brace against Derby County and another goal against LASK.
With his goals, Ighalo has shown Manchester United what they have been missing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season. A penalty box striker who is always available upfront.
All of Ighalo’s goals for Manchester United so far have come from inside the box, a testament to his prowess in that area.
It has not just been about his goals. Even with the little minutes he has seen in Premier League games, Ighalo has shown another of his strengths. Technically, Ighalo has always been underrated. He is good with the ball on his feet and also has the strength with which he holds off defenders to play others in and create space for himself.
He showed this against Chelsea and Manchester City. Against City, he was torn in the flesh for Fernandinho and co and it was his superb hold-up play and back heel that laid the foundation for the attack which led to United’s second goal to seal the game.
His impact has not just been on the pitch. Off it, Ighalo has drawn admiration from everyone at the club, from coaches to players with his hard work and infectious application.
"The best thing about him is his personality," Solskjaer once said about the Nigerian striker.
As a boyhood Manchester United fan, Ighalo’s effusiveness about playing for the Red Devils have also endeared him to the fans.
No clutch moments
But amidst these glowing reports, he so far still falls short in one area that has always troubled him in his career.
Ighalo is not a clutch player. From his days with the Super Eagles, Watford etc, Ighalo has always failed to deliver when it matters most.
At Manchester United, this weakness has reared its ugly head again. With Manchester United already 2-0 up against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a Premier League game in mid-February, Ighalo came on for his debut.
Although the game was already won by the time Ighalo had a chance to score in added times, the Nigerian only had Willy Caballero to beat but could only poke straight at the Chelsea goalkeeper. It wouldn’t have been an important goal for Manchester United, but for Ighalo, a debut goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge would have been a moment. He missed it.
Ighalo came off from the bench again a couple of weeks later at Goodison Park against Everton with the game at 1-1 and Manchester United needing a goal to grab three points which would have been huge in their race for a Champions League finish. In the 90th minute, Ighalo had the chance to score a winner for United after the ball fell to him in the box but Jordan Pickford dived brilliantly to stop the Nigerian.
In truth, Ighalo was denied by a fantastic save, but he again missed a clutch moment.
This, however, takes nothing away from what he has done so far at Manchester United. It might not be that much for many, but Solskjaer has been very impressed and believes Ighalo has the qualities that Manchester United need next season.
Solskjaer’s admiration for Ighalo has sparked reports that the ex-Super Eagles striker will be offered a permanent contract. Whether he has done enough for that or not, Ighalo has proven that he deserves the chance he has gotten.