A largely uneventful January transfer deadline day ended with one almighty twist, as Manchester United sealed a loan move for former Watford striker Odion Ighalo.
Plying his trade in the Chinese Super League with Shanghai Shenhua, lifelong United fan Ighalo emerged as the answer to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s striker shortage on Friday and agreed a six-month deal.
So, how did the Old Trafford side get here? And what can they and their supporters expect from the 30-year-old Nigeria forward?
How United turned to Ighalo
Solskjaer began his Manchester United rebuild last summer by offloading several players – including Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku who finished as the club’s top Premier League scorer in 2017-18 and was second to Paul Pogba last season.
That left United heavily reliant on 22-year-old Marcus Rashford and, though the England forward has impressed with 14 league goals, a stress fracture in his back is set to keep him out for at least six weeks.
Initially, the highly rated Erling Braut Haaland – a reported target of United – chose Borussia Dortmund as his next club despite Solskjaer, who managed the teenager at Molde, flying to Austria in November to speak with him.
Cue a last-gasp scramble for a striker.
By the final week of the January window, and with United otherwise engaged in their pursuit of Sporting Lisbon midfielder Bruno Fernandes, it appeared their options may run dry as Paris St-Germain’s Edinson Cavani was rumoured to be heading elsewhere.
With time ticking away and players such as Leicester City’s Islam Slimani and former Newcastle and West Brom forward Salomon Rondon linked, the Old Trafford club were unable to prise Norway forward Joshua King from Bournemouth in the early stages of deadline day, before news of talks with Ighalo emerged.
Rumoured interest from other Premier League clubs threatened to kick-start a tug-of-war – but Ighalo only wanted United.
“It stinks of panic, doesn’t it?” said Jermaine Jenas on BBC Radio 5 Live as news of a possible move for Ighalo broke. “It makes no sense to sell Lukaku and say he’s surplus to requirement and then be looking at these players. United have been criticised for a lack of direction and planning and this backs that up. You don’t feel they know what they want.”
On the links to King, Jenas added: “My hope is that King goes out there, scores goals and performs to a point that Manchester United cannot ignore him and he can get that dream move back because he is a serious talent. Hopefully that is where his head will be at.”
‘A fairytale move’ – the reaction
As expected, news of Manchester United turning to China for former Watford striker Ighalo received a mixed reaction.
BBC World Service’s John Bennett said the deal was a “fairytale move” for Ighalo, a Manchester United fan from Lagos whose family had been based in Manchester while he played for Watford.
“Back in 2015, after Watford’s promotion from the Championship, Ighalo told me where he was most looking forward to playing in his first Premier League season. No hesitation: ‘Old Trafford. It’ll be a dream come true to play against the team I supported in my youth.’ Little did he know what would happen five years later,” Bennett added.
Not all shared the same sentiment, with former Premier League midfielder Kevin Nolan telling 5 Live he could not understand the decision.
“Why haven’t they gone and got someone like Edinson Cavani? He didn’t want to stay [at PSG] until the end of the summer,” said Nolan.
“He wanted to get out of PSG. He is a Manchester United player. He is going to play every game, why are they going to Odion Ighalo? I don’t understand it.”
However, BBC Sport’s Simon Stone explained United felt they were “winners” following the conclusion of the deal and window, with Ighalo reportedly turning down a move to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham to join the Red Devils.
“With Ighalo, United understand that doesn’t fit their long-term vision and that wasn’t part of the plan, however they feel they are reacting to a short term situation which is leading goalscorer Rashford getting injured.
“They can’t go the rest of the season without getting a replacement and they would argue the options were not extensive. That’s why they’ve ended up in the position they’re in now and at the end of the season they will look at longer term targets.”
James Robson, Manchester United correspondent for the Evening Standard added: “United beat Mourinho to Ighalo, which might just be the difference in the race for the top four,” while James Ducker, Daily Telegraph reporter said: “Feeling at MUFC is that Ighalo, a necessary short-term option to alleviate injury situation. They’re not pretending for a minute to suggest this was part of a process but Jan deals v tough. Spurs – who also pursued Ighalo – and Chelsea haven’t been able to get a stop gap in.”
What are United getting?
It has been three years since Ighalo swapped the Premier League for China, departing England with a record of 39 goals in 99 matches for Watford from July 2014 to January 2017.
The Super Eagles frontman scored 16 goals and made four assists in 55 Premier League appearances for the Hornets, with 15 of those goals coming in 37 games in the 2016-17 season.
Impressively, his 29 league goals for Watford in 2015 was two more than any other player within the top four tiers of English football for that calendar year.
Since then, Ighalo scored five times to finish as the top scorer at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations – ahead of the likes of Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Mohamed Salah – having already topped the scoring charts in qualifying with a further seven goals.
He has scored 131 goals in 322 club games to date and, more recently, Ighalo struck 10 times in 19 games for Shanghai Shenhua this season before United came calling.
The inevitable question now is, can he produce the goods at Old Trafford?
Ighalo is expected to arrive in the UK from China in the next few days and will therefore not be ready for United’s game against Wolves on Saturday (17:30 GMT).
But with a 16-day winter break until their next game, Ighalo could be involved against in a key game in the race for the top four against Chelsea on 17 January.
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Article courtesy of BBC Sport