Waiting until the final moments of the window to loan in a 30-year-old striker who’s spent the last three years in the Chinese Super League is pretty unedifying for a club of United’s ilk. Or any side masquerading as the biggest in world football.
But after giving up on Mario Mandžukić and Thomas Müller in the autumn and failing with a high-profile move for Erling Håland, United were onto short-term options thanks to the stress fracture in Marcus Rashford‘s back.
The names came thick and fast. Some seemed realistic, and of a standing appropriate for a Manchester United striker – like Edinson Cavani. Others less so, like Salomón Rondón, the former Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion target man.
And then there were the purely fanciful names. There were plenty of those, including the now-35-year-old Carlos Tévez, a United favourite until his defection to Manchester City in 2009. It’s hard to imagine many supporters being thrilled at the prospect of the Argentine returning at Old Trafford following his controversial cross-city switch more than a decade prior.
Of all those names linked, and The Athletic count a whopping 113 in all positions, Ighalo belonged at the more far-fetched end of the fanciful collection. Yet, 38 minutes before Friday’s 11pm deadline, Ighalo signed on loan from Shanghai Shenhua.
In more ways than one, it was a quite remarkable move. Prior to the January window opening, Ighalo had tentatively been linked with a return to Watford, for whom he scored 39 times in 99 appearances between 2014 and 2017. But that talk went cold as soon as Quique Sánchez Flores, his coach for the 2015/16 campaign, was sacked.
Twelve months prior, the Nigerian striker claimed he turned down a short-term loan switch to Barcelona as they sought striking cover for Lionel Messi. But the 30-year-old couldn’t reject the overtures of his boyhood club – something United were keen to play up when they announce his shock Old Trafford switch.
A return to the Premier League has never been out of the question for Ighalo. He has a very active agent which makes it hard to separate fact from fiction. The idea of him rubbing shoulders with Messi, Luis Suárez and co. seemed, frankly, ridiculous. That was until January 31, when something every bit as far-fetched happened.
Yet among all the cynicism, there is a case to be made that this could actually be a good piece of business – or at least not a really bad one – for the Red Devils. Former keeper Mark Bosnich has gone too far in his claim Ighalo could be 2020’s Eric Cantona but, if you suspend your disbelief, the deal makes some sense.
United need a centre-forward until the end of the season to help Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood through until Rashford returns from his injury lay-off. That much is obvious. On that basis, signing someone permanently would create a problem further down the line.
A deadline-day bid for Joshua King was turned down by Bournemouth. Had the Norwegian returned to Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjær would have had too many forwards ahead of next season. Given Greenwood’s prodigious talent, blocking his pathway with a 28-year-old would have been short-sighted.
Ighalo will come, play the games Solskjær doesn’t want to risk Martial and Greenwood in, offer an option off the bench and do it all with minimal fuss. Because he is so clearly not a Manchester United player and so vocally a fan of the club, he will do it all with good grace, too.
Secondly, his goal record in the Premier League is rather good for someone who has only played in a promoted team previously. Partnered alongside Troy Deeney, Ighalo netted 15 times in 37 appearances in 2015/16 against an xG of 15.58, in other words, he scored as many goals as the chances he had were worth.
Whilst Manchester United have struggled to create chances this season – their overall open-play xG of 32.48 only ranks eighth in the Premier League – the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, who supplied 29 assists for Sporting in the last three seasons, could go a long way to solving that issue. If the Portuguese has the desired effect, a finisher like Ighalo should thrive.
While he is nominally a poacher, the player who gets on the end of chances, he is surprisingly strong and robust. He uses his body well and his hold-up and link-up play makes him a much more rounded player than he is given credit for.
Witness his opener in Watford’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in December 2015, holding off and then outmuscling Martin Škrtl before lashing home. Or the way he used his body to fend off Eric Dier before spinning and poking past Hugo Lloris in a narrow reverse against Tottenham Hotspur.
There is no doubt Ighalo joining Manchester United is a damning indictment of where the Red Devils are at this point in their history, not the mention their haphazard recruitment. But it’s not impossible that they could have pulled off a shrewd signing – albeit by accident.