Odion Ighalo’s impact at Manchester United since arriving on loan on the final day of the transfer window has been a surprise to many, but not the coaches who trained him when he first arrived in England.
The club’s decision to bring the Nigerian over from Shanghai Shenhua was widely criticised, but he has already shown in his eight appearances for the club that it was a deft transfer, with his success partly down to the 30-year-old’s commitment and drive.
As a precaution over coronavirus fears the forward did not meet up with his team-mates for two weeks having arrived in the United Kingdom and instead worked with former Manchester City coach-turned-trainer Wayne Richardson at the GB Taekwondo centre, which is located next to City’s sprawling Etihad Campus.
The striker worked on his fitness and strength and conditioning, on weight sessions and ball work, but it was not just his physical attributes that impressed coaches.
“From the moment he stepped through the door I knew he was a different breed. I see a lot of players who come in with an agenda of what they want but he knew exactly what his targets were going to be and where he wanted to be,” Richardson told Goal.
“I had regular contact with United because they wanted to know what he was doing. I sent them GPS trackings, analysis reports and they were surprised with the level Ighalo was at. Without those two weeks I don’t think he would have been in contention for the games that he has already played in.”
The ex-Watford forward was two weeks into pre-season training in China when his move was confirmed and the additional two weeks with Richardson Sport, while his new team-mates spent a week at a warm-weather training camp in Marbella, allowed him to be in contention for the Premier League game against Chelsea on February.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave him his debut off the bench at Stamford Bridge and a minute later he was unlucky not to get himself on the scoresheet. Since then there have been seven appearances, three starts and four goals for the former Nigeria international and he has given the team an option they didn’t previously have.
One move in particular that impressed fans was Ighalo’s hold-up play when he was brought on in the dying minutes of the Manchester derby win against City. As he wrestled with Joao Cancelo on the halfway line he held the ball up perfectly before back heeling it into Fred’s path in the build-up to Scott McTominay’s screamer that ensured United left with all three points.
And that specific pattern of play was exactly what Ighalo had been focussing on in his personal sessions.
“He is a different option to what Solskjaer currently has at the club. When he arrived we spoke about how he was going to be playing a lot with his back to goal. We knew that’s what his role would be so we went through scenarios,” Richardson said.
“I brought in a non-league footballer who roughed him up a bit. Grabbed hold of him. He had to hold the ball and put his foot on it and you can see how that paid off when he came on against City, it’s things like this we worked on.”
Ighalo, as well as the other players, has been working hard away from the club’s training base with the Carrington facility currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and he has been posting regular updates on his progress on his social media channels.
He now finds himself in a unique position with his loan deal due to expire before the end of the season. The forward’s contract ends on May 31, which would have been enough to see him past the end of a potential Europa League final, but the delay in action for the foreseeable future means the season will run past that date, if it even finishes at all.