Turns out Solskjaer can use a flat track bully after all
"Old Trafford, Concourse and East Stand" by David Dixon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
For those who remain fervently #LUHG and by extension #OleOut, one of two things will happen in this afternoon’s Manchester Derby, guaranteed. Either Manchester United will scratch out a result to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ‘extreme good fortune’ or City will come away from Old Trafford with all three points, confirming the Norwegian’s utter incompetence as a manager. While acknowledging that no-win situation, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to label Solskjaer as clueless without looking the fool yourself. Odion Ighalo’s surprising contribution to the Red Devils’ cause presents the latest evidence suggesting the much-maligned boss might just know what he’s doing.
Everyone and their auntie questioned the move for the Nigerian, including yours truly. On its face, it contradicted everything the manager previously said while simultaneously raising doubt regarding his integrity and values, not to mention the club's standards and ambition.
If you didn't hear the scuttlebutt, Ighalo’s agent happens to be Solskjaer’s close friend, Jim Solbakken. The pair did frequent business while the Baby-faced Assassin held sway at Molde. Until this transfer window, however, they’d brokered no transactions during Ole’s Old Trafford tenure and just as well. Another Solbakken client is on the lamb from Norway, accused of multiple rapes. While the agent claims he cut ties with the player, he apparently did so rather late in the story and possibly assisted his client in evading justice. More importantly to Solskjaer's detractors, the United manager continued to use the player while charges were pending, going so far as to make him captain. Ighalo has absolutely nothing to do with that sordid saga but Ole signing another of his best mate’s clients only served to draw the Red Devils boss deeper into the controversy even as he tried to distance himself.
Add coronavirus fears to the intrigue, not to mention Solskjaer’s verdict on Romelu Lukaku, and you’d expect a club like United to leave a well-travelled target man with comparatively average skills on the other side of the world where he cannot, by his mere presence, pull United deeper into scandal. Yet, despite Solskjaer labelling Lukaku’s sale as a strictly philosophical decision, his skill set superb, just not suited to the manager’s system, the supposedly like-for-like Ighalo is now and, given recent heroics, possibly forever a Manchester United player.
But is the Nigerian that similar to the hulking Belgian? There’s no denying both trade on physicality. Yet, closer examination reveals significant differences.
In Lukaku’s favour, he also used his considerable pace and mobility to find goals. Ighalo is sedentary. In the former Watford star's favour, his tendency to stay put offers United options his more gifted predecessor couldn’t provide. Following the new man's brace in United’s FA Cup victory over Derby County, Rio Ferdinand detailed those options [skip to 8.43].
Noting both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford’s range as centre-forwards frequently takes them out to the touchline, a nomadic trait Lukaku shares, Rio praised Ighalo’s ability to occupy two centre-halves while providing United’s midfielders and aggressive defenders a focal point in attack. When they take possession in the middle of the park or bring the ball into enemy territory, the likes of Fred, Scott McTominay and Luke Shaw know where to find Ighalo. He rarely sets up outside the goalposts. Ferdinand showed replays in which the trio repeatedly delivered the ball directly to the 30-year-old’s feet.
It shouldn't go unnoticed that Shaw and Juan Mata provided the assists for Ighalo's goals, not Bruno. While the Portuguese's vision allows him to be more adventurous with his passing, Ighalo's reliable positioning allows the other midfielders to find him quickly and move the ball into a dangerous area much sooner. Faster tempo exerts pressure on defenders. Greater pressure induces errors and errors lead to goals.
In his time, Lukaku often drifted to the right or left, hoping to draw defenders out of position. Mostly, he drew the fullback inside, adding further congestion to the box and leaving himself with more difficult shooting angles when turning to the outside. He tried to go around defenders, not through them.
When teammates look for Ighalo, one of two things happen. The centre-forward either holds the ball before feeding overlapping runs from Bruno Fernandes, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira or he muscles his way through defenders directly towards goal, providing himself better shooting angles than Lukaku while forcing the keeper to guess which way he'll go.
When Jose Mourinho asked Lukaku to hold up play, his first touch typically proved far too heavy for the task. In fairness, Big Rom was expected to control long clearances from deep in United's defensive third whereas Solskjaer’s rearguard plays out from the back through short, easily controlled passes. Ighalo rarely needs to engage in aerial battles or even chest down the ball. While he displays those skills when necessary, service arrives more often than not at his feet. When it does, he lays off better than Lukaku and turns with closer control.
Finally, the two forwards couldn't be more different in their personalities. The Belgian’s attitude raised questions long before he arrived at Old Trafford. The time he shushed Everton teammate and captain Ashley Williams for shouting at him to bring teammates into play during a match in 2017 comes to mind. When he left United, rumours of similar behind-the-scenes petulance emerged. Another outburst wouldn’t shock when [not if] he hits a rough patch at the Giuseppe Meazza.
United needn’t fear any friction from their new striker. Broadcasters love to retell the story of the boyhood United fan taking an Old Trafford tour while on Watford’s books. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else and, rated at less than a twelfth of Lukaku’s valuation [£5.85 million:£76.5 million per Transfermarkt], he fits the role more economically. Given his basic skill-set, every goal will be appreciated whereas more was always demanded of Lukaku. Constant pressure and criticism can affect an ambitious player's attitude. Unconditional love can lift a humble footballer to new heights.
In those matches when United can’t finesse a low block, Ighalo’s strength presents a viable alternative. Unreservedly a Plan B with little hope for starting regularly, he remains thrilled to be in the squad. Solskjaer risked his reputation and integrity by signing the player but, like his other moves in the market, it paid immediate dividends. Ighalo isn't nearly as talented as Romelu Lukaku but he is more effective within Solskjaer's system. Go figure.
The 30-year-old's contract with Shanghai Shenhua enters its final year in June. If his form continues through season’s end, Manchester United ought to make a summer offer he surely won’t refuse.