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Manchester United may rue letting Haaland slip through the net… Ighalo shows their current status

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Odion Ighalo for Manchester United makes perfect sense only if viewed from a very narrow perspective. 

With Marcus Rashford injured, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs goals back-up for Anthony Martial, who probably will never wholly convince as the go-to centre forward. A top-four finish is still eminently in play. 

And the Shanghai Shenhua striker always looked due to step up from Watford after his 40 goals in 100 games. When his time to move came, China was a logical upgrade financially. If he scores five goals, it will have been a risk worth taking.

The signing of striker Odion Ighalo as a stop gap makes financial sense to Manchester United

The signing of striker Odion Ighalo as a stop gap makes financial sense to Manchester United

It’s a short-term loan, with (in football’s parlance) relatively low wages and no commitment to buy. Given that executive chairman Ed Woodward has made so much great play of his cultural rebuild and the fact that the club will no longer be taken for a ride in the transfer market, this, as a stop gap, makes so much more sense than other options. 

Losing Romelu Lukaku, 26, in the summer and signing Edinson Cavani, 32, on a two-and-a-half year contract on £300,000 a week would have been the really stupid move of a January window.

That would have pleased more fans on social media, however: Cavani is the kind of player United sign; Igahlo not. Yet that ignores United’s current status. The Europa League wannabees are not a major draw in Europe. They don’t have a super coach who can entice players with his sheer charisma. And they don’t offer the prospect of trophies. The only thing attractive about them is the wages they pay. 

Igahlo was the only kind of option as United seek to reboot the process and the budget

Igahlo was the only kind of option as United seek to reboot the process and the budget 

And United have been down that route: Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Radamel Falcao were signings comparable to Cavani. United realised too late that recruitment is much more nuanced than assembling a fantasy team of star names with an A-list coach.

If they were to remain true to what they have preached since the summer – essentially that the club will take the short-term pain of a weakened squad in order to reboot the process and the budget – then Igahlo was the only kind of option. 

Allowing Sanchez, Ander Herrera and Lukaku to go in the summer were part of a pruning process. That implies a degree of pain. Gary Neville said at the time that their departures left the club weaker in the short term but were correct decisions for the long term. If that seemed true in August, it remains true in February.

Yet the failure of United’s winter transfer window – notwithstanding the promising arrival of Bruno Fernandes – was evident in Dortmund on Saturday where Erling Haaland was playing. 

Manchester United weren't willing to pay the agent fees for wonderkid Erling Braut Haaland

Manchester United weren’t willing to pay the agent fees for wonderkid Erling Braut Haaland

He has already scored seven goals in three games for Borussia Dortmund and is exactly the kind of wunderkind United promised to snap up in their revamped recruitment structure, which had started promisingly this summer in securing Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. 

Had they succeeded, how much more bright would the future seem at Old Trafford? Despite Rashford’s injury and the current form, they could anticipate the second half of the season with the most-wanted striker in Europe, a teenager with something of the reputation of Wayne Rooney in 2004.

Yet they failed. Where blame lies is a moot point. Usually it’s mostly about the money and Dortmund were prepared to structure the deal to fit the terms of agent Mino Raiola; United weren’t. Maybe they were overcorrecting for mistakes of the past. The commission paid to Raiola to get Paul Pogba – reported to be £41m – must sting, given that the midfielder will now almost certainly leave in the summer after an inglorious United career.

Yet United are no longer the team kids dream of playing for, even if Ighalo, somewhat predictably, is said to have been a United fan as a youth and turned down other Premier League clubs to be at Old Trafford. They are currently a development club, ranking alongside Borussia Dortmund. They are unlikely to get the likes of Timo Werner in the summer, currently tearing up the Bundesliga at RB Leipzig. They’ll need someone less obvious than him. But as good.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not a super coach who can entice players with his sheer charisma

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not a super coach who can entice players with his sheer charisma

United’s recruitment team is Jim Lawlor, who was Sir Alex Ferguson’s chief scout, Marcel Bout, who came in with Louis van Gaal, Mick Court, the former Loughborough University don and Watford analyst and Solskjaer. Matt Judge is charged with getting the deals over the line.

In Haaland, they suffered a huge setback. Yet their real test comes this summer. They need to pluck a centre forward who is willing to gamble on a move to United and proves to be phenomenon. They could also do with convincing a world-class left back to join.

In reality, they are where Liverpool were nine years ago when a controversial Uruguayan with a penchant for biting joined them from Ajax. They have to take some risks because the proven talent is looking elsewhere. It’s not impossible to turn a club around. But they will need a few signings like Luis Suarez to do so. 

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