Words by Solace Chukwu
In many ways, Odion Ighalo’s career trajectory is somewhat unconventional. It is the norm that a young player, marked for greatness, explodes onto the public consciousness at a cadet competition, and from there moves on to bigger things.
For Ighalo, it was the opposite. His promise was evident enough to see him move to Udinese at an early age, but presented with the chance to shine as the spearhead of a talented Nigeria side at the U20 World Cup in 2009, he was truly abject.
What has changed in the six years since? Well, everything. Now 26, the gangly, wasteful, slightly clumsy youngster in Egypt has grown into one of the finest penalty-box strikers in the world’s biggest league.
Against the backdrop of his previous goal returns, 2015 seems almost freakish. Perhaps his major challenge going forward will be to prove that his 30 goals in the calendar year, spanning the Championship and Premier League, is repeatable. Ighalo possesses very particular strengths, and a lack of real variation to his play means he will probably become easier for defenders to figure out in the long run.
The merits far outstrip the limitations though.
His lightning reactions close to goal make him a handful for opposition defenders; he seems to snap into a Zen-like state of glazed focus inside the penalty box. He also possesses great upper body strength, making him hard to budge once he gets goal-side of his marker. He could use this to greater effect battling in the air—he posts weaker numbers in this area than his half-strike partner Troy Deeney, who is the smaller of the pair. As a pairing though, they work devastatingly well together.
Impressively, he has shown his adaptability from one season to the next, going from Slavisa Jokanovic’s attacking style to the more rigid, structured system of Quique Sanchez Flores. It is this quality, more than any footballing one, that has been called into question the most with the Nigeria national team.
Since making his debut in March, he has netted twice for the Super Eagles, but already there have been a few eyebrows raised as to whether he is pliable enough to produce on home turf. It is a common dichotomy: far from the support structures that make them shine in Europe, players often struggle to impose themselves while on international duty.
In any case, it seems only a matter of time before he settles in and produces his best for the Super Eagles. He has plenty of time, and if Ighalo has proved anything with his phenomenal play in 2015, it’s that it is never too late to make an entrance.
Highlight of the Year: Brace against Liverpool in December
While his debut season has been stellar, there had lingered the suspicion that Ighalo was a bit of a flat-track bully. As such, his statement display against the Reds, one of English football’s traditional powerhouses, was the perfect way to silence the critics and naysayers.