Odion Ighalo seals deal to keep him at Manchester United until January 2021

Mike McGrath
Odion Ighalo - Odion Ighalo seals deal to keep him at Manchester United until January 2021 - PA

Odion Ighalo sealed his loan extension at Manchester United on Monday, four months after sneaking around hiring leisure centres for personal training sessions while his team-mates headed to Spain.

United’s surprise deadline-day signing had an inauspicious start at Old Trafford as he was blocked from warm-weather training in Marbella, having arrived from China following the outbreak of coronavirus

His reaction was to work with former Nigeria international Chuks Akuneto, a coach at Stockport County, during training sessions tailored for United’s new striker and preparing him to head straight into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad. United have now confirmed he will stay until January 31 next year.

“We trained in secluded areas as we didn’t want encroachment. We moved around, every two days changing,” Akuneto told Telegraph Sport. “They were hired places but the public had access to some of them. 

“He was happy with the quality of the work and we had a session every day until his team-mates came back. His club included him against Chelsea after he hadn’t practiced with the squad.”

Akuneto and Ighalo worked on the pitches at venues such as the Armitage Centre or Fallowfield or Ten Acres Lane Sports Complex, Newton Heath. Out-of-contract goalkeepers or coaches would be used, with former Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben there for the whole two weeks and Stockport Academy players also used.  

His work away from United meant Solskjaer could use him straight away, with his first start later in the month against Club Brugges resulting in his opening United goal. 

Just before football closed its doors to prevent Covid-19 spread, Ighalo had scored a goal against LASK Linz where he juggled the ball on the edge of the area before finding the top corner, which reminded Akuneto of a tennis-ball session with the player.  

“I had him juggling tennis balls as he hadn’t played in a while,” he said. “It is all about perception, like how a basketball player looks at the rim. Or a boxer punching and dodging. I needed to change the perception so it was sharper with a smaller ball and when he concentrated, he went back to a normal ball and it was much bigger. He scored a goal when he juggled the ball and I looked at that footage.” 

Akuneto has ambitions of working with Nigeria international youth teams eventually but has helped talent in England such as Tom Dele-Bashiru at Watford, Jeremie Frimpong at Celtic and Stockport youngster Festus Arthur, who is playing regularly in the National League.  

He first worked with Ighalo in 2015 before the African Cup of Nations and knew what type of work would get him ready for United. 

“The actual work was specific to the final third of the pitch because that is his area of speciality,” he said. “Every training mirrored the final third. We had instances where the ball gets whipped in from the full-back area with his back towards goal in a five-yard area. One touch to control, one touch to get out of the area and then finish. 

“We put him up there with a second striker, who received the ball and the other striker spins around and gets set up for a finish. Then another ball comes from the flank for him to finish. 

“We had him in a belt, attached to a defender. For him to finish he needed to run away from the man so the velcro belt would break off. You may need two or three runs before you accelerate your marker. 

“You cannot finish in isolation. It doesn’t work. The quality of the finishing is the process that gets you where you need to be to finish. How do you get into those positions in a game? 

“It was work specific to him. It was demanding. It challenged his thinking and wasn’t for the sake of practicing. It was to refine his skills and improve in other areas. It wasn’t about running around, it was the technical and tactical side.”

After his four goals in three starts, United opened talks to extend Ighalo’s contract which was set to expire over the weekend. 

United are set to pay a portion on Ighalo’s wages plus a fee to Shanghai, with the original loan worth £4 million until June, when the season was due to end. 

Shanghai wanted Ighalo to sign a new contract to commit himself to the Chinese Super League team but it is understood discussions were put on hold until his future at United was sorted. 

Having taken a paycut to join United, he made it clear he would not talk about a new deal at Shanghai unless his loan was extended. He is likely to reopen talks when his loan with United is over.