After starring in Charlton’s promotion to the championship, Rangers signed Joe Aribo ahead of a string of admirers.
The midfielder was rumoured to have been on the radar of several clubs including Premier League outfits. But the opportunity to play in Europe and under the management of Steven Gerrard was enough to convince him that Ibrox was the perfect next step in his career.
A promising start has ensued. Joe Aribo has already scored in Europe and appears to have settled in quickly and adapting to Rangers’ tactics. But why was Gerrard so keen to sign him, and how does he improve this Rangers side?
How does he fit into the Rangers’ midfield?
In Steven Gerrard’s first season at Rangers, it was widely regarded that the type of player he lacked the most was a goal-scoring midfielder. Whilst rivals Celtic could rely on advanced midfielders Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic to contribute with goals, analysis of Rangers showed they lacked a similar threat. Joe Aribo might not be an out-and-out number ten but early signs show that he will offer a better threat offensively than any other Rangers midfielder.
Aribo plays on the left of the midfield three and is the most advanced. Below is shown the average position map taken from Rangers’ recent home clash with Legia Warsaw. Steven Davis is the most positionally disciplined of the three and sits as a deep-lying creative midfielder. Ryan Jack plays as a roaming number eight from the right side of the three and crucially allows cover for the forward-thinking James Tavernier.
Creating overloads in the central areas of the park and creating space for Tavernier is one of Rangers’ regular attacking patterns. Rangers’ more defensive-minded left-back options Jon Flanagan and Borna Barisic don’t require the same defensive cover from his nearest midfielder that Tavernier does from Jack, therefore allowing Aribo more freedom. Aribo fits into this role perfectly, possessing the grit and skill of a rounded midfielder.
So far, the system appears to suit him especially when he has been allowed to roam forward and break in between the opposition defence and midfield. However, if Rangers’ midfield sits too deep as they did so often last year, Aribo’s effect on the game can be limited. To take a particular example, Rangers’ clash with Kilmarnock on the opening day of the season. Here’s a frame of how the Rangers midfield set up in the first half.
This is an example of how Rangers struggled to break teams down last season. Against teams who sit in a low block, Rangers do not need three central midfielders behind the ball along with their central defenders. Neither Flanagan nor Barisic at left-back provide enough offensively to mirror the attacking threat Tavernier gives from right-back. Therefore, one of the midfield three need to push beyond the opposition midfield and break the lines. This is because playing with a midfield as Rangers did in the first half suits an opposition in a low block perfectly. What is needed is for one of the midfielders to disrupt Kilmarnock’s shape by pushing in behind their midfield into the space. Gerrard eventually pushed Aribo forward as Rangers chased a winner and the Nigerian got into these spaces as shown below.
Below is a frame from Celtic’s win over St. Johnstone in August. The above mentioned Ryan Christie is finding space in the most dangerous of areas, between the lines and behind the opposition midfield. From this, he scored the opening goal. If he had sat parallel to his other two central midfielders, as Aribo did in the first half versus Kilmarnock, this would not have happened.
Goals to show his worth
A pacy midfielder who possesses plenty of trickery and skill, Aribo is the perfect model of a modern midfielder. He is a competent finisher but also does not shy away from his defensive responsibility. His best moment so far in a Rangers shirt was his strike in the Europa League against Midtjylland. It married all of his qualities- finesse, pace and power. As Jordan Jones runs forward with the ball Aribo is pictured inside his own half.
But, skip forward seven seconds and now he is in the box about to score, making up a substantial amount of ground to finish well past the keeper.
As will be explored in the following section, Aribo conducted a disciplined performance in the midfield in a challenging European away fixture whilst scoring with the quality of an assured finisher. Being able to do both of those is unique and valuable to Gerrard.
Aribo’s strike in the previous Europa League qualifying leg also showed the goal threat he possesses. He showed excellent movement in between the lines, as discussed prior, to receive the ball from Scott Arfield and slot home. The more often he gets into these positions, the better his performances will be. This is exactly the type of goal Rangers need their midfielders to score when dominating the ball inside the opposition half.
An upgrade on Kamara?
Domestically Rangers dominate possession in most of their games, as shown by their average possession so far this season, 67.3%. Meaning their central defenders have plenty of the ball and their central midfielders, in turn, have a lot of possession in the opposition half. Rangers didn’t take advantage of either of these positions often enough last season but it’s evident they have worked on this throughout last season and this pre-season. Conor Goldson has noticeably improved his distribution and midfielders are being encouraged to strike from range. Ryan Jack scored four times in the second half of last season after not netting in the opening months.
Towards the end of the 2018/19 season Rangers appeared to find a midfield balance by playing Davis, Jack and Kamara. All are excellent in possession but do not offer a substantial goal threat. The inclusion of Aribo in that midfield three (with Davis and Jack seemingly the preferred other two midfielders) should increase this. So far Glen Kamara has lost his place on the left side of the midfield three to Aribo. Undoubtedly, the Finnish international will feature heavily this season as Rangers contest domestically and in Europe, but as it stands his starting berth appears to belong to Aribo.
The best explanation of this is perhaps not what Aribo does better than Kamara, but what he can do additionally. To explain, Aribo has comparable defensive and passing statistics to Kamara (Kamara’s key strengths) whilst offering more offensively. These stats are all taken from the last calendar year, where both players have played for another club as well as Rangers. Per 90 minutes Joe Aribo has won on average 7.02 defensive duels whilst Glen Kamara has won 6.19. Joe Aribo’s passing is 84.28% accurate whilst Kamara’s is a slightly higher with 91.1%. Both have similar interception stats: Aribo 3.35 per game and Kamara 3.73. The notable difference is offensively: in the last year, Joe Aribo has averaged 0.2 XG (Expected goals) per game compared to Kamara’s 0.02. Aribo has taken 72 shots to Kamara’s 11 and scored 14 goals to Glen Kamara’s two.
Both Kamara and Aribo are fantastic players and Kamara will likely feature heavily again this season. Steven Davis is contracted until next summer and Kamara is favoured to be his long-term successor in that role. But Rangers need a goal threat from midfield and Aribo offers that which is why, as it stands, he has taken Kamara’s starting berth.
To conclude, Joe Aribo has shown all the signs that he will be a huge success at Ibrox. At only 23, he possesses huge potential and is already delivering in big moments. Time will tell how his season will pan out but he could prove the difference for Rangers this season as Steven Gerrard chases his first trophy.
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