The midfielder’s body of work this term has left observers wondering whether or not he’s ready to play at a higher level than Scotland
Joe Aribo will probably not register a more fortuitous assist in his career than the one that helped Rangers open the scoring against Dundee United on Sunday.
He’d swerved one way and another, chopped into his left foot and shot at goal, only for the effort to deflect off Ianis Hagi to send the hosts 1-0 up in the 35th minute. Steven Gerrard felt that goal allowed his side to stamp their authority on the game after a leggy start in which Dundee made things awkward and uncomfortable.
After forcing a save from Benjamin Siegrist in that bumpy opening half-hour, Aribo wasn’t to be denied, however, scoring his sixth Scottish Premiership strike just after half-time with a fierce left-footed strike from the inside-left channel that flew beyond the outstretched Siegrist into the far corner.
It was a goal that’ll have made even Gerrard proud and the former England international praised the Nigeria international following the 4-1 win.
“[Aribo] was fantastic today, not just the goal but his running power, his quick feet and the way he outplays people,” the Gers manager remarked after the game. “He is a fantastic kid, you can’t get him off the training pitch, he’s always working on his game.”
“He decided to come to Rangers to develop and grow and he is certainly moving in the right direction. There’s no surprise that he is getting a lot of good performances in his game right now.”
The concluding part of the ex-Liverpool midfielder’s post-match interview was an acknowledgement of the great strides made since the 24-year-old moved from Charlton Athletic in 2019.
Forming part of the Rangers side that’s likely to topple Celtic domestically is the greatest compliment to the West African who’s primed to win the Glasgow side their first title since 2011 (they are 18 points ahead of their managerless rivals with eight games to play).
Despite missing almost two months of the season, the Super Eagle is the fifth-highest top scorer in the side and ranks one place lower for total goal contributions. Even more impressive is the fact he sits 12th in the entire league for goals and assists per 90 and rises to eighth spot in the whole competition when penalties are excluded.
All six Aribo goals have come inside the box but the finishes and type of goal have varied considerably. He’s by no means alien to spectacular efforts, having curled one in from an acute angle in January after beating two Ross County players with his movement, while there was a simple tap in against Livingston after holding his position at the far post with everyone drawn to the ball.
His opening strike of the season was a header from a set-piece vs St Johnstone and the Nigerian’s second in the 8-0 annihilation of Hamilton came about after a delayed run into the box.
Indeed, there’s been something peculiar about each strike this term but many of them have demonstrated the guile in possession and improving movement to sniff opportunities and position himself in the area accordingly.
While accidental assists aren’t quite unusual for Aribo — case in point: the inadvertent assists on Sunday and his first of the season vs Motherwell which ricocheted off him into Kemar Roofe’s path in the 3-1 win — the through ball to set up Glen Kamara against St Johnstone in December showed he has an eye for the killer pass and the subtle flick into Alfredo Morelos’ path for the only goal away at Hibernian in late January highlighted his dexterity.
For players with 10 appearances or more, the 24-year-old ranks 11th for accurate passes into the final third per 90 but drops to 26th for key passes per 90, perhaps suggesting he could do more with fashioning out shooting openings for teammates.
Just how this season’s numbers translate into a more competitive league remains to be seen but there’s reason to feel a drop in output is likely given he may not sign for a side as dominant as Rangers, who average 67.2 percent possession this term.
Having played top flight football for less than two seasons, there’s a sense that, despite being 24, Aribo is still relatively inexperienced at this level and probably needs another season at least under the Liverpool legend, especially as a Champions League campaign could be a possibility next season.
Whenever he eventually moves, there’ll be an adjustment period, particularly if he joins a side that generally operates without the ball. With the current upward trajectory, the Nigerian shouldn’t be short on admirers when he eventually decides to leave Gerrard’s champions-elect.