Joe Aribo: Gerrard’s answer to breaking down stubborn defences?
Rangers face an unfamiliar situation this transfer window: for the first time in eight years the playing squad doesn’t need wholesale renovations.
The post-mortem into last season, undoubtedly an improvement on the two turbulent years preceding it but which ultimately fell short of delivering quantifiable success, will surely have convinced Steven Gerrard that further upgrades are needed.
A ball-playing centre-back, a left-back, a creative midfielder and a right-winger with greater variety than Daniel Candeias should all be on the wish list.
It could be argued that another midfielder was the least pressing issue after a strong finish to the season, but with the signing of Charlton’s Joe Aribo imminent, it is worth looking at why he is stylistically suited to filling the skillset required.
The midfield trio of Steve Davis, Glen Kamara and Ryan Jack was almost fallen upon by accident after Alfredo Morelos’ suspension forced Rangers into a tweak of their formation.
While that mix offers ball retention and defensive solidity due to their ability to adapt and interchange, it lacks penetration and the attacking verve of an ideal midfield balance.
Rangers’ season came up short because they couldn’t break down packed defences if they had failed to do so early on. Some of the blame can be attributed to the coaching team not finding a solution in-game but, in truth, the addition of a natural playmaker in the final third was the obvious issue.
Scott Arfield occupied that advanced position for much of the season but finished it as an in ‘inside forward’, coming in off the right to provide support for Jermain Defoe.
Arfield is an intelligent footballer, always scanning space and combining quickly on the half-turn, but as much as his absence coincides with Rangers looking disjointed, there is still the nagging feeling that he is a player doing a very decent imitation of a different role rather than operating in his natural arena.
Why does Aribo make sense?
Rangers appear to be focusing the majority of their recruitment on UK-based players this summer - a reaction to the lukewarm results of their foray into the Croatian market, perhaps.
The struggle to cut open teams was partly due to the inability to commit defenders on the edge of the box or open up gaps with inventive passes. Imagination, awareness and athleticism were the three key requirements in any recruitment drive.
David Turnbull would have been an intriguing option, but his future looks to lie elsewhere, and he would be a more costly option than Aribo.
Rangers are exploiting the cross-border rule that has seen Moussa Dembele and Jordan Rossiter sign for the Old Firm in cut-price deals in recent years, despite heavy interest from English clubs. Aribo is the latest example of how lucrative a market it could be long-term as he is expected to cost just £300,000 in compensation. At just 22 he represents great sell-on value.
The Charlton midfielder shone in the League One play-off final. As a player who has come from non-league, he plays with a refreshing freedom to his play.
Gerrard handed Ryan Kent a free role in certain games last season but Aribo is the type of player who thrives when given the license to roam. He played predominantly as the most advanced of the three central midfielders last season in what was a 3-5-2 set-up, or on the left/tip of a midfield diamond.
Some players look so natural that it’s instantly recognisable they are operating on another wavelength to their team-mates. Arfield is Rangers’ most cerebral player and Aribo displays the same intuitiveness when it comes to angling passes in tight areas and following up the play. It is a pairing that will dovetail well, and when you add Greg Stewart into the mix – another player who thinks similarly – the possibility of retaining the narrow shape used during the post-split fixtures could be used again.
It’s the ability to combine in tight areas that suggests Aribo will thrive in the system put in place by first-team coach Michael Beale, the architect of Rangers’ style. They were at their best last season when using combination play on the wing, consisting usually of diagonal balls into the feet of Morelos with runners coming in off the side to link-up.
Aribo often drifts out wide to both wings to receive the ball before driving inside, and due to his acceleration he is able to go either way when taking on his man. He is less direct when on the right, instead looking to cause overloads when linking up with full-back Anfernee Dijksteel.
Rangers need someone who can deliver the killer ball. Aribo has the vision to deliver that, but whether has the consistency at this age is another matter. It’s also not easy to deliver at Ibrox with the expectation of the crowd.
The aspect of his play that differentiates Aribo from the other Rangers midfielders is the way he prods at the edge of the box. He’s not content just to play a square pass, he is always looking to change the angle of attack and disguise a ball into someone’s feet.
Glen Kamara can be influential further forward, but the criticism of his midfield partner Ryan Jack – albeit unfair - has been that he is too conservative or slow on the ball. Aribo may give away possession but it won’t be due to playing safe; he is here to make things happen.
Athleticism is also important in Scotland. Having the physicality to withstand the pressure applied when receiving with your back to goal, but also possessing pace beyond what many of the players can match. Just look at how dominant James Tavernier is because of his superior athleticism in 1v1 situations.
Although Aribo will be considered as the answer to the number ten role, Gerrard clearly doesn’t accept ‘luxury’ players who don’t contribute to the defensive phase of the game.
Surprisingly, for someone with a languid style, he’s proven to be a threat from corners too. He’s not someone who will bulldoze his way through midfield, but he is six-foot tall so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that he scored five goals from corners in the last two seasons.
For all his talent, Rangers fans need to accept that Aribo isn’t a blood and thunder type player. Some fans never took to Ovie Ejaria because of the perception his body language gave off, but while Aribo is a more efficient player, his game is not about running through brick walls, it is about playing through them.
Is he the only option?
This piece was originally meant to be an analysis of players from across Europe who, judging from Wyscout data and video, were realistic targets capable of improving the squad.
So, with that in mind, why waste hours of watching footage when we could just include the other names to make it onto the shortened list? Don’t say we don’t spoil you…
Otar Kiteishvili – Sturm Graz (23)
It’s only a matter of time before he is playing in one of the top five leagues. He would undoubtedly be at the upper limit of Rangers’ budget but there is little doubt he would return a considerable profit.
A Georgia international, he signed from Dinimo Tblisi last summer for a fee of just under £1m. The only fathomable reason he hasn’t been linked with a big European side is presumably due to only scoring five goals, but his statistical output and general all-round play belie those rudimentary figures.
He just never loses the ball. It’s a skill that separates the top players from the levels below, that ability to have a picture of the game in their head and the awareness to keep the ball out of reach while under pressure.
He may be diminutive but Kiteishvili can hold his only physically. A low centre of gravity aids his acceleration through tight gaps, and he uses his body smartly.
Shopping in the market Rangers are, consistency of decision-making is the commodity that is hardest to find, but Kiteishvili’s composure in the final third is that of a player destined for greater things.
Mark Diemers – Fortuna Sittard (25)
A player very much in the mould of Christian Eriksen. Comfortable with both feet and capable of playing off the left or in a deeper role, he is Fortuna Sittard’s main creative source.
Technically he is very ‘clean’ in the way he pivots and manages to work space to turn and face goal. His pass selection and knowledge of when to lift or dip the tempo is impressive, while he is intelligent in using his body to withstand pressure, especially when travelling at speed. That ability to ride challenges and absorb contact when receiving the ball is crucial to being a success in Scotland where teams will cluster the most gifted players.
He joined last summer for a fee of around £500,000 in what was Fortuna’s first season back in the Eredivisie. He managed seven goals – albeit five of them were penalties - and seven assists as they avoided relegation by a point. The season before he was the central figure in De Graafschat’s promotion to the top division, scoring fifteen goals and registering six assists.
Despite playing in a Fortuna team that had to pick its moments when to attack, he was more than comfortable operating at that level. He also offers set-piece expertise, while displaying all the attributes Rangers need in the final third: trickery, poise and a consistency in execution currently lacking in the squad.
Florian Tanase – Dinamo Bucharest (24)
He’s the Bucharest captain but he really should be playing at a higher level now. He hasn’t secured a spot in the senior Romania squad yet, which is surely down to remaining in his home country.
Tanase’s dribbling ability is what would make him a threat for Rangers. He likes to drive across the edge of the box looking for an opening rather than playing the simple square pass and is capable of playing one-twos to work the ball into the box.
He’s got a very distinctive gait in that he remains upright when travelling with the ball, but his agility is in no doubt. He would certainly inject pace into the attack and his technique would add quality in and around the box.
Zsolt Kalmar - DAC Dunajská Streda (24)
A Hungarian midfielder who was expected to make his mark on the European stage back in 2014 when he signed for RB Leipzig after breaking through at Hungarian side Gyori. That never came to fruition, but after spells with Frankfurt and Brondby, he has relaunched his career in Slovakia with DAC.
I first noticed him when watching Celtic’s new signing Vakoun Issouf Bayo. It was immediately obvious that he had a classy look the way he passed the ball and glided when travelling at speed.
Kalmar drops deepest of all the players mentioned but he is equally capable of playing in advanced roles, filling in as a false nine for a few games this year.
He has more impact when played further forward as his vision and timing of his runs into the box can be utilised to a greater extent.
Although he can occasionally look sloppy by attempting first-time flicks or reverse passes, it is a consequence of his positive style of play. He invariably squares defenders up to invite pressure, which allows him to buy space to exploit on the return pass.
He’s been linked with Trabzonspor but he’s the sort of player who could adapt to most European leagues.