As Rangers sauntered towards a club-record points haul of 102 in the 2020/21 season, they travelled to Livingston with something of a headache to deal with. 

Regular left-back Borna Barisic was sidelined with a muscular problem and in his absence, Steven Gerrard opted for a relatively creative choice - Joe Aribo.

Rangers cruised to a 3-0 victory and Aribo? Gerrard’s Man of the Match.

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"What can I say about Joe Aribo?,” the manager told Rangers TV.

"I'll tell you what I'll say about him: good players can play football, top players can play anywhere.

"A manager can ask a player to do a role and good players can do some and good players can't do some - but Joe Aribo is a top player.

"He's my man of the match tonight just because, if you think about it, he's a number 10. And he's just been so comfortable at left-back, cruised it and breezed it. That left-back performance is as good as we've seen in my three years of being here. So well done to him for parking his ego and doing a job for his teammates."

In his final Rangers appearance - also his biggest Rangers appearance - Aribo started as his side’s lone striker and scored the opening goal in their eventual penalty heartbreak to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League Final. 

Daily Echo: Aribo slots home in Rangers' Europa League final defeat. Image by: PAAribo slots home in Rangers' Europa League final defeat. Image by: PA

“I think he’s only not played two positions for Rangers - centre back and right back,” Joshua Barrie from the Rangers Review explains.

“He’s fulfilled a number of different midfield roles whether that be dropping deep under Gerrard and being one of the two midfielders who would help build and facilitate play, the most advanced midfielder in a three or the midfielder who runs beyond the striker as he did under Van Bronkhorst.”

“Top players can play anywhere.” Left-back, central midfield, attacking midfield, on the wing, up front, Aribo is proof of that. So where will he fit at Southampton? Well, the short answer is - anywhere.

For the long answer? Keep reading.

The Natural Position

If we’re looking for Aribo’s most ‘natural’ position then it may not exist in Hasenhuttl’s favoured 4-2-2-2 formation. When breaking through at Charlton Athletic in their 2017/18 League One campaign, Aribo was usually deployed as one of two deeper midfielders in a 4-3-3. 

But Aribo’s true emergence came in the 2018/19 season when he was an essential piece to Charlton’s League One promotion. Largely operating on the right side of a diamond midfield, Aribo was given the freedom to travel all over the pitch and cause mayhem with the ball at his feet. The security was provided by Josh Cullen and Darren Pratley - two far more defensive-minded players.

Daily Echo: Aribo hoists the 2019 League One playoff final trophy. Image by: PAAribo hoists the 2019 League One playoff final trophy. Image by: PA

Moving to Rangers in the summer of 2019, Aribo slotted straight into Steven Gerrard’s XI. Largely wedded to a 4-3-2-1 system initially, Aribo was tasked with playing on the right side of the ‘three’ with one of his primary jobs being to facilitate the attacks for the players in front of him.

Frequently he’d be seen taking the ball from his defenders and helping progress his side up the pitch. Later on in the campaign, Gerrard moved Aribo further forward on the right side of the 'two' where he could utilise his attacking gifts and the midfielder ended up enjoying one of his better spells in a Rangers shirt as his side stormed to the title.

He was a crucial part of Gerrard’s league-winning team but he was a piece of the puzzle rather than the focus of it. When the Liverpool legend departed in November and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst took charge of the Glaswegian club, Aribo was thrust into a more attack-minded role full of freedom in a 4-3-3 as the furthest forward midfielder. 

It was here where Aribo had perhaps the best spell of his Rangers career according to Barrie.

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“I think he can fulfil that deeper role but I don’t think you get the best out of him,” Barrie explains. “So if it’s a conversation of how do you get the best out of him, I think you want to allow him freedom in midfield - as a third midfielder probably. 

“Freedom in the attacking third, he can do so many things and I think as a number eight or a number ten one of the things he’s so good at doing is providing those wall passes, providing passes up the pitch.

“My theory with Aribo is that in a ball-dominant team like Rangers he needed that freedom to go everywhere. He’s like a cage footballer and I know a lot of his football upbringing is in South London so that’s quite fitting."

So how would this look at Southampton Just for fun let’s look at a hypothetical 4-3-3 because well…it does look like fun.

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With James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu or Romeo Lavia supplying Saints with security, Aribo would have the freedom to maraud all over the pitch creating the kind of mayhem he thrives off of. Try to tell me that doesn’t sound mouth-watering.

The Saints Role

Ok let’s get back to being realistic. The chances that Hasenhuttl shifts away from his 4-2-2-2 - at least for any sort of extended period of time - is low. The entire club through the academy is built around the system and it’s likely to stay with Hasenhuttl labelling it as “who we are” in April. 

If Southampton do indeed stick with what we’ve seen, then the reality is that there isn’t place for Aribo’s free-roaming midfield role. But this is a player who thrives on versatility and just because his obvious position doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean there isn’t a spot for him.

At times during Aribo’s second season in Scotland, Gerrard utilised the midfielder further forward, on one of the two flanks in a 4-2-3-1. 

In Hasenhuttl’s system, it appears one of the two attacking midfielder/winger roles could be perfectly suited to him. When Aribo met with his new manager prior to signing, Hasenhuttl asked him what position he preferred most and Aribo told him behind the striker on the right side. 

When utilised in that role for Rangers, Aribo was handed the freedom to come inside and take himself to wherever on the pitch he felt he could do the most damage. 

“You could see him playing on the left or right of a 4-2-2-2 where he can come inside,” Barrie says. “He’s played on the right for Rangers and had a couple of notable performances there. That was more to do with the industrial nature of Gerrard’s midfield, he likes dogs in there, and Aribo’s a lot more skilful than a lot of other players who played in that midfield. So definitely floating towards the left side of the pitch is where he’s most comfortable, given attacking freedom with some security behind him in midfield.”

This freedom and eagerness to get himself into the game is exactly what Hasenhuttl asks of his ‘wingers’. Take Stuart Armstrong for example. Rarely is the Scot seen driving at defenders, getting to the line and cutting the ball back into the box. Most of his role - on the ball at least - is based on coming inside and helping his midfielders while the full-back gets beyond him on the outside.

Just take a look at Armstrong’s heat map from Saints’ 3-0 defeat to Brentford in April - it’s certainly not the positioning of a typical hug-the-line winger. 

Daily Echo: Stuart Armstrong heat map vs Brentford. Image by: WyscoutStuart Armstrong heat map vs Brentford. Image by: Wyscout

But it does look rather similar to that of Aribo playing in the same position during his side’s 1-0 victory against Kilmarnock in 2019.

Daily Echo: Joe Aribo heat map vs Kilmarnock. Image by: WyscoutJoe Aribo heat map vs Kilmarnock. Image by: Wyscout

With Walker-Peters and Perraud both capable and naturally inclined to fly forward, it should open up space for Aribo to drift inside where he can get on the ball and cause the kind of havoc that made him such a devastating force at times in Scotland. From the right side, he can float onto his favoured left foot but he’s also played out wide on the left for Rangers.

Southampton's wingers and attacking midfielders combined for just seven league goals last season. Aribo beat that number on his own with eight Scottish Premiership strikes. It's a position that's needed strengthening and Aribo could well be the answer - or at least part of it.

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The Deeper Spot

I know we spent much of this article talking about how Aribo’s ability can be limited by playing as a deeper midfielder but that's not to say he CAN’T do it. Joe Aribo’s entire professional career has been a constant procession in proving that he can play pretty much anywhere - just get him on the pitch.

Experiences playing in a deeper position when coming through at Charlton will certainly have helped while for Nigeria, Aribo is often tasked with the number six job. Below is Aribo’s heat map from Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign in January. Given more defensive responsibility, Aribo played three of his country’s four matches in an ultimately disappointing cup run for the Eagles. Across his 20 caps, it's a position he's frequently been deployed in.

Daily Echo: Aribo's AFCON Heat Map. Image by: WyscoutAribo's AFCON Heat Map. Image by: Wyscout

While long-distance passing isn’t his forte, Aribo’s ability to take the ball from his defenders and carry it up the pitch is a vital skill for someone playing just in front of the back four. Last season, Aribo managed 6.16 dribbles per game - seventh-most in the SPL - and 2.68 progressive runs per game  - sixth-most. 

“He’s a brilliant box-to-box player," Barrie says. "He’s strong, can carry the ball well, so good with the ball at his feet - velcro feet - press resistance, not the best long-range passer of the ball but he doesn’t really need that because of the way he carries the ball and progresses play in that way.”

Additionally, his defensive strength is considerable despite being an attack-minded player.

“What you see with his country is that he can be a very skilful player in a functional role. Bit of freedom in the attacking third but I wouldn’t put it beyond him to be someone who can play deeper and control games as well. He’s also very good off-the-ball - because of his size. A real contributor off the ball and a really strong player.”

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The Emergency Cover

When Gerrard needed an emergency left-back, it was Aribo. When Van Bronckhorst needed an emergency striker after Alfredo Morelos’ injury last season, once again, it was Aribo. 

The new signing’s versatility gives his managers a major weapon as well as some sort of piece of mind. Pretty much anywhere on the pitch, Aribo can be relied upon.

At left-back he excelled with extra space in front of him to dribble into. It took some by surprise but the defensive role actually utilised some of his best attacking traits with his athleticism and speed allowing him to eat up the entire left flank. Aribo is terrific on the ball in tight spaces, but he's perhaps even better with space in front of him to run into. Lft-back afforded him that.

"You see all the things he displays in midfield but sometimes with a little bit more time on the ball," Barrie says about Aribo's performances at left-back. "Really good one-vs-one duels, really good at going past players but hard to get past as well because of his size. He’s also a good attribute at set-pieces in terms of the flick-ons he gets. At left-back, he’s a strong carrier of the ball and there was space to do that in that position. Earlier in his career, he even played at the back."

Daily Echo: Aribo pictured after Rangers' Scottish Cup Final victory in May. Image by: PAAribo pictured after Rangers' Scottish Cup Final victory in May. Image by: PA

Aribo's ability to cover at left-back could be particularly crucial over the next six months as Tino Livramento continues to work his way back from an ACL tear. Saints are still interested in adding full-back cover but if they are unable to do so, Aribo has already shown he can deputise there. No one is expecting him to take the place of Walker-Peters or Perraud - nor should he as he's better utilised further forward - but it's a great option to have.

Up front, he performed admirably through the final weeks of the 2021/22 season but struggled at times due to the nature of the role. Aribo is a player who wants the ball at his feet with space in front of him. That wasn’t the role of the striker at Rangers where the centre-forward had to spend considerable time with his back to goal, holding off defenders and bringing others into play.

“False 9 was the least natural for him of any position, I'd say," Barrie explains. "And that’s because he’s strong but he’s not the most aggressive player and you have to be so aggressive when you’re playing striker - the manner of football under Van Bronckhorst is quite direct in terms of finding the frontman.

"But he matured into it, he was really good in the Scottish Cup Final in that position, about an inch away from winning the game for Rangers with a shot towards the bottom corner. He missed a couple of headers - he’s not a natural striker, that was probably the extent of his versatility, I would say he looked more natural as a left-back where he could face the game instead of taking the ball with his back to goal as a forward. But he did it and he did it pretty commendably.”

Again, as with left-back, Saints will be hoping Aribo doesn't have to play up front. It would take an injury crisis or some serious under-performance from Southampton's current (and future) strikers. But yet again, it's a great extra option to have.

After all, he did still score in the Europa League final.

So where will Aribo actually play for Saints? My guess would be on the right flank of the 4-2-2-2 but there’s also a near-guarantee that we’ll see him in a variety of roles. Top players can play anywhere. And Joe Aribo is a top player.