Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl finally believes he has settled on a new role for new summer signing Joe Aribo. The Nigerian international was one of the standout performers for his former club Rangers last season, as they suffered a defeat in the Europa League final to German Bundesliga outfit Eintracht Frankfurt.
The 26-year-old featured in more games than any player on the continent (52) during the 2021/22 campaign including the African Cup of Nations where he played all three of Nigeria’s games on their way to a disappointing group stage exit.
Naturally, Aribo had been used in a variety of roles by Rangers due to his versatility and tactical awareness and understanding, deployed in various midfield roles and even as a false-nine for the Europa League final. However, upon his move to Southampton this summer, the Camberwell-born star has so failed to settle in at St Mary’s. His incredible versatility is somewhat becoming his downfall on the South Coast, with the 26-year-old featuring off the bench on a few occasions, as well as taking up a variety of positions in Hasenhuttl’s system.
Though, with just six starts in nine matches and two goals to show for his efforts, things may well have taken an improved turn after his impressive individual performance against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park last weekend.
The former Rangers man has previously cited right forward as his preferred position when speaking after his move to the club this summer, and that’s where he was deployed against the Eagles where he was arguably the Saints’ best performer despite the 1-0 defeat. “I think we have found a position for him where he can create things. Especially around the box he has some really good moves and I think he created two good chances.” Hasenhuttl told the Daily Echo after their 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace.
Joe Aribo made a frank assessment of his form after the Everton defeat last month despite scoring, stating that his best is still yet to come. “I’d say on a personal note, I want to be more involved in the play in and around the final third, but I’m still learning and trying to improve. I want to be the best that I can be,” he told the club website after his goal against Everton. “On a personal note, I wouldn’t say I have been at my best. To score [against Everton] was a good feeling, but at the end of the day, not getting a result has made it frustrating.”
Indeed, the 26-year-old hasn’t hit the heights of the previous season where he proved a stellar component in Van Bronckhurst’s Rangers side, registering nine goals and 10 assists in a terrific individual campaign for the Scottish giants.
However, even at the Gers, the 20-time Nigerian international was utilised in a variety of roles too, across central midfield as a free-8 in a 4-3-3 system, on the right flank during games and as a false nine in the Europa League defeat to Frankfurt, where he scored the opening goal of the showpiece in the second half. Wherever Aribo was deployed, he performed to the best of his ability, hence his tremendous 19 goal contributions across the whole campaign.
Looking at his heatmap across the 2021/22 campaign for Rangers, you can see the 26-year-old excelled across various positions on the pitch for Rangers, though much of his best came off the right-hand flank, or right half-space, where he could cut in, in between the opponent’s defence and midfield and weave his magic.
The £13.5m-rated magician averaged 1.8 key passes per game and created nine big chances along with his five assists in the Scottish Premiership. Aribo is a technically gifted component. A player possessing sublime ball control, technical acumen, vision, but more importantly decisiveness in the final third as well as huge levels of application and endeavour when required.
Many of the Southampton faithful will have been delighted with his signing, not just because of his impressive skill set but because the club have desperately needed a creative outlet since they possessed the likes of Dusan Tadic and Adam Lallana.
Looking at his heatmap for the Saints, it shows the 26-year-old has been utilised without no clear plan at all:
Like Hasenhuttl has tried to fit the Nigerian hotshot in like a round peg in a square hole. 13 starts into his Southampton career, it’s clear we haven’t seen the best of Aribo. Though that’s no fault of his own, but maybe that’s down to the lack of consistency in the team, and the Austrian coach’s inability to stick to a desired and reliable system to get the best out of his top players.
Against Palace on Saturday, the Nigerian was deployed in the right-forward role alongside Che Adams in a 3-5-2 shape, and that’s where probably where the Saints faithful has seen the best of Joe Aribo for a whole 90 minutes. Maybe it’s time Hasenhuttl depends on that shape, one which could get the best out of arguably his most creative outlet.
At times, he picked up some nice pockets especially mid-way through the second half linking up with Che Adams, his clever play and positioning around the final third is where Southampton can form their best opportunities, as seen below:
Because of his excellent technical quality and threat in the final third, he immediately draws the attention of three Palace defenders, creating great space for Che Adams to exploit. With Aribo on the ball in these scenarios, he certainly possesses the decisiveness and class to find his strike partner as seen below.
With better finishing, this scenario could well have ended with a Southampton goal. But, it’s clear, deploying Aribo in such attacking positions can only get the best out of him in the final third.
Against Crystal Palace, Joe Aribo registered an impressive 87% pass completion rate (33/38), 58 touches, registered two key passes, and one big chance created, whilst also getting in amongst the action off the ball, winning five of his ground duels and winning four tackles showing that if the 26-year-old is provided with a clear and defined role, with a bit of confidence and belief of his manager, he will certainly match the heights and standards he formed for himself during his last season at Rangers.