While Friday’s capitulation may not have been the best advert for the talented Rangers man, he equally poses a tactical headache for Gernot Rohr
To constructively criticise or analyse Joe Aribo’s performances since making his debut for Nigeria last year, one needs to consider the appropriate context.
For one, he’s entirely dissimilar to Mikel John Obi, so maybe finding similarities between the retired Africa Cup of Nations winner and the 24-year-old does no one any sort of good. It gets tiring having these debates as they tend to put undue pressure on the player in question.
Consider Alex Iwobi, Jay-Jay Okocha’s nephew, who’s struggled to shake the expectation placed upon him to be as exemplary as his uncle for the national team. Even Mikel was earmarked as Nigeria’s answer to an extended search to find the maverick’s replacement for the Super Eagles.This continued deep into the ex-Chelsea midfielder’s career in which, despite his career making him into one of the finest anchorman in the game — even though he strangely divided opinion in West London, illogically most times — there was a tendency by coaches of the West African nation to utilise him in a number 10 role.
Indeed, this was odd as the 2012 Champions League winner’s strengths had moved away from the sensation that emerged at the 2005 Fifa World Youth Championship. He wore the number 10 shirt until his retirement and was largely played behind the striker in a renaissance under Gernot Rohr but Mikel’s strengths were an antithesis of a playmaker.
Back to Aribo, whose usage in the Nigeria set-up under Rohr since that debut vs Ukraine in 2019 has made for interesting observation.
While little was known about the midfield man at the time of his international bow, events since then and his deployment under Steven Gerrard at Rangers suggest he’s played out of position with the Super Eagles.
On his debut appearance in Dnipro, Aribo was used in a midfield pivot along with Oghenekaro Etebo, who partnered him in Friday’s 4-4 draw with Sierra Leone. Against the European nation, Rohr’s side also raced into a lead — 2-0 on that occasion — but then surrendered the lead late on with the concession of two goals inside two minutes to draw 2-2.
However, Friday’s was even worse, given that the three-time African giants led 4-0 and looked to be cruising to one of the more comfortable victories under the German manager before the late capitulation ensued.
The midfield pairing? Etebo and Aribo.
Make no mistake, this is no slight on the pair, who are good players in their own right. Rather, it’s a criticism of Rohr who not only played two largely attack-minded players in the middle of the park but bizarrely had no replacements on the bench at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium — the bench comprised four attackers, six defenders and two goalkeepers.
For Aribo’s part, effectively utilising him in the current side would be tricky especially without the immaculate presence of Wilfred Ndidi. Given his natural tendency is to drive forward and be a presence in the box to finish up moves, playing him in a partnership with Etebo was always going to be awkward.
With Rohr opting for a 4-4-2 — the German boss had, until recently, approached games in a 4-2-3-1 — the burden already placed on the midfielders was going to be taxing, despite the opponent.
So, it was then exasperating that there was no midfield body on the bench, a scenario envisioned after the 67-year-old’s squad announcement revealed a certain imbalance.
Indeed, as the Leone Stars rallied in the second-half with Aribo and Etebo clearly needing help, there was absolutely no one to call upon from the bench to either change the shape or replace either midfielder.
The profile of the Rangers man offers possible solutions to the West Africans but it equally poses several questions. He’s clearly not best utilised in a two-man midfield — particularly without Ndidi and evidently not along with Etebo — and isn’t someone to be placed as an out-and-out playmaker.
Theoretically, the former Charlton Athletic player functions effectively in a three-man midfield but that potential tweak would mean the African giants change their shape going forward.
This would have ramifications for most players in central midfield and the attack, with someone like Iwobi most likely shunted out wide to the left. It has to be noted that the Everton attacking midfielder did score twice on Friday playing in this position, where he mostly tucked in to allow Zaidu Sanusi to push forward effectively.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Rohr sticks to the recently utilised 4-4-2, moves back to the 4-2-3-1 or changes completely to a 4-3-3 to get the best out of Aribo, who’s also capable of moonlighting as a wide attacker.
These questions facing the coach have to be answered. Is the former Bayern Munich player capable or willing to tweak his system to get the best out of players like the Rangers man or will he continue to play square pegs in round holes?
Current uncertainties mean we’re a long way from having the debate regarding Aribo effectively replacing Mikel, an argument that shouldn’t be had in the first place due to the pair’s different profiles.