First name on Rangers' teamsheet, 'making mayhem' - but move south is on cards with Crystal Palace and others interested
Just two games into his tenure at Rangers, it’s perhaps too early to ponder who is the first name on Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team sheet.
But on the evidence of those opening victories over Sparta Prague and Livingston, it’s already crystal clear that Joe Aribo is going to be a key cog in the operating system van Bronckhorst is seeking to put in place at the Scottish champions.
Aribo followed up his influential contribution from the ‘number ten’ role in last Thursday’s decisive Europa League group stage win against Sparta at Ibrox with another dynamic and eye-catching display in a slightly different position on the left of a three-man central midfield at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Sunday.
The Nigerian international has flourished at Rangers ever since Steven Gerrard lured him north from Charlton Athletic for a bargain fee of £350,000 in the summer of 2019.
It now appears as if Aribo’s development is going to gather even more pace under the tutelage of van Bronckhorst whose initial impact on the form of a team which had stalled slightly since the start of this season has been impressive.
While Aribo was always given free rein to express himself on the pitch by Gerrard, there is a sense that the 25-year-old could become even more effective for Rangers with his suitability for the style of play favoured by van Bronckhorst.
Technically outstanding, Aribo also has the physicality and athleticism required to bring the dynamism and attacking variety his new manager wants to see from his advanced midfield players.
“We are told to make a lot of runs into the box, to run forward – because it just makes mayhem,” said Aribo as he reflected on the instructions received from van Bronkhorst on the training pitch so far.
“It makes the defenders not know what to actually do. So it’s nice to have that and be able to get forward.
“It’s all learning. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s going to take time for us to get there and we’ll just keep improving and keep getting better and keep learning from it.”
No member of the Rangers squad has played more games than Aribo this season - he has missed just one of their 26 games in all competitions so far.
It’s an indication of his ever-growing stature at the club where sporting director Ross Wilson will be acutely aware that one of their prize assets is heading into the final 18 months of his contract which is due to expire in the summer of 2023.
Crystal Palace have previously been linked with a move for Aribo and it would be no great surprise if Gerrard was also interested in taking him to Aston Villa when the transfer window opens in January.
He is certainly an English Premier League player in the making but while he could earn Rangers the kind of healthy profit they need to start making on a regular basis in establishing a successful player-trading model, keeping him at least for the rest of this season could be crucial to their hopes of retaining a Premiership title which will offer direct entry to next year’s Champions League group stage.
Rangers face losing his services for a period after the winter break in any event as Aribo, along with team-mates Leon Balogun and Calvin Bassey, are likely to be in the Nigeria squad for the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon. Depending on how far the Super Eagles progress in the tournament, the trio could miss Rangers’ Scottish Cup fourth round tie and as many as four Premiership fixtures.
For the moment, Aribo’s focus is firmly on a run of eight league games in 33 days, starting with Wednesday night’s meeting with Hibs at Easter Road and culminating in the Old Firm showdown at Celtic Park on January 2.
There will be an element of seeking redemption for Rangers when they face Hibs, just 10 days after their 3-1 defeat at the hands of Jack Ross’ men in the Premier Sports Cup semi-final at Hampden.
“We’re ready for it, we’re going to make sure we’re ready for it,” said Aribo. “We want to get the three points as always in every single game. So we know what we have to do in order to get the result.
“It was important to get some results (against Sparta and Livingston) obviously after some recent results. It’s important to keep getting wins, keep doing what we are doing and performing in matches.”
Aribo scored his fourth goal of the season with a sublime finish in the win at Livingston as he responds to van Bronckhorst’s observation that he needs to be more clinical in and around the penalty area after he missed a couple of good chances against Sparta.
“Yeah, (I was) definitely (due that goal),” he smiled. “I had a joke and a laugh with my brother about it (before the Livingston game). He said ‘you need to make it right and score today’. So I was just happy I was able to do that.
"Some of the players have been giving me stick, saying it was a bit of a loopy strike but I'm happy it went in and I was excited by it. I definitely meant it!”.
Aribo felt Rangers reacted well after their early 2-0 lead was halved by Bruce Anderson’s goal for Livingston before half-time, going on to control the second half and ensuring victory through Fashion Sakala’s late strike.
“It was a good result, the boys are buzzing with it,” he added. “We knew we’d have to dig deep and we’re just happy we managed to get the three points.
“We had to stay comfortable (in the second half), we had to keep moving it fast, keep making them have to chase it. Then we knew our chance would come and we just had to take it when it came.”
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