Joe Aribo the enigma: How £300k Rangers signing turned into £10m EPL target

The ball boomed across more than 60 yards of the Tynecastle Park pitch. Connor Goldson had released his right foot, like a trebuchet, sending the item which would destroy the Hearts defence into the sky and over the backline.

However, that was only the first of three elements required to truly breach the home side’s rearguard.

It needed someone on the other end. Someone to pluck the ball out of the sky then dispatch past Craig Gordon to land a huge blow on Hearts.

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That someone was Joe Aribo.

What he produced was absolutely ridiculous. Stunning, sublime, sexy, even. That was just the touch. A cross-field pass coming over his shoulder. Watching it back over and over you think he’s going to control it with his right but instead it’s his left, which allows him to not break stride. The touch was perfect to allow him to stay ahead of John Souttar before firing across Gordon and into the corner.

You look around the Scottish Premiership, very few are capable of such moments. Aribo is very much included in those few.

Enigma

A special talent. Balance, intelligence, technique, vision and awareness. But one of, at times, contradictions. He could be so easy on the eye one moment then ungainly the next. An illuminating presence who would return to the shadows. Goals of such beauty they deserved to be beamed across the world but missed chances so ghastly they belonged under a bridge.

Former Rangers manager Steven Gerrard brought Joe Aribo to the club. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

“He was an enigma within Scottish football, capable of conjuring inexplicable moments of brilliance on the pitch, all the while never seeming entirely in control of his subsequent actions or thoughts,” is how Rangers author Adam Thornton put it in his new book ‘Gerrard’s Blueprint: The Tactical Philosophy Behind Rangers 55th Title Triumph’ (out in August).

Perhaps, it is for that reason that Aribo is on the cusp of a £10million move to Southampton, rather than a £20+million move to Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur.

Even his former boss at Steven Gerrard provided a caveat when speaking about the Nigerian international.

"What I’ve said to Joe, is you’re a better player when you play angry," he said after witnessing the player enthrall in a Europa League win over Brondby.

Joe Aribo scored in the Europa League final. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
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“When he does that, he’s a joy to watch. I thought his first 45 minutes was outstanding. If he can do that regularly, we’ll be lucky to keep him.”

The caveats

It is often the case when speaking about Aribo. There is usually an ‘if’, a ‘but’ or a ‘when’.

In no way is that designed to talk the player down. It’s used partly out of frustration and a desire to see Aribo find that level which allows him to score in a Europa League final, take a ball out of the sky with ease or torment opponents with his balletic feet movement and dribbling quality.

"One of his strongest skills in key games was his ability to use his excellent close control of the ball to keep possession in tight areas and give the team a breather,” Thornton wrote. “For a player of his talent, he could and should have scored more goals throughout this period, but when he did score they tended to be quite spectacular.”

That is it in a nutshell. He could and should have scored more goals. He could and should have dominated more games. He could and should have been the best player in the Premiership. That looked like it may have arrived last season when he had a consistent spell of being the team's best performer.

He has been great for Rangers but he could have been greater.

Proving Bowyer wrong

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Still, what the 25-year-old has produced has been far greater than many would have envisaged when he moved from Charlton Athletic in 2019 for a £300,000 cross-border compensation fee.

It was a transfer which irked his former Addicks boss Lee Bowyer. But one which has proved the former Leeds United midfielder wrong. Very, very wrong.

"It doesn’t make sense on the football side," he had said ahead of Aribo’s move to Rangers.

"When people from England go and play for Celtic and Rangers it is at the end of their careers. That’s because it is very rare you get a move from Rangers to the Premier League, and I don’t mean any disrespect by that.

“They might go from Rangers to the Championship, very rarely is it to the Premier League. For me he should stay in England and keep progressing.”

He has been a hugely influential presence across three seasons, making nearly 150 appearances for the club, helping them get closer to Celtic before playing his part in the Scottish Premiership title win then leading the line as the club reached last season’s Europa League final and then won the Scottish Cup.

That influence wasn’t just down to his quality with the ball and those moments of magic but the fact he could do so in a variety of positions.

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Gerrard once said: "What can I say about Joe Aribo? I’ll tell you what I’ll say about him: good players can play football, top players can play anywhere.”

Aribo played in nearly every outfield position for Rangers. Striker, attacking midfielder, No.10, in the centre of midfield, the wide attacking roles and even left-back. Right-back and centre-back were the only ones missing for a player who, at 16, was viewed as a left-sided centre-back.

Now, after three seasons of wowing fans, team-mates and coaches, Aribo is on the verge of being viewed as a Premier League player. It’s the least his form and all those special, ridiculous moments, deserve.

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