At the 2021 African Cup of Nations, Joe Aribo looked steady in the Super Eagles midfield alongside Wilfred Ndidi.
For two group games, both players seemed to forge chemistry that was premised on great understanding. While Ndidi kept it simple yet solid, and was a decent screen for the defense, Aribo’s forward passing and creative instinct was important to freeing the wingers on occasions.
In the round of 16 clash against Tunisia, both players struggled to devise a creative way through the Carthage Eagles defense and laboured hard to break the wall before them.
On that night, Aribo was largely missing and he probably hasn’t found a footing ever since.
His return to Rangers after Nigeria’s elimination was greeted with cheers by the Gers faithful, as he’s considered one of the brightest talents in the team. What returned from AFCON was however a player that seemed to have lost interest and confidence in the things that made him thrive.
Aribo’s late runs for Nigeria in his earliest days endeared him to fans and even drew comparisons from many who concluded he could be the creative player Nigeria had longed for.
Successive games showed he’s nothing near that level of creativity to warrant comparisons with a staple like Nigerian legend, Jayjay Okocha.
Under Gernot Rohr, Super Eagles fans said he was played out of position and thrived better as a winger or as an attacking midfielder. At Ibrox, he thrived better in both positions truly but that has not been seen in recent months.
His first touch has grown poorer, losing possession 15 times in the Old Firm Derby clash against Celtic last weekend and completing just 78% of his total attempted passes.
For the Super Eagles, he was a shadow of himself in both legs against Ghana, struggling to make key decisions in important areas and finding it rather hard to find the simplicity that had endeared him to fans.
Sometimes in those games against the Black Stars, Aribo carried himself like he had a mass tied to his waist and a heavy metal padding his pair of boots. He struggled to stamp authority and that’s been the story for months, bar the first two games of the AFCON.
Rangers fans reacted bitterly against Celtic and it was justifiable. Their Dutch manager, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst met the team six points ahead of lifelong rivals Celtic but have now relinquished the lead to them and are seven points behind.
His decision to keep Aribo in the first eleven has been criticised in light of his recent performances. Coaches retain players sometimes as a form of support and path to rediscovery but when it comes at the cost of results, the hard blow may be dealt.
Aribo is a shadow of himself. His awareness, intelligence and confidence have dipped badly but his determination to impress and perform still make him a presence regardless.
Hobbling at routine first touches and being shoved off the ball in promising positions are signs of a footballer who simply isn’t aware again. It’s either his head is not fully on the pitch or his body needs adequate rest.
Whichever it is for the former Charlton Athletic player, and a young man known to be a good professional, he has to find his level back, and he has the time.
Cameroon is just some hours away. He could go back and pick what he forgot there. Constant competition for places and the need to lay down a marker negate support these days in football. Gio has shown he loves the Nigerian midfielder but if his form doesn’t improve, it’s only a matter of time before the long hand gets stretched.