Aribo: Can the Nigeria star save Southampton boss Hasenhuttl?

Joe Aribo Southampton 2022-23Getty

Southampton’s supporters were probably excited before the start of their first home game of the season against Leeds United but they must have bemoaned their naivete after 60 minutes.

Two goals down to a Rodrigo brace, the Saints must have feared the worst.

In truth, you would not have blamed them when you consider how the South Coast side fell away the previous week at Tottenham Hotspur despite going into an early lead or when you consider how they seemed to be starting the new campaign as they ended the preceding one.

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team won only one of their final 12 Premier League games and had been beaten in five of their last six games at St. Mary’s. This was looking like a sixth defeat in seven…or so we all thought.

Ralph Hasenhuttl Southampton 2022-23Getty

The Austrian, though, took advantage of having five substitutions and made the most of the second cooling break to instigate a fightback that probably leaves the glass half-full rather than half-empty on the South Coast.

The first pair saw Joe Aribo — dropped to the bench for Leeds’ visit — and Adam Armstrong introduced for Stuart Armstrong and Mohamed Elyounoussi respectively seconds after Rodrigo made it 2-0 on the hour.

However, the more telling alteration came soon after during the rehydration hiatus that took just over a minute.

Hasenhuttl looked deep in conversation with assistants Ruben Selles and Richard Kitzbichler and a change of approach soon followed. Sekou Mara, signed from Bordeaux in the summer, replaced one of three centre-backs Jan Bednarek to bring about a switch to Southampton’s usual 4-2-2-2, a formation Hasenhuttl seemed to do away with since pre-season.

Within a minute after Southampton’s change in approach, a give-and-go involving Armstrong and Mara culminated in the former setting up Aribo for his first Southampton goal on his competitive home debut.

Joe Aribo Southampton 2022-23Southampton

While last Saturday’s strike may not have measured up to that solo strike in the Saints’ pre-season fixture with Villarreal, it undoubtedly carried more significance for the hosts whose belief rose after the Nigerian’s timely effort.

Aribo's influence in proceedings was already evident right after his introduction.

Within seconds of the ex-Rangers man coming on after 60 minutes, he had a header saved for Southampton’s first shot on target of the afternoon and a goal-bound effort five minutes later, was blocked.

Even though the Saints had to chase the game at that stage, Hasenhuttl’s utilisation of the Super Eagle was striking.

In the preceding game at Spurs, the Austrian deployed the Nigeria international in tandem with Adam Armstrong in a 3-5-2, whereas the summer signing was used as one of the inside-forwards operating in the half-spaces with the license to roam in a 3-4-2-1 versus Leeds.

Joe Aribo Southampton 2022-23Getty

This seemed a better usage of Aribo’s talent and the coach’s tweak bore fruit in the end, with the Nigerian not just halving the deficit but Mara setting up Kyle Walker-Peters for the equaliser with nine minutes of normal time remaining.

“In the end, I think it is a deserved point because we showed we can react,” Hasenhuttl said after the game. “It’s not always easy when you’re two down to turn things around but I think the subs did a very good job today, and we were immediately on them.

“In the second drinks break we had to adjust a little bit, and after these changes, we were in the game.

“It was important, especially after the first game, to come back here and taking a point can be a good first step in the season.”

As a Saints fan or even a neutral, you have to wonder what happens next.

Joe Aribo Southampton 2022-23Getty Images

Will Hasenhuttl stick with the formation he ended the Leeds game with or continue with either variation of the three-man defence observers have seen lately when they travel to Leicester City on Saturday?

What will any change mean for Aribo, whose influence operating in the inside-right channel is undoubtedly beneficial for a side that at times struggled for consistent final-third cutting edge in the preceding campaign?

The Nigerian’s versatility means he would be operating in his best position in the 4-2-2-2 and theoretically in the 3-4-2-1, but it remains to be seen if the Super Eagle’s adaptability counts against him and the Austrian boss still deploys him in a two-man attack.

Besides, the severity of the injury that forced Moussa Djenepo off last time out remains unknown, but a layoff for the Mali international — who had been utilised at left wing-back in pre-season and even played as a makeshift left-back in Saturday’s 2-2 draw — could lead to a change in formation, thus benefitting the delighted Nigerian.

Joe Aribo, Moussa Djenepo SouthamptonGOAL/Getty Images

"[Southampton’s comeback] just shows what we are capable of. It shows the spirit, and hunger in the group,” Aribo told BBC's Solent Sport after last week’s draw.

“I am buzzing I was able to leave my impact on the game.”

Southampton’s ongoing run now reads one win in their last 14 Premier League games going back to last season. However, the impact of the new signings in testing circumstances showed there is still fight left in this dog.

The next assignment is at the King Power Stadium where Aribo and his strong-willed teammates will look to build on last weekend's rousing fightback and strive to be third-time lucky.

Aribo's role under Hasenhuttl

Will the Southampton boss utilise the Super Eagle in his best position going forward?