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Matt O’Riley at Celtic 2022/23 – scout report

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for a return to the Premier League

In the 2020/21 campaign, Celtic were on the hunt to secure the club’s tenth-consecutive Scottish Premiership title. However, that plan blew up in smoke and the season ended in turmoil for the Bhoys.

Neil Lennon’s men ended up finishing 25 points behind eventual winners and bitter rivals Rangers and a massive rebuild was needed — from the playing staff to those who helped from the touchline.

Lennon was dismissed and the club turned to a rather unknown name in Europe to lead Scotland’s giants forward. That man was the former Australian national team head coach Ange Postecoglou.

Postecoglou had a point to prove in British football, and prove it he certainly did, regaining the league title just twelve months after the turbulent conclusion to the 2020/21 season.

Perhaps the manager’s most impressive quality is not only his ability to coach his sides to play impeccable, turf-gliding football, but Postecoglou has a keen eye for talent.

While Kyogo Furuhashi, Reo Hatate, Carl Starfelt and a reinvigorated Joe Hart have been truly magnificent signings for the European titans, Matt O’Riley looks to have the highest ceiling of any star at Celtic Park.

Arriving in January 2022 from MK Dons for a reported fee of merely £1.5 million, O’Riley seamlessly suited Scotland’s top-flight division. His emphatic displays for Celtic have already seen the Hounslow-born 21-year-old linked with Liverpool and Manchester United in the summer transfer window.

O’Riley is getting better and better with each passing game and it’s time that Total Football Analysis perform an analysis of the Englishman.

This tactical analysis piece will be a scout report of O’Riley’s style of play, strengths and weaknesses as well as looking at how he has slotted into Postecoglou’s tactics this season.

Player profile

O’Riley has played anywhere in an advanced midfield position throughout his career. Let’s take a look through the youngster’s positional history since his days at Fulham by looking at his heatmaps.

O’Riley wasn’t really given a fair trial at Craven Cottage. During his three-year spell from 2017-2020, the academy product was handed just one league appearance as well as some minutes in the Carabao Cup.

At Fulham, O’Riley was predominantly played on the left of midfield, which can be seen from his overall heatmap with the Cottagers.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Then came his move to MK Dons where O’Riley really began to flourish and quickly developed into one of the best players in League One. At Stadium MK, the teenager, as he was at the time, was shifted over to the right and developed a habit of operating in the half-spaces.

We can see this from his heatmap with MK Dons but what is also evident is that O’Riley was advancing forward constantly, as quite a lot of his touches took place in the final third.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

This is exactly the type of midfielder that Postecoglou was looking for. Without hesitation in the January transfer window, Celtic made a move for the English star. As already mentioned earlier, the transfer was seamless and O’Riley clicked within the Australian’s system with ease.

In the second half of Celtic’s 2021/22 title-winning campaign, O’Riley was utilised in a similar position as he had done at MK Dons, on the right of a three.

However, this season, Postecoglou has shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 and has trusted O’Riley to sit at the vertex of the midfield trio as a number ‘10’.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

O’Riley’s on-the-ball qualities always suited this role, and he has been used in this position sparingly throughout his career. However, playing as a number ‘10’ shone a light on his defensive acumen. This will be analysed later in the scout report.

The attacking midfielder’s build of 6ft 2 and 77kg makes him rather robust. ‘10’s are normally associated with being nimble and rather petite, allowing them to operate in tight spaces between the lines.

O’Riley does all these things perfectly by using his large frame as a strength, especially when playing with his back to goal.

Now that we have established where O’Riley plays on the pitch within Postecoglou’s fluid 4-2-3-1, let’s analyse how Celtic’s system gets the most out of the player.

Pressing from the front

O’Riley is sumptuous to watch on the ball and looks incredibly elegant during the offensive phases. However, the Englishman’s capabilities when Celtic are out of possession have come as a pleasant surprise.

Postecoglou has entrusted O’Riley to lead the team alongside the centre-forward when Celtic are pressing high up the pitch. As the 21-year-old operates in a number ‘10’ role within the team’s 4-2-3-1, the shape becomes a 4-4-2 once he steps up to press alongside the striker, creating a two-man first line of pressure.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Postecoglou does not want his side to be passive when defending high up the pitch. Quite often, teams press high but without intensity as their single objective is to force the opposition into a certain area of the pitch.

The Aussie coach doesn’t adhere to this blueprint and wants his players to harry the attacking side constantly, looking to win the ball back as quickly and as aggressively as possible to cause a turnover of possession in dangerous areas.

So far this season, O’Riley has truly been key to Celtic’s ability to be a menacing pressing side.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

O’Riley’s numbers in the final third from a recovery standpoint are magnificent as the young star is staking his claim for being one of the best pressers to play in a number ‘10’ position in Europe, alongside Arsenal midfielder Martin Ødegaard who is showing slightly better numbers.

The Celtic midfielder already has 15 high regains in the attacking third this season as well as 8 dangerous recoveries and 16 counterpressing recoveries.

This shows that he is not just a wonderful presser when the team are in a structured high block, hoping to stifle the opponent’s build-up play, but also when the Scottish giants are in defensive transitions and need to stop counterattacks.

When tasked with pressing high up the field of play, O’Riley has a wonderful understanding of when to drop off onto the opponent’s pivot player but also when to step up and press the centre-backs, applying a cover shadow to the number ‘6’ in the meantime.

These next two images perfectly embody O’Riley’s intelligence out of possession, proving why at just 21, Postecoglou has full belief that the midfielder can lead the line successfully for the Bhoys.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

In the first image, O’Riley has sat off onto Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos, blocking the passing lane into the World Cup winner while allowing his teammates to apply pressure to the Los Blancos backline.

Vinicius Jr. makes a dreadful decision, passing to Kroos which was easily intercepted by O’Riley and Celtic were able to formulate a decent counterattack in the final third, all coming from O’Riley’s decision to sit on Kroos and not engage with one of the centre-backs.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

But in the second image, the former Fulham academy product is pressing Shakhtar Donetsk’s left centre-back, forcing him wide. While doing so, he is applying a cover shadow to the Ukrainian side’s single pivot, cutting off this option.

All around O’Riley, the Celtic players have aggressively man-marked any short passing options, meaning the Shakhtar defender either has to play long or risk losing possession in a dangerous position. Again, O’Riley is the instigator, displaying his wonderful pressing ability and intelligence.

Excellent close control

Now that we’ve looked at O’Riley’s usefulness in the defensive phases, let’s take a look at why the sought-after midfielder is incredibly dangerous in possession.

O’Riley has a rather large frame, as discussed during the ‘player profile’ section of this scout report. At 6’2 and 77kg, the 21-year-old does not possess the stereotypical build of an attacking midfielder.

However, he is nimble and wonderfully skilled at receiving the ball in tight spaces. One of the main traits that help O’Riley is his ambipedal nature. This means that the player is comfortable with both his left and right foot. While his left foot is the predominant of the two, one could be mistaken for believing O’Riley is right-footed, given his superb ball control with the weaker side.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Here is a wonderful example of O’Riley displaying his marvellous close control to get out of a sticky situation. As the ball is played across from the right flank, the young midfielder allows it to run across his body onto his left foot. O’Riley’s first touch is with his left, pushing it past Aurélien Tchouaméni who has stepped up to press him and is gliding by the France international with ease.

Overall, O’Riley does have a tendency to delay his touch until the very last plausible second before quickly turning any onrushing defenders. As he has superb close control, O’Riley can use his body to hold off defensive players and then turn them in an instant to break free into space.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

In this scenario, O’Riley has received a line-breaking pass to feet from the Celtic centre-back. He is being jumped from behind by the Rangers midfielder, but the 21-year-old stands his ground, using his hips and large frame to back into his opponent, holding him off.

Once the ball has reached him, he pushes it to the left, using his weaker right foot, escaping the pressure from his marker and quickly releasing it out wide. O’Riley displayed his two-footedness here as well.

This season, O’Riley has competed in 7.37 offensive duels per game and has been successful in exactly 33.8%. Furthermore, he has attempted 2.82 dribbles per 90 with a 57.7% success rate. The Celtic midfielder isn’t the quickest but still, uses his tight control and deft movements to beat players on the dribble with his back turned to pressure as well as facing it.

A final third threat

Celtic are a possession-heavy team, with Postecoglou adamant about his players building out from the back, using passes on the floor instead of going long to progress up the pitch.

Nevertheless, O’Riley’s impact on the side when the Scottish champions are in the attacking phases doesn’t really kick into effect until the ball is moved into the opposition’s half or at least the final third.

This is evident from the midfielder’s pass map, which has plotted each of his completed passes thus far in all competitions.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Quite a lot of O’Riley’s passes come in the final third, with many being passes into the penalty area, showing his penetrative quality to create chances for his teammates and put them into goalscoring positions.

What is also noticeable from the pass map is that many of these passes occur in the right halfspace. This is because of the tactical role that O’Riley has undertaken at Celtic Park under Postecoglou.

When the side are in a settled positional attack, looking to break down the opponent’s low block, O’Riley positions himself between the lines in the square between the opposition’s left central defender and left-back.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

This can be seen from the previous image where O’Riley is operating in the square. His excellent ball control and quick decision-making allow his Celtic teammate to play to him in this condensed space, without being worried about Los Blancos closing O’Riley down and winning the ball back.

The 21-year-old plays the first-time ball straight to Hatate, disorientating Real Madrid’s defensive structure, before making a run into the box himself.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Going back to O’Riley’s penetrative qualities, the midfielder actually has more penetrating carriers into the penalty area this season in all competitions than Manchester City star Jack Grealish.

Overall, O’Riley boasts 34 penetrative carriers in the 18-yard box, proving just how vital he is to helping Celtic break down a low block.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Once the ball is switched out wide, O’Riley makes a darting run into the box himself, often playing on the shoulders of the opponent’s centre-backs. From here, he can use his 6’2 stature to get onto the end of crosses aimed toward him.

However, the issue with O’Riley, and certainly the biggest area of his game that needs improvement, is actually his potency in front of goal which is massively disappointing.

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s English star destined for Premier League return

Here, we can observe O’Riley’s xG map for the 2022/23 campaign in all competitions. Overall, the English midfielder has taken 27 shots but not scored a single goal.

His xG total has reached 2.44 which is an average of 0.09 xG per shot. This is rather low and very poor, especially since some of his shooting positions have been close to the goal.

Not only does O’Riley need to improve his finishing in the box but the number ‘10’ also takes far too many shots from outside the area. Strikes from range are low xG chances anyway. A lot of these strikes at the edge of the area have been blocked too. This tells us that O’Riley is hitting them from distance primarily when playing against a low block where there are a plethora of players in the way of the ball’s trajectory.

O’Riley needs to either improve the positions he takes shots from, polish up on his finishing, or else simply look to create a chance or retain possession instead of popping the ball off from far out.

Conclusion

O’Riley is a rather peculiar midfielder to watch. His play style is very reminiscent of Manchester United outcast Donny van de Beek, although the Celtic star is much more of a physical presence on the pitch and in the final third.

Like van de Beek, O’Riley doesn’t really get involved much until the ball is in the opponent’s half and he is not an explosive midfielder like Callum McGregor, instead preferring to take deft touches and move the ball quickly upon reception.

O’Riley has the potential to be a truly wonderful midfielder one day but needs to be careful when making the next move for his career so as to not fall down the same unfortunate pathway as his Dutch counterpart.