PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
This profile was originally published in the fifth edition of the Scouted Football Handbook, available here.
Who is Riley McGree?
Note: This profile was first written in February 2020. All statistics and facts are correct to that time period.
Riley McGree is on his way to Middlesbrough, after spending a season-and-a-half on loan with Birmingham in the Championship from MLS expansion franchise, Charlotte FC, and being close to joining Celtic.
The final section of this piece focuses on his fit on Celtic, which we may update in the coming days. The other section – focussing on his style of play – still illustartes what McGree offers as a player.
The career paths of Australian players are notoriously strange. Now 21, Riley McGree has already played for three A-League clubs, one twice, while in the meantime having been both bought and sold by Club Brugge. Nonetheless, he has been able to forge out an excellent career for himself at Adelaide United as he looks to spring himself into the consciousness of Socceroos manager Graham Arnold, and potential suitors in Europe.
In a league where young players find it extremely hard to earn regular first-team minutes, McGree has already played over 5,500 since his debut as a 17-year-old in 2016. He has also managed to do it at three clubs: Adelaide United, Newcastle Jets, Melbourne City and again with Adelaide.
His breakout came on loan with the Jets, whose run to the A-League Grand Final in 2018 came courtesy of an outside of the box scorpion kick that was nominated – and criminally overlooked – for the Puskás Award later that year. Importantly, McGree proved himself not only a tidy midfielder, but also an effective penalty box presence.
His loan spell last season with Melbourne City confirmed that notion, while his run of a goal every 142 minutes with Adelaide this season underscores his offensive potential as an attacking or box-to-box midfielder in a variety of systems.
At national team level, McGree has captained the Australian under-23 team, the Olyroos, which qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo later this year. The 21-year-old, however, was not present at the AFC Under-23 Championship which served as the qualifier, as he received a six-month national team suspension for an incident earlier in AFC qualifying. He and three others are alleged to have been involved in some highly questionable Tinder tomfoolery in Cambodia.
Riley McGree's style of play
While Riley McGree is a versatile midfielder that has spent time playing virtually every role imaginable in the centre of the park – and also out wide – he has now clearly proven to be best in an advanced attacking midfield role.
Excused from the burden of too many defensive responsibilities, the Australian has become one of the league’s deadliest threats in transition. Excellent at instinctively seeking out pockets of space vacated by the opposition defence and midfield, McGree is the fulcrum of Adelaide’s attack in whatever part of the pitch their forward forays take shape.
Riley McGree has deserved a proper shot at Europe and he's got one – even if it's via a move to MLS expansion team Charlotte FC.— Scouted Football (@scoutedftbl) October 5, 2020
We profiled him in Volume V of our Handbook series; he's at his best in really high attacking areas, linking play and breaking into the box. pic.twitter.com/kUkgbBE5R3
From these positions, McGree is a risk-taker that is willing to gamble losing possession in pursuit of the killer ball, dribble move or deft touch that could stretch or unlock the defence. Primarily, his best plays weaving through tight spaces are borne from his great first and second touch, rather than his dribbling ability.
In fact, he completes only 54 percent of his dribbles and struggles to get past defenders marking him in isolated situations. His is one of the most intriguing skillsets in the league – an attacking midfielder whose quality is predicated more on his positioning and instinctual play than the standard technicians that traditionally grace the position.
Positionally, he is given license to roam by Adelaide United manager, Gertjan Verbeek. He moves from wing to wing, to just off the striker, to a true central attacking midfield position, and even through midfield with the occasional defensive intervention at the edge of his team’s penalty area.
But evidently, it is advanced of the halfway line where he does the most damage. His sense of timing in making late runs into the box is superb. Cutbacks have been the primary source of his eight league goals this season, but he also has proven to be in the right position to smash home rebounds from the goalkeeper and the woodwork.
Generally, whenever he can latch onto the ball in the penalty area, he is lethal. But from long range he is more wasteful, prone to leaning back and skying efforts on his favoured left foot. McGree leads all midfielders and ranks ninth overall in expected goals per 90 minutes in the A-League, with 0.5 on his 3.6 shots per 90 minutes.
Conversely, he has only totalled 1.2 xG Assisted for the whole season. The 21-year-old is more of a go-between than a creator. He prefers to dish the ball off to others so he can charge into a shooting position himself, rather than looking for the killer ball for a team-mate. This suits Adelaide’s wide counter-attacking scheme, as he targets the speedy wing duo of Ben Halloran and Nikola Mileusnic.
The rest of the Australian’s underlying statistics are underwhelming. 1.8 key passes per 90 minutes is okay, but not outstanding for such an advanced midfielder. Likewise, his 1.4 tackles and 0.7 ball recoveries in the final third per 90 are fine, but not outstanding – as a player with a pretty sizeable engine, in a system more dedicated to pressing he would probably improve in both these areas.
But on the flipside, he already has some key weapons at his disposal. His decision-making skills, wonderful positioning, timing of his attacking runs, and finishing ability inside the penalty area can take him a long way if he can continue to develop other parts of his game and become a more rounded player.
Riley McGree at Celtic
And so now to Celtic, and Ange Postecoglou – it is a great fit. As noted when this profile was first written almost two years ago, McGree has a good engine, which is pretty much a non-negotiable for a Postecoglou player. He needs to use that engine to be more impactful defensively though; again, this is where Postecoglu comes in.
McGree will add some important attacking midfield depth to support Tom Rogic. He is a little rougher around the edges than Rogic, but he should add more goals to the team if Postecoglou gives him license to attack the box in a similar way to his time at Adelaide United.
The Australian suits Celtic’s high tempo style, but possibly not the high possession aspect of it. He is very damaging as an attacker in transition but tends to struggle more when the defensive block is allowed to set. He is not much of a technician. He does not need a lot of touches, but he takes risks and has a massive impact in the final third – more as a scorer, though. He definitely can improve as a creator if he wants to play as a true attacking midfielder, rather than as a box-to-box role.
But Ange might also see McGree as a deputy to David Turnbull. Again, he lacks the on-ball polish of Turnbull, but he certainly fits the philosophy of quick transitions once possession is won, and could certainly play well in a system alongside Callum McGregor and compatriot Rogic. And, while they are not his natural positions, McGree can do a job on the wing or up front if need be. He is a great squad player to have.