For all the talented players that Manchester United took to the Mercedes-Benz Junior Cup last season, it was Joe Riley who came out of it named player of the tournament. At 19 years old, Riley has already had a wealth of experience playing many positions on the field. While he is capable of playing in midfield, he has been finding his home at full back for the u21 level. Versatility and all around solid skills are the best attributes that Joe possesses. He has that classic Manchester United mentality that is usually only seen in players who have been here for a very long time. He could very well go on to have a solid first team career but having said that I don’t think he will ever be a name that fans get excited about seeing on the team sheet. –/u/monsieurryan
If we are being honest here, Joe Riley seems to be a step down from last year’s 10 list. Some of you might know him as one of those players you release on a free transfer from the club while playing football manager, while the core viewers of United’s U21 and U18s may have become used to seeing his name on the team sheet in different positions. We were debating whether to put James Weir or Angel Gomes on the list, but decided that Weir is too old and that neither of us have seen enough of Gomes to make an insightful assessment of his qualities. That aside, let’s talk a bit about Riley and what he can and cannot do.
/u/monsieurryan touches upon some of his qualities when he mentions his versatility on the pitch. This, however, is by many United fans associated with a player like John O’Shea, and for some reason with negative connotations. I think these players are worth far more in a team than many give them credit for. I also think that their versatility often comes at a price. On one hand, they tend to get a very high number of games by default, as they are ready to slot in whenever injuries strike. On the other, the time to fully take on a position tends to get undermined by management, and while the player tends to be a key member of the squad (of the youth team), they never cement a spot in the long run. This has been a problem for quite a while at the club. However, I think Van Gaal’s love for versatile players could be a benefit for someone like Joe Riley. It is not too far-fetched to imagine some injured or tired players after the summer’s European Championship. Following from this, it is no difficult to imagine a higher number of academy players tagging along on tour. In such a case, one could argue Riley’s versatility to be very much in his favour. Being able to fill in several positions during the pre-season could net him some minutes with the first team, and thus also a chance to impress.
First off, I apologise for my lack of artistic capacity. Anyway, I do think the picture is rather clear:
As you can see, he’s been an exclusively right-sided player, and has a certain triangle he operates in regardless of position. Especially when United are on the ball, you can expect to see him within this specific area. Last year for the U18s, we saw him a lot in the two positions further up the pitch, and saw him net an impressive amount of assists. This is what brings him to this list ahead of a few other players: he brings the numbers. Watching the U21s, you don’t often spot him on the pitch and recognise his part in a build-up or goal, but I urge you to look again. He is a player that keeps it simple, smart, and with a forward-minded approach. This means he will often initiate triangles, 1-2s or make the appropriate run into a channel to release someone else of their marker. He also brings that (expected) Manchester lad work-rate and attitude on the pitch, so you expect him to cover this ground regardless of where his name is put out on the team sheet. And he does. Now, for our current U21-side, /u/monsieurryan is correct in that he plays fullback. This means he will have to improve his engine in order to both cover his designated area that he plays so well in, as well as keeping his right hand side clean of any trouble. This is where the main challenge lays for Joe, in my opinion. I think a lot of his qualities that came to light in the midfield positions, are transferable to the right back position. I think Daley Blind is an excellent example of how a clever player with an eye for a good pass can strongly influence games after being moved backwards on the pitch.
That said, I am unsure of how high his ceiling is. It is a recurring problem with our U21s that a lot of players seem to have good qualities, but we are unable to match them at a high enough level to see if they elevate their play or fall off when confronted. Personally, I would bet on him earning a good Championship level career for himself. That said, and as /u/monsieurryan mentioned, he does have the basic abilities and level of performance to take it a step higher than that.
In conclusion, Riley is a useful and good player with a good attitude and numbers to back his performances up. He isn’t shiny like Pereira was, or powerful like Michael Keane, but he has many of the qualities needed to take it to a higher level. Hard work and taking his chances is definitely a cliché, but one that fits Joe Riley very well. I would not write him off just yet.
-This post first appeared on r/reddevils