Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s midfield magician by Josh McCafferty

Matt O’Riley: Celtic’s midfield magician by Josh McCafferty

Celtic midfielder Matt O’Riley joined the club in the January transfer window after a deal to sign now Middlesbrough man Riley McGree collapsed. The Championship side appear to have drawn the short straw in this debacle with O’Riley excelling in the short time he’s had at Celtic so far and today, I’ll be looking at the fleeting rise of the twenty one year old. 

Coming through the academy at a side who are regularly alternating between the English Premier League and Championship is never easy and this certainly applied to Matt O’Riley. 

He made a plethora of appearances for the under 18’s and under 23’s of Fulham yet managed to only make 5 senior appearances for the Craven Cottage side. His lack of first team action in West London provoked O’Riley to depart Fulham in spite of a reported lucrative financial offer to stay there. 

He went a short spell without a club and then trained with MK Dons for six months before signing a permanent deal with the Buckinghamshire club in January of 2021.

O’Riley ended up spending a year with MK Dons, making 54 appearances for the club across all competitions, scoring 10 goals and setting up 8. Particularly towards the end of his spell with the Milton Keynes club, O’Riley begun to stand out and in his 26 starts in English League One in 21/22, he netted 7 times and assisted 5. He gained widespread plaudits for his abilities with him being labelled a “little bit too good for this level” on an EFL show on TV channel Quest. 

Then in the 2022 January transfer window, O’Riley earned his move to Celtic. He joined the club for a minimal £1.62 million fee (Transfermarkt) in spite of interest from the likes of Swansea City with his Father stating how much of a big influence manager Ange Postecoglou was in his decision to move North of the border. He spoke to the Athletic saying:

Before signing, Matt said, ‘I’m going to have a chat with the manager first‘.

He had a list of questions and then came out five minutes later and said ‘Yep, I’m going. I just know. He answered every question before I asked it’. He’s so happy about it.

After he signed with the Hoops on a four and a half year deal, O’Riley was expected to make an immediate impact. He was brought in to add depth to a Celtic midfield that was running thin on options due to injury and players going on international duty. And make an impact he did, registering 2 goals and 2 assists in his maiden 5 appearances for Celtic including an impressive display in the Glasgow Derby in which the Bhoys ran out 3-0 winners. 

O’Riley would experience a slight drop off in form throughout late February and March but came back to the fore in a 7-0 rout of St. Johnstone, bagging a brace from the bench which you can see in the Twitter thread below:

As a player, Matt O’Riley is highly creative with his physical, 6”1 stature helping him weave his way past opposition players to play clever passes to break the lines. He’s averaged 2.5 key passes per match in the league in his time at Celtic so far, putting testament to this inventiveness. 

The Dane regularly takes up the advanced playmaker role in the Celtic side, particularly on the inside right channel where he can cut inside and create, get assists and even goals. Just look at his performance in Celtic’s 3-2 win away to Aberdeen where he set up Jota for the opener and then doubled the Bhoys’ lead four minutes later, albeit through the aid of a deflection. 

In addition, O’Riley also appears to be an ample, long-term replacement for Tom Rogic in the Celtic midfield. The Australian has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance under Ange Postecoglou however he is now twenty nine years old and may soon begin to lack the levels required to regularly contribute to the high pressing style of play his manager demands of him. Rogic has been a great servant to Celtic although with O’Riley’s rise, he may see his position come under threat. 

Despite being born in London, Matt O’Riley is also able to represent Denmark having recently pledged allegiances to the nation of his Mother’s birth. He made a short cameo for the under 21’s against Belgium in March after his maiden call-up. The chance to play at major tournaments such as the upcoming World Cup, along with it being highly unlikely he would ever receive an England call up, will surely have been huge motivators in O’Riley’s decision to alter his international loyalties. 

However, as mentioned, O’Riley was born in England and came through the academy at Fulham therefore in spite of his now Danish status, he would still count as a homegrown player for any club south of the border thus making him a highly attractive prospect. 

If he manages to keep up his early Celtic form, it assuredly won’t be long before some big names are chasing O’Riley but you feel that will be a long way away yet with the twenty one year old still having four years left on his Celtic deal come the summer. 

Furthermore, the chance to continue to play dominant football, win trophies and compete in European competition is a hard facet for any player to leave behind.

We’re only seeing the beginning of Matt O’Riley’s Celtic emergence. There is certainly much more to come from the youngster and the final few games of the Scottish Premiership season where Celtic could crown themselves as champions for the tenth time in eleven seasons provides O’Riley with the chance to prove his abilities when the stakes are high.

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