Joe Riley’s time is now; Jose Mourinho should be looking to blood him into the team now…

As Antonio Valencia nears the end of his Manchester United career, Jose Mourinho seems to be looking to invest in a new right-back. However, he may be better in looking closer to home. Joe Riley is now 21, which makes next season make or break for the versatile Lancastrian defender (provided Mourinho keeps him at the club and Riley is willing to fight for a place in the first-team). Riley has made only two appearances for the first team hitherto, both of which came during Louis van Gaal’s reign in the 2015/16 campaign at left back.

He returned to the Reserves later that season, making the right-back position his own. Like many a United youngster, Riley’s opportunities have been somewhat limited due to injuries; despite earning a loan move to Sheffield United in January 2017, Joe was forced to return to United only a month later after suffering a dislocated shoulder. Despite setbacks, Riley returned to United for rehabilitation and was not deterred by injuries, saying:

“I guess it’s a season I can reflect on as I’ve learned a lot from it with the injuries I’ve had.”

This rings true as he has now established himself as the captain of the U23s, becoming a permanent fixture at right-back. He has all the right attributes to be a fantastic full-back for the club; as well as his ability to play either side of defence, he’s quick and strong, offering a fantastic overlapping outlet on either flank. Though not outstanding, his two goals for the U23s this season, including a fantastic effort against Liverpool, show he can still offer an attacking option in a poor side.

Arguably Riley’s biggest issue is his place in the pecking order. Whilst he has the ability play at left-back, it seems Mourinho may be looking to the transfer market for a permanent fixture there, with Ashley Young turning 33 this year and Luke Shaw appearing to be out of Mourinho’s plans. Riley could provide a strong back up in that area, but at the age of 21, he may not deem this an admirable situation. Right back is probably Riley’s preferred position, but it is a very competitive slot within the squad.

Though Valencia is far and away the first choice at the time of publication, options for the future will be on Mourinho’s mind. Two of United’s young defensive prospects, Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, have both been loaned out this season to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace respectively, with a look to preparing them for first-team football. However, whilst both have been deployed at right-back by their respective loan clubs, their positions at their parent club arguably lie elsewhere.

Tuanzebe offers relatively little going forward and has the natural attributes to play at centre-half, whilst Fosu-Mensah can do a similar job but could well be moulded into a box to box midfielder. Given both of these things and the seemingly imminent departure of Matteo Darmian to Juventus, Riley has a real chance to stake his claim as Valencia’s successor. Some may question his lack of first-team minutes in comparison to the other two aforementioned, but if Mourinho intends to stick to his word, suggesting:

“We have some young players that need to get, with both hands, opportunities with their evolution, so let’s see.”

Riley may get a chance to play backup to Valencia next season with a look to being the future first choice. This is, however, dependent on whether he is willing to take that chance, or he feels as though his time has come to move on and play elsewhere. This would be following the precedent set by various reserve team players, the most recent of which being Josh Harrop. Harrop was also 21 when he left United in search of first-team football at Preston North End, and has found it, appearing 37 times this season.

Riley would be justified in replicating his former teammate as he looks to develop, but if he opts to stick with United, he deserves to be given a real chance by Mourinho.

Written by Rob Potter

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