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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

Joe Riley can make the grade at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho

Joe Riley rose to face in the Manchester United Academy getting his chance in the first team under then manager Louis van Gaal during the 2015/16 season. Luke Shaw was injured and Van Gaal needed some options on the bench with Riley deemed ready to take his chance. The 20-year-old was part of the travelling squad in the 2-1 defeat to FC Midtjylland in the UEFA Europa League on the 18th February 2016, not getting a chance to take part in the match. Just four days later Riley did replace fellow Academy graduate Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in the 3-0 Emirates FA Cup victory over Shrewsbury Town at New Meadow. His full debut came days later against Midtjylland in the 5-1 thriller in which another Academy graduate Marcus Rashford stole the headlines. Riley was not given a chance thereafter, playing in the then U21 league, now the U23 Premier League and last season, albeit from January, was loaned out to Sheffield United where he suffered an injury, ending his season after just two appearances.

Riley is a decent left-back and has proven this throughout his time in the club’s Academy. He can also play in midfield and has been used as a wing-back or even a winger, given that he has the pace and ability with the ball. Playing at left-back seems to be his favoured position though, but that could well change if he is granted the chance anywhere else on the pitch, solidifying his performances and proving himself in that position. With the left-back position being a problem at United, perhaps Riley has the chance to leap ahead of Luke Shaw after his turbulent three years at the Old Trafford club. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and even Demetri Mitchell could offer competition in that role also, both making their debuts with Mitchell breaking though for the last Premier League match of the season, a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford just days before United lifted the UEFA Europa League in Stockholm, Sweden.

Riley’s strengths seem to be his pace and ability with the ball, his weaknesses being the fact he does not have much experience, especially in a first team environment. His loan spell at Sheffield United during the second half of last season should have given him something to build his rise into United’s first team, should that be an option for him, but his injury, which literally ended his season was a big blow in curtailing that for him, meaning he will need to start again this summer in a big to resurrect his career, something all young players will need to do once they have overcome a serious injury. Riley has not been all that lucky with injury, perhaps not on the same scale as the likes of Will Keane and James Wilson, but still enough for a young player to get through.

In order for Riley to be granted the chance in the first team under Jose Mourinho, he will need to first overcome his injury and prove his fitness. He will then need to perform to the expectations of the manager in the reserves, or even out on loan if that is the plan for the player before the end of the transfer window at the end of August. If Riley starts to demonstrate the signs which Mourinho will be looking for, continuing to do so at a consistent level, the player could find that he may be given a chance in the first team just like Joel Pereira, Axel Tuanzebe, Scott McTominay, Demetri Mitchell, Angel Gomes and Josh Harrop were last season. Riley seemed to thrive during the 2015/16 season, before his injury, earning that chance in the first team in order to impress the manager. There is no reason why he cannot get to that place in his career again.

The only thing which stands in Riley’s way at this present time is Luke Shaw, United’s seemingly first choice left-back. His three-year stay at Old Trafford has not been the best with injury and a lack of fitness showing the bad side of his career. The fact he was open to criticism was also a factor during the past season, which should have given the player the fire and determination to prove the manager wrong, which he did start to do, but suffered another injury, therefore a setback in his United career. Shaw will need to kick on from the last three seasons as I am not sure he will be given another chance after this one. If it does not work out for him, Mourinho will need to have a plan B in his mind and it is likely that Riley, Borthwick-Jackson or even Mitchell could all be a part of that plan B.

 

Riley should be able to make it in the game, but whether that is at United or not remains to be seen. I don’t think Mourinho has seen enough of the 20-year-old in order to allow him to leave the Old Trafford club permanently, but if he does not start breaking through, a future away from United may be more likely. The injury he suffered last season, no matter how frustrating it was will have set his development back a little, but with determination and perseverance, Riley should have what it takes to show the manager what he is capable of. The Premier League 2 may not be where the player develops based on the lack of competition, so perhaps a place in United’s squad, or even a loan spell will help him more than playing poor football in an U23 league screaming for an overhaul again.

copyright: JW