It's time for a special January transfer window edition of the Socceroos Scouting Report. Riley McGree's future received widespread attention in Australian football, given the possibility he had of joining countrymen Ange Postecoglou and Tom Rogic at Celtic.
So, with the 23-year-old leaving Birmingham City (via Charlotte FC) to join Middlesbrough instead of the Scottish giants, we're going to examine how he fits in at club and international level.
- Socceroos Scouting Report: Cameron Devlin | Jackson Irvine
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- ESPN+ viewers' guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
January 16, 2022
Having not seen a minute in the opening two months of the Championship season, McGree has still been able to replicate what defined his second stint at Adelaide United in the A-League Men's. A player who works his proverbial socks off in the centre of the park, McGree provides goals from midfield and is a second-ball machine, consistently managing to be there when the ball drops. And at Birmingham City, who are 21st in the league for average possession, the ball drops a lot -- even for Championship standards.
That ability to pop up and provide valuable goals from midfield works in contrast to what he offers with his passing. Moving up within the Championship will make for some interesting viewing going forward.
McGree is one who can provide penalty area threat, goals and shots for the team from midfield. As a consequence, the responsibility for heavy-lifting in build-up play falls onto others. In Lee Bowyer's 3-5-2 at Birmingham, most of that fell upon Ivan Sunjic and the ability to circulate possession out to the likes of Jordan Graham out wide, plus Troy Deeney and Scott Hogan up front.
He suits the stylistic nature of the Championship but, particularly after working off Deeney and Hogan with their backs to goal, McGree was able to trail play and take the ball with momentum. Despite the chaotic nature of it all, he has ample amount of clarity in these moments, along with the physical capacity to then involve himself. McGree has a good sense of timing and anticipation in this respect, understanding when to break into sprint and approach.
His early goal against Bristol City in November is a good example. Despite the deflected shot which wrong-foots keeper Daniel Bentley, McGree's space to shoot specifically comes from timing his run to provide Deeney an option in the lead-up, immediately after Birmingham gain possession.
In short, McGree's weakness is distribution, and how that relates to his preferences in movement. Predominantly playing as an attacking midfielder and being just above the 30th percentile in the Championship for passes received this season is indicative of how little he wants of the ball, if not in third-man situations.
Then, it's what he does with the ball when he does get it, which isn't a lot. There are instances where McGree will attempt passes that have no right to come off -- dinking passes over the top of the defence off his back foot, forcing passes in behind. Even without considering the weight and accuracy of his passes on the run, McGree can still get the team into perceivably threatening positions, simply by being more practical in his decision-making. That doesn't necessarily mean safer, but smarter.
Transfer speculation with respect to McGree was a prime exhibition of the Name Recognition Index™. A move to Celtic was met a great deal of excitement in Australian footballing circles, merely because it was Celtic and because it was Postecoglou he would potentially be working under, without any real consideration of how he would actually fit. This is without even considering the financial realities of the Scottish Premiership, in relation to the English Championship. Firstly, a healthy David Turnbull should not really be making way, while the recent signings of Reo Hatate and Yosuke Ideguchi make even tighter room for places in the Hoops' midfield.
There's also the matter of stylistic compatibility between Celtic and Middlesbrough. At best for the former, McGree is functioning as a counterpoint to the possession and rotations around him to just attack the penalty area. Under Chris Wilder at Teesside, however, McGree's ability to get to the second ball and drive into space possibly comes more into play. Then, from standpoints of consistent level of football and minutes, Middlesbrough is arguably the more suitable destination.
Potential Socceroos fit
If there's one certainty with McGree in a Socceroos shirt, he and Jackson Irvine should not be seeing minutes together on the pitch. The two times McGree saw more than 10 minutes in this third phase of AFC qualifying, though, Australia's head coach Graham Arnold did put them together -- against Vietnam and China. This is one of those instances where Arnold is improperly utilising what he has at his disposal. Given the volume of possession Australia has in Asian competition, McGree and Irvine's willingness to get on the end of actions creates a necessity for others to generate the means for them to do that.
Specifically in a tight win over Vietnam, that necessity and distributive workload fell upon the likes of Ajdin Hrustic and Rogic, who are arguably more effective in other ways and in different areas of the pitch. The eye for a goal from a midfield is valuable, but it shouldn't and can't come the expense of the team actually functioning in possession.
McGree is a -- relatively -- tidier version of Irvine, who creates an extreme trade-off between penalty area threat and meaningful distribution. As noted previously, McGree could thus provide a workable medium between Irvine and the more collaborative likes of Aaron Mooy and Denis Genreau in midfield.