Matt O’Riley is once again the subject of transfer speculation, with Spanish side Girona the latest club credited with an interest in the midfielder.

Inter Milan were recently linked with a move for O’Riley, who picked up the player of the match award in Celtic’s comprehensive 5-0 Scottish Cup win over Buckie Thistle on Sunday. However, Sky Sports claims that it is current La Liga leaders Girona who are now weighing up an attempt to prise the Danish international away from Celtic. A host of other clubs around Europe are also said to be monitoring the former Fulham youngster who joined Celtic from MK Dons for just £1.5m in January 2022.

O’Riley, already an impressive performer under previous manager Ange Posetcoglou, has gone to a new level under Brendan Rodgers this season with ten goals and 12 assists from 29 games in all competitions. Here, amid this latest transfer speculation, we take a look at exactly how Rodgers has been able to get even more out of the talented midfielder...

Greater tactical freedom

The one major change in O’Riley this season is the greater tactical freedom he has been given by Rodgers compared to Postecoglou.

READ MORE: Celtic instant analysis as Matt O'Riley steals the show

Under Postecoglou, O’Riley was a key cog in a very well-oiled machine. The former Celtic manager’s ‘fluid rigidity’ style of play was hugely successful, with the side’s scripted movements and slick rotations far too much - domestically anyway - for opponents to handle in the Australian’s two-year spell in the Celtic dugout.

That movement and exchanging of roles often gave the appearance of fluidity but this was still rigid in the sense that players were asked to fill designated spaces through meticulously designed patterns of play. Under Rodgers, though, O’Riley has been afforded greater freedom in the positions he picks up to impact the game – as can be seen by comparing his heatmaps below.

In his 2022/23 heatmap, shown above, we can most of O’Riley’s activity coming in that left half-space, in an almost box shape.

Although most of his touches have again come in generally similar areas of the pitch, his 2023/24 heatmap shows some interesting differences. Firstly, we can see the shape of that area of concreated touches covers a longer area on the pitch, while there are also more touches towards the middle and into the box – O’Riley is averaging more touches in the box this season in the Premiership, 5.87 per 90 this season compared to 5.53 per 90 minutes last season (Wyscout). We can see many more touches deeper in the Celtic half on his heatmap too, more on that later.

A highly intelligent player, who is often one or two steps ahead of most players on the park, O’Riley has thrived on being given the freedom to decide when and where to go to impact games.

Added goalscoring touch

The most eye-catching result of this greater freedom has of course been O’Riley’s increased goal return this season. 

As can be seen in the below shot map from StatsBomb, O’Riley still got plenty of chances last season under Postecoglou, though he managed just three league goals, underperforming his xG by almost three.

There was some context, with O’Riley filling in for Callum McGregor at the base of midfield for a significant period of last season after the Celtic captain picked up an injury in the Champions League. Even taking that into account, it still took O’Riley until May to finally register his first league goal.

As his 2023/24 shot map shows above, it has been a completely different story this season. He has taken more shots (2.77 per 90 this season compared to 2.32 last season) while he is now overperforming his xG, averaging 0.45 goals per 90 in the league from an xG value of 0.32 per 90.

As well as executing more efficiently (his post shot xG has jumped to 0.36 per 90 from 0.23 per 90) he is also getting into higher-quality goalscoring positions. His average open play xG per shot, which was 0.085 last season, has jumped to 0.131 this season in the league. This is also reflected in the shot maps. Consistent with his heatmap last season, O’Riley only had a small amount of efforts on goal around the six-yard box, but this season, there are far more attempts much closer to goal, particularly towards the right side.

READ MORE: Celtic's Brendan Rodgers hails Rocco Vata after first goal

A clear impact of being allowed this enhanced freedom, O’Riley himself has credited his approach away from the game as an additional contributing factor in his goalscoring prowess this season. Taking part in a Q&A for the club’s X channel recently, O’Riley, who has previously spoken about using meditation and mindfulness practices to improve his on-pitch performances, said: “…it's been mainly an off-the-pitch thing - the mental side of things. I'm a lot calmer on the pitch and putting less pressure on myself."

Still providing for others

O’Riley’s increased goalscoring output has led to a drop in how much he is creating for others under Rodgers. Last season he averaged 0.30 xG Assisted per 90. This season, this has dropped to 0.20 per 90.

This is still the second-highest in the Celtic squad this season though (minimum 900 minutes played), behind Luis Palma (0.45 per 90) and the fourth-highest in the league at that minute cut-off. Overall, O’Riley has still generated 5.92 worth of xG for others, leading to 58 shots and 7 goals. He of course provided three assists in Celtic’s six Champions League group stage games too.

This has not come at a cost to his overall expected goal contributions, either, with his combined xG and xG Assisted per 90 values actually up overall on last season (0.50 per 90 last season, 0.58 per 90 this season), according to StatsBomb. His combined goal contribution is now just more weighted to xG than xG Assisted.

Off-the-ball effectiveness retained

What hasn't diminished to much extent at all is O’Reilly’s continued importance to Celtic without the ball. There are some changes here too though, which again can be attributed to the way Rodgers has used O’Riley. Under Postecoglou, O’Riley was often given the responsibility of pressing from the front alongside the striker. This season, under Rodgers, he has been used deeper when Celtic are out of possession.

Still resembling a 4-4-2 structure without the ball, O’Riley has tended to drop in alongside McGregor with the third central midfielder jumping up with the striker. This is something that has helped Celtic gain more control in the bigger games when they are less likely to dominate the ball, such as the Champions League or the derby matches – his performance in the 1-0 win at Ibrox last September was a great example of this. 

The above radar from StatsBomb gives some further insight into O’Riley’s defensive contribution this season compared to last. Although there is some drop in the volume of his pressing output (likely due to his role change without the ball), his regains through pressures remain steady here.

His deeper role out of possession may also account for a drop in interceptions but an increased number of ball recoveries (10.26 per 90) and a reduced foul rate (0.44 per 90) point to an overall increase in efficiency in his defensive work. That appears to be StatsBomb’s thinking too with their defensive-specific version of On-Ball Value (StatsBomb’s model that values each action based on the +/- impact it has on their team's likelihood of scoring and conceding) placing a higher value on O’Riley’s work without the ball this season.  

So, although some of his base defensive stats may have declined somewhat, StatsBomb values O’Riley’s defensive contribution is ultimately having a bigger impact on Celtic keeping the ball out of the net this season than it did last season. His increase from 0.01 to 0.05 also sees O’Riley register the highest Defensive Action OBV value of all ten Celtic players who have played a minimum of 900 league minutes this season in the SPFL Premiership, with McGregor (0.03) and Maeda (0.03) joint second.


Breaking down how Rodgers has elevated O’Riley’s game to another level serves as a timely reminder - if one was even needed - of just how important the Danish international is to this current Celtic side. His goalscoring exploits have earned him plenty of plaudits this season but he offers so much more, with and without the ball.

READ MORE: Will Celtic manage to sign two more players? - video debate

Even though he signed a new deal through to 2027 last September, it is more than likely that a potentially record-breaking transfer to one of Europe’s elite clubs and/or leagues lies in wait for O’Riley in the summer. With a hand in 22 of Celtic’s 63 goals in all competitions so far this season, a move this month though, when there is so much at stake for Celtic in the second half of the season, must simply be unthinkable.