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Weston McKennie, revisited: How the American international became Pirlo’s most valuable midfielder

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With goals and assists in the span of a few games, Weston McKennie is already a valuable asset for Juventus.

Weston McKennie of Juventus FC gestures during the Serie A... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

In less than two weeks, Weston McKennie has transformed himself from a young depth piece with plenty of promise to arguably Andrea Pirlo’s most valuable midfielder for a Juventus side in desperate need of more positive contributions from midfielders.

I’m not sure anyone, myself included, could have predicted that the American international would’ve ingrained himself into the Bianconeri side to this degree at this juncture of the season. Although I never doubted that McKennie would find at least some measure of success with the Old Lady, given that, as I argued at the time, he brought some attributes from Schalke that few of the club’s current midfielders had, I admit that I, too, was wrong, that I, too, underestimated what he could do for Pirlo’s side.

McKennie is not just a depth piece. He’s not just a conservative gamble on a young player (he’s 22 years old!) with tremendous upside. He’s not just a situational weapon. McKennie is, already, an important part of Pirlo’s Juventus project.

However you feel or don’t feel about the American — I’m positive there will be some grumblers who argue that McKennie’s success has more to do with Juve’s poor midfield than his prowess as a player; let them grumble, for their grumbles are but sweet melodies to my ear — you should at least feel happy for this kid: he’s gone from a side on a 28-match winless streak to scoring a golazzo at Camp Nou.

Stop calling McKennie technically poor

When Juan Cuadrado lifted a delightful cross into the box at Camp Nou in Juve’s final Champions League group game and McKennie launched himself airborne, contorting his body and bringing his right like around like Thor’s hammer to smash the volley into the back of the net, was he technically poor? When McKennie drifted onto the right wing and sent a glancing header — after a very good Matthijs de Ligt pass from the back — into the path of a streaking Paulo Dybala to help the No. 10 score his first goal in several years, was he technically poor? When McKennie proffered multiple possible assists vs Atalanta — a backheel, another glanced header — that were squandered by Juve’s attackers (I’m looking at you, Alvaro Morata), was he technically poor?

The criticism of McKennie’s technical abilities, since the day he was signed by Juventus, has been as predictable as it has been lazy and imprecise. There will certainly be some who take this to mean that I see McKennie as technically proficient as Kevin de Bruyne; I assure you that this is not the case. McKennie is not perfect, and there are certainly some areas we might classify as “technical proficiencies” in which the American does need to improve. We’ll discuss that in a bit.

But to deny the technical proficiencies that McKennie does bring to the table is just absurd. The deftness of touch the American has displayed in his assists and goals over the last two weeks speaks to the fact that he’s significantly more than a pressing machine, significantly more than an athlete. I’m not sure why many fans struggle so much looking past his athleticism and seeing his skills as a soccer player, or footballer, or giocatore di calcio or whatever you’d like to say, but it’s tiresome. Be more precise with your language. If McKennie’s performance against Atalanta was technically poor, I hesitate to say what Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance looked like.

Pirlo deserves credit for moving McKennie up the pitch

There are various difficulties and learning curves that Pirlo is dealing with at the moment. Despite the treasure troves of talent at his disposal, Pirlo deserves, in my opinion, continued patience from the fans. He’s a brand-new manager at a club with stupidly (maybe unrealistically) high expectations and extreme pressures; whether or not that marriage of club and manager was right in the first place is kind of a topic for another discussion, but he’s here now so I think his runway should be a bit longer.

That said, the bearded maestro deserves credit where credit is due. As I wrote last week, some players have really improved under Pirlo. Danilo has practically undergone a complete transformation as a player. Others, of course, have faltered pretty badly (hey, Paulito!).

One of the very specific, concrete decisions that Pirlo has made that has already paid dividends was to move McKennie up the pitch into a more attacking midfielder kind of role. Giving the American license to be present higher up the pitch does a few things: it gives Pirlo, who supposedly desires an intense end-to-end press, a player who has the turbo pressed the entire time to hound the opposition really anywhere in that half of the field; it masks some of McKennie’s shortcomings while highlighting some of his strengths; it provides another offensive threat for crossing balls into the box, a department in which the Old Lady has sorely lacked as of late.

McKennie is always looking to create for his teammates or to get into the six-yard box and wreak havoc. Getting him out of the double pivot and more into a box-to-box role (with an emphasis on the other team’s box) has unlocked those desires and abilities, and it has concretely altered the flow of the games for four contests running.

What McKennie needs to do to level up

Alas, McKennie is not the perfect player, and he still makes some mistakes, sometimes bad ones. If this makes you as a fan feel that the American shouldn’t feature for Juventus or isn’t good or is overrated, I don’t know what to tell you; you should probably go take a walk, lighten up, find a friend or something. Even the team’s best player in CR7 has technically poor games (just atrocious vs. Atalanta) and poor stretches (he’s been fairly MIA besides the penalty spot stretching back a while now).

McKennie does have areas where he can improve. If he continues to play further up the pitch, he’s hardly ever going to be tasked with holding onto the ball for a long time and picking out some incisive pass to unravel a tightly packed defense; instead, he’ll be asked to make a quick dump to a teammate, to simply keep the ball moving. There are times when McKennie hesitates just a little bit when a faster decision would pay attacking dividends.

At one point against Atalanta, in Juve’s own half, McKennie received the ball outside of the box and had a chance to spark a counter. Ronaldo and Dybala (I think) were sprinting up the right hand side of the field and looking to break away. McKennie took a couple touches, saw the pass that needed to be made, and ... tepidly pushed the pass their way a bit too late and with too little power. La Dea took the ball and went the other way.

I’m not entirely sure if that moment was a lack of confidence, late-game fatigue, or just mis-kicked — probably some combination of the three — but I think one recurring mistake we’ve seen from McKennie is receiving the ball in that position and either being dispossessed or making a poor (or the wrong) pass. He needs to be sharper and more confident with his passing, and learn to shield the ball from would-be tacklers (Adrien Rabiot is a master at this).

From my vantage point, as long as McKennie keeps his distribution quick, efficient, and simple, he’s going to shine. I don’t think Pirlo is really ever going to ask McKennie to be the maestro midfielder pulling the distribution strings; that’ll be Arthur, Rodrigo Bentancur, maybe Rabiot. So as long as the American keeps the ball moving and gets himself into intelligent positions, which he’s already doing consistently, and makes meaningful touches to play guys into dangerous spots, which he’s also already doing consistently, I think he’ll continue to make a positive impact for the Bianconeri.

I don’t know how McKennie’s game will evolve. Maybe he’ll get better at the things he’s not perfect at right now, or maybe his strengths will become stronger and he’ll settle more into that kind of role. Players evolve and grow differently. McKennie is 22 years old and under the tutelage of one of the best distributing midfielders in recent memory, not to mention in the locker room with all-time greats like Ronaldo and Gigi Buffon. I doubt his game remains static.

Even so, I’m not going to make pronouncements about McKennie’s game becoming like this or that player. He will become who he will become. I think it’s safe to say this, though: Even if McKennie’s performances level off a bit and he remains a contributor in a similar capacity through the rest of the season as he has the last two weeks, Juventus found themselves a damn bargain.