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How Weston McKennie brings unique style to Juventus’ midfield

There are certainly some frustrations that come with watching McKennie’s game, but he undeniably makes an impact all over the pitch and it has helped him earn his spot in a crowded midfield depth chart.

Juventus FC v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

It certainly has been an eventful few months for Weston McKennie.

It was a roller coaster start to the 2021-22 season in Turin with a few less-than-stellar performances followed up by some signs of improvement and even some flashes of greatness. McKennie has also experienced the highs and lows that come with international duty, including some off-field drama which seems to be behind him as he prepares for another important World Cup qualifying window. And through all of it, he has been a main talking point in transfer rumors — even as recently as Wednesday, with newly appointed Tottenham manager Antonio Conte reportedly expressing his interest in buying McKennie.

For now, though, McKennie is staying with Juventus and Max Allegri has made him a top choice in the midfield with no signs of changing his mind. Allegri has always had high expectations for McKennie and has not tried to hide that, but the transition into a new role under another new manager — McKennie’s ninth coach to play under since 2017 — has not been easy.

Weston McKennie’s attribute tree now (green) compared to what it was during his time at Schalke (gray)

When he was at Schalke, McKennie was asked to do a little bit of everything, including even starting on the back line at times. That was not going to be the case under Andrea Pirlo, who kept him in the midfield but even played him as a holding midfielder due to his defensive work rate. Now, Allegri is pushing him even further forward, giving Juventus an extra body in the attack, and once again, giving McKennie different responsibilities than he was used to.

But it hasn’t seemed to phase the young American as he continues to put the work in at whatever position he is played and you have to believe that’s one of the positive things his manager sees in him. Plus, there is plenty of raw talent to work with so a little patience could go a long way in making McKennie even more of a staple in the Juventus midfield for years to come.

Weston McKennie, the attacking midfielder

If you were watching McKennie during his first couple of seasons at Schalke, you would find it hard to believe that player could turn into an attacking midfielder at any level, much less for one of the biggest clubs in the world. In three seasons in the Bundesliga, McKennie completed just 72.4 percent of his passes and averaged just three progressive passes per 90 minutes.

And that really hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, McKennie’s passing accuracy has improved a bit by percentage, up to 81.9 percent since joining Juventus, but there are still plenty of misplaced passes. In last week’s win over Fiorentina, McKennie completed just 19 of his 34 pass attempts (55.9%) but still had a couple of key passes and somehow came away with the third highest match rating on the team according to SofaScore.

When you hear the term “attacking midfielder,” your mind likely goes to the No. 10’s of the world. Players who use their precise passing from live play and set pieces to set up their teammates for good chances in front of goal. That’s not the role McKennie is meant for and it’s not the role Allegri wants him to try to play. In fact, using McKennie in this new role seems like the Italian manager is almost trying to reinvent what an attacking midfielder does.

With the likes of Manuel Locatelli and Paulo Dybala (and even Juan Cuadrado) being ball dominant and the catalysts for the attack, Juventus need somebody else to be threatening without always having the ball at their feet. McKennie provides that through his forward runs and positioning even though the final product has been lacking more often than not so far this season.

But despite the flaws and frustrations, McKennie is no doubt a threat to opposing defenses. Over the last calendar year, McKennie finds himself near the top of the list in several attacking categories among midfielders in the big five leagues and European competition, according to FBref.com.

McKennie has a non-penalty expected goals (nxpG) mark of 0.22 per 90 minutes which puts him in the 98th percentile of all midfielders. His 0.27 goals per 90 minutes is in the 97th percentile and his npxG plus expected assists (0.31 per 90) is in the 95th percentile. McKennie has registered 10 key passes this season already which is above the average mark for midfielders and his shot-creating actions per 90 sits at 2.34 and in the 74th percentile.

A lot of that comes from his positioning because of how often he gets into the box when Juventus is on the attack. McKennie averages 3.91 touches in the attacking penalty area (98th percentile) and 6.96 progressive passes received (99th percentile).

McKennie’s passing numbers compared to other midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues and European competition

All of this comes while still being in the bottom third of stats such as passes attempted, pass accuracy, dribbles completed and progressive passes. In his more attacking role, McKennie’s passing has seemingly taken even more of a dip with his completion percentage dropping to 75 percent, which would be his lowest mark since his penultimate season with Schalke. His 23 passes intercepted this season is already one away from setting a career-high mark. But again, a lot of that comes from the passes he attempts to make, often looking for the most dangerous pass rather than the simple one, which is why he still racks up the key passes at a rather disproportional rate.

If that side of McKennie’s game could improve, it would make him even more dangerous, but it may also be unfair to criticize the misplaced passes without crediting him for being the player to be in that position to begin. He has proven to be a goal-scoring threat without that ability and it’s the main reason why Allegri has pushed him into the empty role because no one else on the roster can provide what McKennie does.

Weston McKennie, the enforcer

No matter how hard Allegri tries to make him into a 10-goals-per-season player, McKennie is seemingly always going to be that midfielder who works his way back to help out on defense. It is a natural work rate that he showed off all the time with Schalke, leading that club in several defensive stats despite being used mostly as a midfielder. And that has carried over, showing up several times during his tenure with Juventus.

Across all competitions this season, McKennie leads all Juventus players with at least 100 minutes played by averaging 10.826 kilometers (6.73 miles) covered per match. His constant runs forward are a part of that but so is his work tracking back on defense.

McKennie may be the reason the ball is given away carelessly but he always seems to be the one to get back and help with the recovery. He certainly is not the easiest player to dribble past and it shows in the stats. McKennie has 61 defensive recoveries in all competitions this season which is tied with Locatelli for most on the team by a non-defender.

While his role has pushed him more forward in the attack this season, McKennie has made it clear he will not be slacking in the defensive department if he is needed. While his defensive numbers are merely average compared to that of other midfielders, they certainly jump up a notch when you compare the same stats to players in a similar attacking midfielder role.

According to FBref’s numbers, McKennie ranks in the 90th percentile of attacking midfielders and wingers for tackles made (2.7), aerial duels won (1.66) and defensive clearances (1.09) per 90 minutes. His 19.94 pressures per 90 has him in the 82nd percentile while 1.12 interceptions and 1.43 blocks sit well above average too, 76th and 73rd percentiles respectively.

McKennie has shown his ability in the air as a threat inside of the attacking third but he also uses it well in the midfield and on the defensive end. He has won 63 percent of aerial duels in his own half this season.

Weston McKennie, the future star

There are more and more footballers who begin playing at a world-class level early on in their careers and we sometimes forget there is still time to get better for the players who do not hit their peak at 21 years old. McKennie is still just 23 and while he has shown glimpses to prove he belongs at this level, there is still a ways to go. People have rightfully called him out for his play early in the season — which was really a continuation for how he ended last season — but he seems to be hitting his stride once again, reminding many Juventus fans why he was bought in the first place.

It has been a wild ride for the start of his career without a position or role set in stone for him at the club level or even with the U.S. Men’s National Team but that could end up benefiting him in the long run.

McKennie is on his way to becoming one of the most complete midfielders at Juventus and, optimistically, maybe in all of Europe. When he was asked to defend more and more at Schalke, he did the job and improved himself as a defender. Now he is being asked to move forward and create chances for himself and his teammates. If he can improve at the same rate, it shouldn’t be long before he actually is the 10-goals-per-season player Allegri wants him to be.

When you combine all of that talent with some skill in front of goal, plenty of defensive technique and a very high work rate on both ends of the field, you find it easier to live with a misplaced pass here or there. That’s where McKennie is already and that’s why he is becoming so important to the Juventus midfield and to the team’s success this season.