There’s a convenient shortcut one can use to assess Weston McKennie’s fit at Leeds United: an increasingly strong connective tissue coloured red, white, and blue.
His coach at Elland Road is fellow American Jesse Marsch, who could also commiserate with McKennie about their respective stays in the German Bundesliga. He’ll join a midfield including their countryman Tyler Adams, the captain of his national team who has been a first-choice option for the USMNT alongside McKennie for years. When he looks to leave the centre of the park, he’ll do so alongside another American Brenden Aaronson, another U.S. international who became Leeds’ record signing last summer.
Scan beyond the obvious, however, and you’ll find an interesting partnership.
For McKennie, this will appear to be a step down from a perennial title contender in Juventus to a side mired in a Premier League relegation scrap. Leeds’ move to sign him should not be seen as Marsch offering a life raft to a compatriot as the S.S. Old Lady appears to be taking on water. Rather, Leeds’ transition to playing in a 4-3-3 more often required someone who can do all the pressing work of a defensive-minded midfielder without forcing the coach to put another deep-lying player onto the pitch.
“I thought seriously,” McKennie told The Athletic on Monday at Elland Road. “Juventus are a Champions League club, a strong club, one of the top teams in Italy and around the world. But for me, I just felt like I couldn’t express my style or play and my full potential there. Leeds are a team who I feel like I fit toe-to-toe with everything that they want to do and accomplish.
“I have friends here. Obviously I think about myself first because it’s my career, but it helps. Tyler’s a similar player to me. He fits in well here, so I’ve heard only good things. That’s how I came to my decision.”
For a player so often asked to do everything he can to keep an amorphous team well-calibrated, a more specialised role could be needed for his development. Conversely, Leeds have found a younger midfield replacement for Mateusz Klich, who has moved to D.C. United of MLS this winter — and McKennie won’t struggle to find friendly faces as he acclimatises.
When analysing McKennie, it is easy to prioritise the proverbial eye-test over the numbers.
It is impossible to look away from the U.S. international when he is at his best. McKennie is a sharp reader of a game who loves to get into dangerous areas to give team-mates an outlet for passing — to force another Americanism into the mix, something of an ideal game-breaking wide receiver. His often eye-catching hairdos (with a patriotically colourful patch at the recent World Cup) are outshone by his work rate, which seemingly keeps him in the TV cameras’ shot no matter the vantage point. He’s also been somewhat amorphous in his young career, that less-specialised player who coaches often ask to fill gaps left open by more defined team-mates.
“When I was at Schalke (from 2016-20), I was all over the place,” McKennie said yesterday. “I was playing right-back, I was playing midfield, I was playing striker, I was playing centre-back… everywhere. I learnt to play different positions.
“When I came to Italy, they could see I was a bit hectic in some of my runs and pressing sometimes — running 60 yards instead of running 30 yards and doing the same thing.
“I definitely learned some tactical and positional discipline. But at the same time, it became a little bit too much — where it felt like I was on a string. The string is pulled here, the string’s pulled there and I couldn’t completely have some type of freedom.
“That was one of the main reasons why I came to the conclusion that I’d come to England and see how I shape up.”
Like Aaronson and Adams before him, his first chance to make a strong impression on his new fanbase could come with his defensive pressing.
So far in 2022-23, McKennie has averaged 4.98 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, with 41.9 per cent of these coming in the opposition’s half of the pitch. In comparison, Klich averaged 6.48 during two and a half Premier League seasons for Leeds, playing mostly under Marcelo Bielsa, including 47.4 per cent in the attacking third. Some of that was dictated by the difference in styles seen in the Bundesliga and Serie A, as McKennie averaged 8.18 recoveries per 90 with Schalke, while that rate dipped to 5.5 after moving to the fallen Serie A giant.
While he filled the role assigned to him, it was never a fully compatible match between Juventus’ style and McKennie’s brand of flair.
“In Italy, there’s a little bit more on the serious side — not in a bad way either,” McKennie said. “They’re very presentable. I’m very, I don’t know… outgoing. I have a really big personality and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Also, the playing style. Italian football in general is very defensive and different paced to what you get here (in England). I’m a very up and down (box to box) type of guy, so that was another reason.”
McKennie will no doubt hope that Marsch will enable him to unleash more from his game, which he had to contain at the Allianz Stadium.
That box-to-box approach should serve Leeds well as it works to progress up the pitch more quickly. Currently, Leeds average 14.4 passes per minute of possession, a tick below the league average of 14.68. Leicester City lead the Premier League with a 16.2 passing rate, while Southampton operate at a more lethargic 13.1 clip.
While Leeds pass close to the league average, they aim to be more progressive than most.
Their 64.6 progressive passes per 90 is fractionally ahead of league leaders Arsenal, ranking sixth overall behind Liverpool, Manchester City, Brighton, Tottenham and Manchester United. While Marsch’s current midfield partnership of Adams and Marc Roca have both proven capable of spraying passes from deep, McKennie will be far from redundant.
To put it mildly, McKennie is seldom compared to Andres Iniesta.
Among all midfielders in the European game’s Big Five leagues who played at least 500 minutes ahead of the recent World Cup, none had a smaller share of his team’s live (aka, open play) passes than the U.S. international. However, only six qualified midfielders had a higher share of their team’s received progressive passes, illustrating his capability of getting into promising areas down the pitch.
The same point can be illustrated with a full season’s worth of play.
McKennie logged 1,369 league minutes for Juventus in 2021-22, starting in 15 of his 21 appearances. In that time, Smarterscout data shows that his receptions were far more impactful for their ball progression as a team than his passes or his carries.
While it is odd to think of a first-choice midfielder being a poor passer, even in this age of role specialisation, McKennie’s strengths in receiving and ball recoveries should help round out the midfield when deployed ahead of summer signings Adams and Roca. That spatial awareness should be a welcome addition for Roca in particular, as the Spaniard can lack options to receive his line-breaking passes due to Leeds’ narrow shape.
Marsch may need to move further away from relying on a 4-2-3-1 base formation in order to accommodate a trio of midfielders who certainly did not come to Yorkshire for 25-minute shifts from the bench. Some of that work has taken place already this month: after lining up in a 4-3-3 just once before the World Cup — in October’s 1-0 defeat against Arsenal at home — Leeds have used the shape for four of their five league matches since play resumed post-Qatar, with Aaronson and Wilfried Gnonto alternating makeshift midfield responsibilities.
Although teenager Gnonto has been an electric inclusion, McKennie could offer much of the Italian’s threat to receive progressive balls while giving Leeds a more natural base shape. Marsch could then play the matchup game by game and pick between Aaronson and Gnonto to join Jack Harrison and Rodrigo in the attacking third — without giving them additional orders to track back.
After so much instability on the pitch since before Bielsa was replaced by the American last February, McKennie’s signing appears to give Leeds far greater balance in midfield.
Roca can stay back with greater confidence that he’ll have a target to find with a pass while Adams continues doing the metronomic work of alternating a series of short passes with his tireless efforts to disrupt opposing build-up sequences.
There is also the fact that, as the squad stood previously, Marsch’s go-to midfielder after Adams and Roca has been Sam Greenwood — a raw youngster who, up to the very end of last season, was regarded as a centre-forward. Beyond that, Adam Forshaw, a 31-year-old veteran of Leeds’ days in the Championship, has lacked fitness this term and barely played, and Darko Gyabi also boasts little experience at age 18.
While signing a central midfielder now was not an urgent priority, it was not difficult to make the argument that Leeds recruiting one of McKennie’s calibre in this window felt extremely prudent.
They can also enjoy a trial period to determine if he is the missing piece to complete Marsch’s newly preferred midfield trio before committing significant funds to making the move permanent.
McKennie was brought in on loan with 24 Champions League appearances for Schalke and Juventus to his name, with Leeds holding a purchase option close to £30million ($37m). Currently a point above the relegation zone, they will have to avoid the drop back down to the Championship over the next four months if they are to trigger that option, on top of certain other conditions.
But that is a question for later in the season. For now, McKennie is squarely focused on making a strong first impression for a team hoping to escape the battle at the bottom of the league far sooner than they did last season, when survival was not assured until the final match. That is very much in his character, as those close to him say he’s “too much of a fighter” to stomach being relegated.
He has enough to focus on the short-term to ensure that purchase option does not loom over his Premier League debut.
“I’m an in-the-moment type person — I’m coming here with how the deal is but if I love it then I don’t see why not,” added McKennie when asked about the prospect of staying. “If maybe Leeds aren’t happy with me or I’m not happy, we’ll see how that goes.
“But, for now, my head is here.”
Additional contributors: Phil Hay, John Muller, Mark Carey
(Top photo: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
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