Young American midfielder Weston McKennie made his Champions League debut for Schalke 04 on Tuesday, and he recorded an assist! It was a great moment for him, but it was also the lone highlight in a game that was ugly through minimal fault of McKennie’s. And as the United States men’s national team tries to answer the question of what role McKennie can play for their squad, Schalke’s style of play is not helping them one bit.
OK, first, the good stuff. Watch as the 20-year-old makes an excellent hustle play, then plays a gorgeous square ball to Breel Embolo.
On that video you don’t even see the best part. McKennie won an aerial duel in midfield to start the attack, then took off on a fantastic long run.
WESTON MCKENNIE— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) September 18, 2018
THE ASSIST pic.twitter.com/S1gwXzwA0N
That was one of six times that McKennie won the ball back for his team, and he had their own assist in a 1-1 draw against FC Porto. That’s the good news. There’s also some bad news: he lost more than half of the duels he tried to win, and he completed fewer than half of his passes too.
This, via Stats Zone, is a truly ugly passing map for a central midfielder.
But Schalke really just didn’t play effectively though midfield at all. Nabil Bentaleb was 22-of-36 on his passes, while Suat Serdar was 12-of-18. Yep, a central midfielder who attempted just 18 passes in a game. For comparison, Borussia Dortmund midfielders Axel Witsel and Julian Weigl attempted 92 and 81 passes respectively on Tuesday night.
Schalke plays an ugly style that depends on fast, direct counter-attacks. They only had 39 percent possession in this game, mostly by design. They defend deep, bypass the midfield, and try to bait their opponents into bad turnovers rather than aggressively pressuring high up the pitch. That means McKennie gets fewer opportunities to show what he can do with the ball at his feet or in the press than he would on most other teams.
This is a bit of a problem for the USMNT, who have to figure out to do with their slew of similarly skilled midfielders. McKennie, Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta all look like they can play as a pretty active No. 6 (holding midfielder) or defensive No. 10 (attacking midfielder) in a pinch, but all of them are probably more natural as something in-between, as box-to-box No. 8s. Obviously, they can’t all play the same position at the same time.
Because these players are all very similar, the USMNT scouting and coaching staff would probably like to see McKennie granted some opportunities to get on the ball more, either in a more defensive role or high up the pitch, to see what he can do. Instead, he basically occupies space and does a lot of running.
What you see in the clips above is really positive. It’s awesome to know the USMNT has a player in its pool who has McKennie’s athleticism, as well as his anticipation and work rate in the attacking transition phase of play. But with the way Schalke is playing right now, the USMNT is not finding out whether he can be more than a guy who runs a lot.