In the midst of the unrelenting transfer churn, the future of a footballer can dramatically change from one day to the next.
Weston McKennie’s arrival at the Italian behemoths Juventus – having previously been linked with the likes of Newcastle United and Southampton – is one of the more surprising deals of the summer.
The 22-year-old US international joined FC Schalke 04’s academy in the summer of 2016 – having already spent three years of his childhood in Germany before moving back to America. McKennie broke into the first team the following season and injury is all that has been able to keep him out of the side since.
Juventus have initially signed McKennie on loan but have the option to make the deal permanent for €18m should they be suitably impressed with the Texas-born midfielder. And there is plenty to be impressed by.
Countless reams of glowing praise have been written about Andrea Pirlo’s illustrious playing career, but the incoming Juventus manager is something of a unknown quantity when it comes to his decisions from the dugout.
The 41-year-old alleviated some of that mystique in his first press conference as Juve manager. Pirlo – who has never before overseen a professional game as head coach – described the style of play he is aiming to inspire in Turin.
“I want to bring back the enthusiasm, with proactive football and domination of the play,” as quoted by the club’s official website.
“I said two things to the lads: ‘you must always have the ball’ and ‘when you lose it, you must get it back quickly’.”
McKennie is a perfect player to seamlessly fulfil this final point. Schalke’s former number two has previously described his own style as ‘win the ball back and look to play it’. Featuring more often than not as a defensively minded player in a two- or three-man midfield, McKennie is particularly adept at anticipating a developing attack and stepping in to intercept the ball.
The 22-year-old excelled in Schalke’s high pressing side last season, harrying opponents and rarely beaten by opposition dribblers.
However, even though McKennie improved across the board last season, he may still have to develop his game with the ball at his feet if Pirlo is to favour a possession-based game. David Wagner – McKennie’s coach at Schalke – admitted to The Athletic: “Technically, in tight spaces, he can improve.”
While pass completion rate isn’t the be all and end all of a player, McKennie’s 80% is surprisingly low for a central midfielder.
However, central midfield is far from the only position McKennie has played in his nascent career.
The claim made by former Schalke manager Domenico Tedesco that McKennie ‘can play anywhere in midfield, in front of the defence or behind the attack, at centre-back in a back three or a back four’ goes some way to demonstrating his versatility (and even overlooks his time spent at right-back).
In a campaign which will inevitably be punctuated by injuries given the shortened off-season, having a Swiss army knife of a player like McKennie could prove invaluable for Juventus.
Pirlo also hinted at the necessary flexibility of his squad when he said: “Tactically, we could play with either three or four at the back. I have no fixed models. We must always be willing to make sacrifices, when there is a goal we all have to reach it together.”
Most 22-year-olds walking into a dressing room brimming with as many collective and personal accolades as those at Juventus could be forgiven for being a bit awestruck. Yet, McKennie’s infectious, amiable personality should ensure a smooth transition.
If matters on the field go dramatically awry (which they shouldn’t), the man christened Schalke’s ‘Spasskanone’ – literally, ‘fun cannon’ – will at least serve as an unrelenting source of content for Juve’s in-house media team.
On the opening day of the 2019/20 season, Juventus’ midfield three consisted of Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira – who had an average age of over 31. The first two of that trio have already departed for pastures new and – if Pirlo get’s his way – Khedira will swiftly follow.
Despite winning a ninth-consecutive league title, Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus received a steady flow criticism, a lot of which centred around the painfully slow midfield play. 23-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur became a fixture of the side towards the end of the campaign, providing some needed zip and purpose to the play.
Alongside Arthur Melo’s arrival from Barcelona, McKennie could form a dramatically contrasting midfield trio which offers guile and dynamism.
McKennie is far from the finished product but he represents a young, exciting addition to Juventus in the midst of a transitional period.