The 2018/19 season certainly won’t live long in the memory of the Schalke fanbase. The club, traditionally one of German football’s superpowers, came close to dropping out of the Bundesliga, with Domenico Todesco sacked in an ultimately successful attempt to preserve their top flight status.
However, the emergence of Weston McKennie was a rare bright point for Schalke. The 21-year-old has become a key first team figure over the past year or so, with new manager David Wagner intent on building his side around the young American. McKennie’s development shows no sign of slowing any time soon.
“He’s an outstanding talent,” the former Huddersfield Town boss explained after a Schalke defeat to Bayern Munich earlier in the season. “In the No.6 or No.8 position he has the mentality, a real working mentality that you need. And he’s brave on the ball as well. He’s also very good in the air and he’s young, so there is a lot more to come but we’re very happy to have him in our team.”
Wagner could get even more out of McKennie. Todesco gave the American his first opportunity as a senior professional, but McKennie was deployed at full back, at centre back, in attacking midfield and even up front on occasion last season. Now, however, McKennie has been installed permanently in the middle of the pitch.
“This year we [McKennie and Wagner] definitely see eye-to-eye in the clear role that I have in the team," McKennie said in an interview, contrasting the role he had under Todesco to the one he now holds under the new boss. “Playing as a No.6 or No. 8 in the midfield, preferably. I think this year is not like last year where I was a utility player, every position that wasn’t filled. This year is better for me in understanding where I am and what my role is.”
Of course, McKennie isn’t the only American midfielder to have excelled in the Bundesliga over the past year or so. Tyler Adams has also caught the eye since making the move to RB Leipzig from the New York Red Bulls. Between the two, the future of the US national team midfield is growing and developing together in Germany.
McKennie’s strength can be found in his versatility. Todesco used this as an excuse to shift around the 21-year-old. He became Schalke’s John O’Shea despite the obvious natural talent of the American. But Wagner seems to recognise how McKennie’s relentless work rate and durability makes him so valuable as a central midfielder where he can affect things most.
The young American also possesses sharp in-match intelligence. McKennie knows when to drop deep to help out his defence and when to step forward to help out his attack. Playing in the centre of the pitch takes a certain positional awareness and the Texas native has that, finding space where others would struggle to.
Wagner is making better use of McKennie’s passibility ability. Todesco favoured to play quickly through the lines of transition, whereas his successor prefers a more considered approach through the middle of the pitch. This could potentially harness McKennie as a central pass-master. Even when darkness descended on Schalke last season, the American’s future looked bright. Imagine just how much brighter it could get with that darkness lifted.