How Weston McKenney will fit in at Leeds
How Weston McKenney will fit in at Leeds
There is a handy shortcut you can use to assess Weston McKenney’s eligibility Leeds United: increasingly durable connective tissue colored in red, white and blue.
His coach at Elland Road is American Jesse Marsh, who could also sympathize with McKenney over their time in Germany. Bundesliga. He will join a midfield that includes their countryman Tyler Adams, the captain of his national team, who has been first choice for the USMNT for years alongside McKenney. If he wants to leave the center of the park, he will do so with another American Brendan Aaronsonanother American international who became Leeds’ record signing last summer.
Scan beyond the obvious, however, and you’ll find an interesting partnership.
For McKenney, this appears to be a step down from being a perennial title contender Juventus to the side that stuck in a Major league departure scrap. A move by Leeds to sign him should not be seen as Marsha offering a life raft to a fellow countryman, like an old SS woman seems to be taking on water. Rather, Leeds’ switch to playing a 4-3-3 more often called for someone who could do all the pressing work of a defensive-minded midfielder without forcing the manager to field another deep-lying player.
“I gave it serious thought,” McKenney said Athletic on Monday at Elland Road. “Juventus is it League of champions a club, a strong club, one of the best teams in Italy and in the world. But I just felt like I couldn’t express my style or my game and my full potential there. Leeds are a team where I feel I fit in perfectly with everything they want to do and achieve.
“I have friends here. Obviously I think about myself first because it’s my career, but it helps. Tyler is a player just like me. He fit in well here, so I heard only good things. That’s how I came to my decision.”
For a player who is so often asked to do his best to keep an amorphous team well-calibrated, his development may require a more specialized role. In contrast, Leeds found a younger midfielder for Mateusz Klich, who joined DC United from MLS this winter — and McKenney won’t have a hard time finding some friendly faces as he acclimates.
When analyzing McKennie, it’s easy to prioritize the proverbial eye check over the numbers.
It’s impossible to take your eyes off the USA player when he’s at his best. McKenney is a close reader of the game who likes to get into danger zones to give teammates an outlet for a pass — forcing another Americanism into the mix, something of a perfect game-breaking wide receiver. His hairstyles often catch the eye (from patriotic colorful patch on a recent one World Cup) is overshadowed by his work rate, which seems to keep him in the frame of TV cameras regardless of perspective. He’s also been somewhat amorphous in his young career, this less-specialized player often asked by coaches to fill the gaps left open by more expressive teammates.
“When I was at Schalke (from 2016-20) I was everywhere,” McKenney said yesterday. “I’ve played right-back, I’ve played midfield, I’ve played striker, I’ve played centre-back…everywhere. I learned to play in different positions.
“When I came to Italy, they noticed that I was a bit fussy in some of my runs and sometimes I was pushing – running 60 yards instead of running 30 yards and doing the same thing.
“Definitely learned tactical and positional discipline. But at the same time, it became a little too much — where it felt like I was on a string. The thread is stretched here, the string is stretched there, and I could not get any freedom.
“That was one of the main reasons why I came to the conclusion that I would come to England and see how I would look.”
Like Aaronson and Adams before him, his first chance to make a strong impression on his new fan base could be his defensive pressing.
So far in 2022-23, McKenney has averaged 4.98 clearances per 90 minutes, with 41.9 percent of those coming in the opponent’s half. By comparison, Klich averaged 6.48 over two-and-a-half seasons in the Premier League for Leeds, playing mostly under Marcelo Bielsa, including 47.4 per cent in the attacking third. In part this was dictated by the difference in styles seen in the Bundesliga and Leagueas McKennie averaged 8.18 recoveries in 90 games with Schalke, while this dropped to 5.5 after his move to the fallen Serie A giant.
While he played his role, it was never quite a match between Juventus’ style and McKenney’s brand.
“There’s a bit more of a serious side to Italy – not in a bad way, either,” McKenney said. “They are very presentable. I’m very, I don’t know… sociable. I have a really big personality and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Also, the style of the game. Italian football in general is very defensive and different to what you get here (in England). I’m a very good guy (box-to-box), so that was another reason.”
McKenney will no doubt be hoping that Marsh will allow him to unleash more of his game, which he has had to contain at the Allianz Stadium.
This box-to-box approach should serve Leeds well as it helps them move up the pitch more quickly. Leeds currently average 14.4 passes per minute of possession, below the league average of 14.68. Leicester City leads the Premier League with a pass rate of 16.2, a Southampton work with a slower clip 13.1.
Despite being close to the league average, Leeds tend to be more progressive than most.
Their 64.6 assists per 90 is slightly ahead of the league leaders Arsenalfinishing sixth overall Liverpool, Manchester City, Brighton, Tottenham and Manchester United. While Marsh’s current midfield partnership with Adams and Mark Rocco both have proven their ability to spray passes from deep, McKenney will be far from redundant.
McKenney, to put it mildly, is rarely compared Andres Iniesta.
Among all midfielders in Europe’s Big Five leagues who played at least 500 minutes in the run-up to the recent World Cup, none had a lower share of his team’s live passes (aka open play) than the American international. However, only six skilled midfielders had a higher proportion of their team’s advanced passes received, which speaks to his ability to get into promising areas on the pitch.
The same can be illustrated by the example of a game over the entire season.
McKennie played 1,369 league minutes for Juventus in the 2021-22 season, starting 15 of 21 matches. at that time Data from Smarterscout shows that his receptions were far more influential in their progression of the ball within the team than his passes or carries.
While it is surprising to think that a first-choice midfielder is a poor passer, even in this age of role specialisation, McKenney’s ball-receiving and ball-recovering strengths should help round out the midfield if he is deployed ahead of summer signings Adams and Rocky. That spatial awareness should be a welcome addition for Roco in particular, as the Spaniard may lack options to get his line-breaking passes in due to Leeds’ narrow shape.
Marsh may need to move away from the basic 4-2-3-1 formation to accommodate a trio of midfielders who certainly weren’t coming to Yorkshire for 25-minute shifts off the bench. Some of that work has already been done this month: after lining up in a 4-3-3 once before the World Cup – in a 1-0 defeat at home to Arsenal in October – Leeds have used the formation for four of their five league matches after the game resumed after Qatar, with Aaronson and Wilfrid Gnonta alternating improvised midfield duties.
Although Gnonto was a teenager electrical connection, McKenney could offer most of the Italian’s threat to receive progressive balls while giving Leeds a more natural base shape. Marsh could then play the match on a game-by-game basis and choose between Aaronson and Gnonta to join Jack Harrison and Rodrigo in the attacking third — without additional orders to track back.
After much instability on the pitch since Bielsa was replaced by the American last February, the signing of McKenney looks to give Leeds much more balance in midfield.
Rocco can stay behind with more confidence that he’ll have a target to find with passes, while Adams continues to do a metronomic job, alternating a series of short passes with his relentless efforts to disrupt opposing build-up sequences.
There is also the fact that, as before the composition of the team, Marsh was the main midfielder after Adams and Rock Sam Greenwood — a raw young man who was considered a center forward until the very end of last season. In addition, Adam ForshawThe 31-year-old Championship veteran Leeds has been out of form and barely played this season, and Darka Gyabi also has a little experience at the age of 18.
While signing a central midfielder wasn’t an immediate priority right now, it wasn’t hard to make the argument that Leeds recruiting someone of the caliber of McKenney in this window felt extremely smart.
They could also enjoy a trial period to determine if he is the one missing to round out Marsh’s newly minted midfield trio before splashing out the big bucks to make the move permanent.
McKenney was brought in on loan with 24 Champions League appearances for Schalke and Juventus. Leeds hold an option to buy for around £30m ($37 million). Currently a point above the relegation zone, they will have to avoid relegation to the Championship for the next four months if they are to trigger that option, in addition to some other conditions.
But that’s a question for next season. For now, McKenney is focused on making a strong first impression for a team hoping to avoid a battle at the bottom of the league much sooner than last season, when survival was not guaranteed until the final match. It’s very much in his character, as people close to him say he’s “too much of a fighter” to survive the demotion.
He has enough to focus on in the short term to ensure that the possibility of a purchase does not hang over his Premier League debut.
“I’m a man in the moment – I come here with the way things are, but if I like it, I don’t see why not,” McKenney added when asked about the prospect of staying. “If maybe Leeds aren’t happy with me or I’m not happy, we’ll see how it goes.
“But for now my head is here.”
Additional members: Phil Hay, John Muller, Mark Carey
(Top photo: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
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