Aged just 21, turning 22 in August, McKennie already has over 70 Bundesliga appearances for Schalke since moving to Germany in 2017. The midfielder has 19 caps for the US National Team, where he has scored six goals, including a hattrick against Cuba. Last summer he signed a 5 year deal running to 2024 so looks to have his future set in Germany for a while longer at least.
With the return of the Bundesliga, Schalke’s terrible form has been a big story. They haven’t won in 14 Bundesliga matches, winning 2 points from a possible 21 since the return of the league in May. David Wagner hasn’t been able to turn around this form and it’s likely that his days are numbered at the Veltins Arena.
Having a look at Schalke’s numbers, they press a good amount in higher areas but don’t have a great attack, finding it difficult to create many chances. They’ve scored the 4th lowest goals in the Bundesliga this season with 37, whilst they have the 9th best defence. This sees them 10th in the table overall, and with the most draws in the league.
In recent matches, Wagner has made changes to his selection and system but Schalke’s young side haven’t been able to get results. They’ve been ineffective in possession and unable to score goals with their striker isolated and the midfield unable to progress the ball enough, and just ending up circulating the ball without being able to move up the pitch and create any chances. Wagner does have them pressing well though, which you can read about here, and McKennie is an important component of that.
Out of Possession
Standing at 6’1″, the American international has a good frame, he’s decently built and strong in the challenge. He has a great engine and is an effective workhorse in midfield with good work rate, and the stamina to keep it up. He’s constantly on the move, adjusting his positioning and pressing out of possession. He has good overall speed over medium distances but doesn’t have the best mobility. His turning speed isn’t great with average agility and needs to be more explosive with better acceleration and changes of speed in order to be even more effective despite his good work rate. He is physical, but lacks aggression at times and ‘bite’. Also he has a strong leap, being very strong in the air, winning 65% of his aerial duels which is the highest for Bundesliga midfielders. Although he is strong he can be too heavy on his feet, working on his mobility and explosiveness would be really useful but it’s by no means bad.
We’ve established that Wagner’s Schalke like to press, and as I said McKennie is an important part of this. They often play a 4-2-3-1 with McKennie playing on the right of the double pivot. He makes 6.5 pressures and 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes, which are both good numbers and show his work rate. In midfield, he shows himself as a very intelligent player out of possession, he’s well drilled and understands the system.
He’s well positioned, able to block passing lanes and support the wide press in the layers behind. He reads play well and is therefore able to sense danger, make interceptions and get across to press early, making up for his lack of great speed over a few yards. What he does very well is lurking in midfield, meaning he ‘lurks’ behind players who are the passing option out of the Schalke press. Rather than just cutting off the passing lane and forcing the opposition backwards or long, he can set a trap by giving them a passing option through the press but then moving in when the pass is made to make an interception or challenge the receiver. Showing his game reading and intelligence to be well positioned, pressing players from behind and positioning himself in blindspots.
He’s good in situations where the opposition are trying to penetrate the midfield, which is a very important thing to prevent and be able to defend against, as seen below. He can stop ball progression and nullify opposition playmakers trying to receive in space and play forwards.
However, these situations tend to be in the middle third and while the receiving player is stationary or with his back to McKennie. He’s less comfortable when being ran at, he completes 35% of tackles which is fairly good but also can be an unreliable stat. In 1v1s against quick opponents, they can knock the ball past him because he can slightly overcommit and rush in at times and doesn’t have the best acceleration. If they try and get past him with tight control he is good at stepping in, getting between the man and ball, showing his strength and then calmly playing a short pass, but if a player is running at him at speed he can try to lunge in, plant his feet and get beaten on the outside.
He can be a good recovery defender and break up counters and long balls well. He can use his body and get between the man and ball, or hassle the player from behind. However, this can lack technique slightly at times and although he uses his physicality well, his technique lets him down sometimes to give away fouls. He tended to stay on his feet though uses his body well, if he overcommits, it’s from rushing in and planting his feet and doesn’t deal with sharp changes of direction very well. Whereas, coming from the side or behind he’s much stronger and better with his timing.
Schalke in Possession
While being a very hardworking, dogged player out of possession, McKennie is less active and effective in possession. The Schalke side has been tweaked each game since the return with changing formations, roles and lineups. At Schalke, playing since he was 18 under Tedesco and Wagner, he’s been used in different roles and I’d argue that despite having fairly clear strengths and weaknesses, he hasn’t developed an identity and role he specialises in. This versatility is a good thing but it can be harder to evaluate him when he plays a different role each game without watching a lot more matches and therefore knowing where he could fit best. I have an idea of where I think he could end up, but I’ll get to that at the end.
Starting with his passing, this season he’s attempted 45 passes per 90 minutes. But by playing various roles under two managers with mixed form, the number of passes in a match can fluctuate a lot and so do the areas he attempts them in. Below you can see his most recent pass maps of when he’s played full 90s since the return of football.
The first match shown was against Augsburg, where he dropped between the centre halves in the buildup phase, mostly circulating the ball between the centre halves without progressing it. He was playing in a midfield two with Serdar, who I don’t particularly rate. Serdar loses the ball a lot which leaves McKennie a lot of work to do and is quite one dimensional in his play and doesn’t progress the ball well either. A constant problem for Schalke has been the lack of ability to progress the ball through the midfield, which has been the reason for trying McKennie in different roles I believe. So although McKennie lacks ball progression, I’d like to see him in a better team who are set up better to have a presence and passing options in midfield as Schalke are often in poor shapes and have an empty midfield.
McKennie himself could have better positioning though when his team have the ball. A lot of the passes he makes are after picking up a loose ball or winning possession, he picks up his head early and plays simple but smooth passes to the nearest teammate and his job is done. However when his team are trying to build, when he isn’t asked to drop between the centre halves, he doesn’t offer himself to the defence and is passive in his positioning, not seeking to dismark from his man or open passing lanes and try to get on the ball. He can be quite lethargic and lacks the intensity he has out of possession.
For example, here are three examples early on against Frankfurt where the goalkeeper is playing out. McKennie is in close proximity to the other central midfielder and in the same vertical channel, not offering a passing lane or creating triangles with the defence. He doesn’t choose to move into space and is quite static, meanwhile the defence struggle to play through the press.
When he is on the ball, his passing is smooth and simple, but could often have a bit more power to make them more crisp. This would increase the tempo of the game, something McKennie can be guilty of lowering when on the ball in a longer phase of possession. He does have quick decision making though when he gets the ball at the start of a new phase of possession, and plays quick passes forward to players who can start the counter.
He can drive into space but doesn’t do it often enough and doesn’t try to beat his man in attacking 1v1s, opting to go backwards instead. When he does carry he does it fairly well, but isn’t the most elegant on the ball but could travel with the ball more at times. He will make good inside support runs if his team are countering but if he gets closed down, he can slow the attack as he isn’t confident in 1v1s. He is comfortable on the ball though, he has good control with a controlled first touch and is comfortable using both feet to receive, manoeuvre and make short passes. He receives the ball well, able to receive on the back foot and turn, but doesn’t do it with a lot of speed to then explode forwards. He’ll look to pass and move in the attacking half which are good but don’t cause a big threat. However, a few times his passing lacked accuracy and at times I felt this was because he rushed the pass because he was already trying to make the run forwards.
On the ball in space, he scans a lot and has good vision and takes his time to pick the right pass, possibly slowing play though at times though. As I’ve said, after winning possession his decision making is a lot quicker. He doesn’t have a great passing range and doesn’t test it very often, and is something he could definitely improve and grow in confidence in and get the right weight consistently.
I believe McKennie is the type of player who can be under-appreciated as his on-the-ball work can be quiet or lack quality in terms of not having a huge impact going forward. Whereas his ability and intelligence out of possession could go unnoticed. My first few times watching him, I wasn’t sold on him at all but I now quite like him as a player. He’s physical, sound technically with great workrate and would suit pressing teams very well. He’d suit teams who don’t care about possession as well but I wouldn’t want to rely on him in the final third, which plays to his strengths.
Watching him, he reminded me slightly of the mould of player that Henderson and Wijnaldum fit for Klopp’s Liverpool. Not the most exciting or aesthetic midfielders, but box-to-box types with good engines and able to be crucial to Liverpool’s success while being under-appreciated by fans from other teams. McKennie isn’t exactly like either one stylistically, but I think that he could be a player that a Klopp side could be interested in. Klopp and Wagner are often compared as well and are close friends, even if one is somewhat more successful. He’s only 21 and if he can improve his explosiveness, 1v1 technique and be able to progress the ball better then he could be a good player. He also came across as quite quiet but as he gets more experience I’d hope that he can impose himself a bit more and become a leader. Right now, I’d like to see him play with a better midfield partner in a better team who can progress the ball and give him options in midfield. The Bundesliga definitely suits him and his style of play, so he could be a good pick up for another side who want a pressing game.
He’s valued at £18m on TransferMarkt with 4 years on his deal, I’m not sure how much he’d cost or whether he has a release clause but while trying to find it I saw that he has been linked with Liverpool before. I could also imagine’s Hassenhuttl’s Southampton being interested.
Overall, he’s not the finished product and at 21 has loads of time to improve. He has areas to work on but is an interesting player with good fundamentals, good off the ball ability and an intensity to his game that could be utilised really well by the right team and manager.
Rating – A2